Alexander Betts writes: Throughout the crisis, a debate has been on whether it is a “migrant” or a “refugee” crisis. It has been important for the public to understand that most people coming to Europe have been from refugee-producing countries and that “refugees” have a particular set of rights under international law. Furthermore, people have a right to seek asylum, and have their claims to refugee status adjudicated.
However, the stark dichotomy between “refugee” and “economic migrant” masks a growing trend: that many people coming fall between those two extremes.
The modern global refugee regime was established at a particular juncture of history, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and at the start of the cold war. The 1951 convention on the status of refugees defines a refugee as someone fleeing “persecution”, based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion. The interpretation of that definition has adapted over time. But at its core was the idea of protecting people whose own governments were either out to get them or unable to prevent persecution by others. Today, the sources of cross-border displacement are increasingly complex, and many fit poorly with the 1951 convention.
Environmental change, food insecurity, and generalised violence, for example, represent emerging sources of human displacement. In strong states, the government can usually provide some kind of remedy or resolution to people affected by these types of crisis. However, much less so in fragile states. People who fall outside the internationally recognised definition of a refugee but are nevertheless fleeing very serious socio-economic rights deprivations might be called “survival migrants”.
In the contemporary world, a significant proportion of the people we attempt to describe as economic migrants fall into this category.
Survival migration has been an emerging challenge. Nearly a decade ago, Zimbabwean asylum seekers fleeing Robert Mugabe’s regime made up the largest group of asylum seekers in the world. Most British people would probably assume that at the height of the crisis between 2003 and 2009 the majority would have been refugees. However, in South Africa, to where the overwhelming proportion fled, only about 10% were recognised as refugees and up to 300,000 people a year were deported back to Zimbabwe. The reason for this was simple: they were not judged to fit the 1951 convention definition of a refugee. However, on ethical grounds, it was incontrovertibly cruel to deport people back to a country in a state of socio-economic and political collapse.
This example illustrates how current policy responses bypass engagement with long-term trends. The world as a whole lacks a vision for how to respond to the changing nature of displacement. So much of the current “crisis” is not a crisis of numbers but a crisis of politics. We need bold leadership that correctly and honestly articulates the causes of movement and outlines global solutions. [Continue reading…]