Friday, June 26, 2015
OXFORD, 15 June 2015 (IRIN) - Refugees and migrants have been making the headlines like never before in recent months. With the start of Refugee Week today, culminating in World Refugee Day on Saturday, that focus is only set to intensify. So what exactly is a refugee? How are they distinct from migrants, and why is it important?
“We have to remember that until there is a fair procedure conducted for each person, we really don’t know if the person is a refugee or not,” commented Michael Kagan, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada.
The definition spelt out by the 1951 Refugee Convention is deceptively simple: a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted” has fled to another country and is in need of protection.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, acknowledges that since the Refugee Convention was drafted, global migration patterns have become much more complex and refugees now often travel alongside millions of so-called economic migrants.
UNHCR states on its website that “refugees and migrants, even if they often travel in the same way, are fundamentally different, and for that reason are treated very differently under modern international law.”
It goes on to explain that “migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families,” whereas “refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.”
The reality is much murkier. People often move for a number of reasons that may include fear of persecution as well as wanting to find better economic opportunities, and they may move more than once, like the Syrians who initially crossed into Turkey or Jordan but are now boarding boats to Greece.
In an age when neither refugees nor migrants are particularly welcome, the line between the two is increasingly blurred and the terms themselves have become politically loaded. Most of the boats now crossing the Mediterranean contain both migrants and refugees, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as “mixed migration”. However, it often serves the interests of politicians to refer to everyone crossing the Mediterranean as illegal migrants, while rights groups and activists are more likely to call them all asylum-seekers or refugees.
Melissa Phillips, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, has pointed outthat such distinctions matter because migrants are generally viewed as much less deserving of our sympathy and support than refugees.
“It is time we stopped talking solely about migrants and start to use more technically accurate and relevant labels,” she writes.
The problem is that the labels themselves no longer seem adequate to encompass people who migrate willingly, those who flee for their lives, and the whole spectrum of forced displacement and self-determination that falls in between.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
Refugees and asylum-seekers
International refugee law experts tend to agree that someone becomes a refugee the moment they have to flee their country, even if they are not recognised as such until they seek asylum in a host country.
In trying to reach that country, they may be forced to travel as undocumented migrants, crossing borders clandestinely, often relying on smugglers.
“When people are on the move, they can only be described as migrants or asylum-seekers,” said Chris Horwood, coordinator of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat.
“If an Eritrean gets refugee status in Sudan and then moves on (as most do) towards Europe, even though they may think of themselves as registered refugees, once they leave Sudan they are migrants/asylum-seekers again.”
Even after arriving in a host country, they remain asylum-seekers until they have gone through a process of refugee status adjudication that is supposed to determine whether or not they are really in need of international protection.
Barbara Harrell-Bond, who started the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and is now an advisor to the International Refugee Rights Initiative, pointed out that “adjudication without legal aid is likely to find many refugees ‘not credible’ and reject them.”
While failed asylum-seekers may still consider themselves refugees, the state that rejected them now considers them an irregular migrant who must either leave the country or be forced to leave.
The problem of “asylum shopping” has come about because asylum systems vary considerably from one country to the next. So while Norway granted asylum to 95 percent of Eritreans who applied there last year, France only granted asylum to about 15 percent. Unsurprisingly, asylum-seekers gravitate to the countries where they have the best chance of being granted refugee status.
Only in situations where there are mass movements of refugees – usually as a result of war – and no need or capacity to do individual refugee status determinations, do host governments sometimes make the decision to recognise all new arrivals from that country as “prima facie” refugees.
Migrants or refugees or both?
When commentators do attempt to distinguish between the different groups currently trying to cross the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats, they tend to designate Syrians and Eritreans as the bona fide asylum-seekers, while the many West Africans arriving in southern Italy are all lumped together as “economic migrants”. Similarly, most international attention on the recent crisis in Southeast Asia focused on the Rohingya, a persecuted minority from Myanmar, while the many Bangladeshis who also boarded smugglers’ boats were dismissed as economic migrants.
“This kind of view ignores the very complex reasons for why people set out on these very dangerous journeys in the first place,” said Ruben Andersson, an anthropologist with the London School of Economics and author of “Illegality, Inc.”
He noted that many West Africans have experienced violence and repression in countries such as The Gambia, Mali and Nigeria before going to Libya, where arbitrary detention and violence targeting foreigners forced them to flee again.
The term “forced migrants” is sometimes used, mainly by academics, to acknowledge the many people who migrate unwillingly but don’t fall under the Refugee Convention’s technical definition of a refugee and are therefore not entitled to international protection. This would include people who have abandoned their homes and countries because of drought or some other natural disaster.
“Public policy relies on the myth of clearly distinguishable categories,” commented Loren Landau at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“[But] our research in southern Africa suggests that people who claim asylum or become refugees are, for the most part, little different in experiences or needs than those who don't.”
He added that to say this publicly had become increasingly difficult as it was viewed as giving ammunition to those who would like to place more limits on asylum.
“Our terminology on human movement is in a real muddle,” concluded Andersson. “A fundamental rethink of our terminology is needed that takes account of secondary movement and mixed motivations while still ensuring that international protection is safeguarded.”
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They were carried or staggered ashore, some paralysed by malnutrition, others little more than walking skeletons, burnt and dazed from weeks at sea on boats the UN has called “floating coffins”.
Manu Abudul Salam, 19, had watched her brother die when desperate fighting broke out after the captain of their wooden boat fled on a speedboat, leaving more than 800 passengers adrift with dwindling food and water. “If I had known the boat journey would be so horrendous, I would rather have just died in Myanmar [Burma],” she told journalists shortly after being towed ashore by Indonesian fishermen, one of a few hundred allowed to land.
Salam, a Rohingya from northern Burma, was not exaggerating in her depiction of that grim choice, judging by a report from researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, which warns that her people are facing state-sponsored genocide.
“The Rohingya are faced with two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee,” said Professor Penny Green, part of a group that recently completed several months’ research in the Rohingya’s home state of Rakhine. “If we understand genocide to be a process, that is what this is. Those who remain suffer destitution, malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever-present threat of violence and corruption.”
Since 1982 the group has been refused citizenship by the Burmese government, which denies their existence. Officials will not attend events, at home or internationally, where the word Rohingya is used, and last week threatened to boycott a summit on the escalating migrant crisis which had been called by Thailand.
“If they use the term Rohingya, we won’t take part in it, since we don’t recognise this term. The Myanmar government has been protesting against the use of it all along,” Zaw Htay, an official from the president’s office, told Reuters on Saturday. Instead it insists that a group with its own language and a history in Burma that goes back many generations must be called Bengalis, and describes them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. That alienation has led to a vast chain of “refugee” camps which Green says are more like prisons, home to more than 100,000 Rohingya who require permission to leave them.
In the regional capital of Sittwe, once a thriving mixed city with dozens of mosques, a few thousand Rohingya still live in a ghetto with seven heavily guarded entrances. The number of mosques still standing is in single figures a nd they are deserted, occupied by government forces. A trickle of food aid into the camps keeps people alive but hungry on a meagre diet of rice and lentils, while in the city’s markets there are bags of food aid apparently siphoned off by officials with little care for the camps’ inhabitants. “They live the barest of existences,” Green says. “People were begging us for food. You walk around and see blank eyes.”
The government also tolerates Islamophobia and screeds of hatred in the media, Green said, fostering an ugly atmosphere that easily flares into violence. More than 200 Rohingya were killed in attacks in 2012 for which no one has been tried or even arrested. “We asked why there were no prosecutions or investigations, and the prosecutor said it was because it happened at night, so no one could see what happened.”
It is this living death that the Rohingya have been trying to flee for years, some across the border into Bangladesh, but thousands by sea, even though they know the smuggling trade is vicious and predatory and the journey could cost their lives.
The pace of departures has picked up, with up to 25,000 setting off from the Bay of Bengal between January and March, double the levels in 2013 and 2014, a UN report on “irregular maritime movements” in the region found. More than 300 migrants died of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews, survivors told the UN. It is possible that others died unrecorded deaths as they set off in ships no more seaworthy or less crowded than those that frequently founder in the Mediterranean.
“A few interviewees also told of entire boats sinking, but there was no way to verify such reports or if, and how many, lives were lost,” the UN said in a report on the sea traffic.
Many of the women endure rape or other sexual violence on the boats or while waiting to travel, and many others are forced into marriage with men who pay for their journey. Mothers travelling with children are also particularly vulnerable to starvation, as young travellers are given no rations so women often go hungry to ensure that their sons and daughters can eat. This desperate exodus has been going on for years, largely unnoticed until regional governments that had been taking in the migrants started turning away men, women and children who had spent weeks at sea.
There are perhaps as many as 8,000 people now adrift in a hellish maritime limbo, refused permission to land by the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai governments after being handed basic provisions of food and water, unlikely to last out their uncharted journeys.
“The situation is very grave,” Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok, told Reuters. “They have no food, no water and are drinking their own urine. This is a game of maritime ping-pong with human life. We expect governments in the region to find a solution rapidly ... or we will be finding boatloads of desiccated corpses floating around in the Andaman Sea in coming days.”
Earlier in the week about 2,000 people were allowed to land; it was not clear how officials were deciding who should receive assistance and who were sent on their way. Turning the boats away was “incomprehensible and inhumane”, the UN’s top human rights official warned, as other UN organisations begged the governments to take them in and promised to help with food and transport costs. “In the name of humanity, let these migrants land,” said William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organisation for Migration, which has already offered $1m in funding.
Pushing the desperate migrants back out to sea may also be illegal, as it violates obligations enshrined in global maritime law, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. “It’s a well-honoured maritime tradition for ships to rescue anyone in distress at sea, but coastal states also have an obligation to come to the rescue, and we expect them to honour this, including taking migrants ashore,” said ICS spokesman Simon Bennett.
The countries turning migrants away are apparently worried about their capacity to absorb a fast-growing number of poor, uneducated arrivals. But critics say they share responsibility for the current crisis by shying away from dealing with the root cause of the migration – policies in Burma that rights groups say amount to state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.
“Regional countries are reaping what they have sown for their policy of denial for years, and even with boatloads of desperate people in their waters they’re refusing to act,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.
“They are tantamount to co-conspirators in the repression of the Rohingya for years, because of their weak response to the export of Burma’s discriminatory policy to a stateless minority that has evinced more hatred than mercy throughout Asia.”
In its first official response to the crisis, the Burmese government denied any of the people stranded at sea were its citizens. “We cannot say the migrants are from Myanmar unless we can identify them,” a government spokesman, Ye Htut, told the Associated Press. “Most victims of human trafficking claim they are from Myanmar; it is very easy and convenient for them.”