Why Do People Migrate? Part 1: Facts

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`Start by reading this article and discuss in your journal how current official definitions of "migrants", "refugees" and "asylum seekers" are challenged by the on-going migration crisis at the South-East borders of Europe.

You can also see Unit 2.1 for more information about irregular migration in Mediterranean region, Unit 2.2 about EU norms on asylum seeking, and Unit 2.3 on the case of Syrian refugees.

Don't forget to have a look to what others have done in their journals!

Re-thinking migration


It was late July 1951. WWII had ended in Europe a little over 6 years before, and a significant number of people were still affected by it in their everyday life: maimed, bereaved, and - oftentimes - displaced. It was with these people in mind that the original member States drafted and signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The scope of the convention was originally geographically limited: the status of refugee was granted only to those who (in addiction to meeting the requirements of article 1) were originally from Europe, and had become refugees before 1951.
Both these addiction requirements were later eliminated by the 1967 Protocol. Yet the basic definition of "who is a refugee" remains basically the same as it was drafted 65 years ago, by delegates who had a very specific group of people on their mind. Article 1 defines a refugee as

"A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.."

It is worth taking time to consider this definition. What it says, but most of all what it does not say. It is worth noting, for instance, that "war" is not mentioned among the reasons who might prompt someone to live a country: the general consensus, apparently, was that after the catastrophe of WWII, there were to be no other wars, or at least no major ones. Nor are reasons such as homosexuality, or gender identity part of this list: it was 1951, after all. And we cannot read anything related to people leaving their country because of the constraints that an economical crisis may put upon them: not only most, if not all, of so-called developing countries were not independent at the time, but manpower was still on high demand in a continent still plagued by the consequences of war, but on the way to boom economically (Germany alone invited hundreds of thousands of Turkish workers to come to the country). The idea that in a future not so remote hundreds of thousands of people would move to developed countries (or at least, try to) despite not having regular papers was simply not taken into account.

So it happened that around this very narrow definition, a distinction was build between those who were worthy of protection, and those who, simply put, were not. In time, the first came to be known as refugees, while the latter were called "economical migrants". Granted, the definition of refugee was, in time, widened. Those fleeing war are now entitled to protection by other instruments, and - by interpreting the terms "particular social group" in a broad way - a number of people who did not meet, strictly speaking, the original criteria were granted protection under the 1951 Geneva convention. Yet the basic distinction between those who are entitled to protection and those who are not, remained. Every law student dealing with the topic of migration will be told, at least at the initial stage of his/her learning, that "migrants move voluntarily in order to increase their living standards, while refugees flee because they fear for their safety", or something along these lines.

This distinction, so neat in theory and in migration policies, is actually much harder to detect in practice. Not only recent migration flows have been defined as "mixed" (meaning, they include both people who qualify as refugees, and people who don't), but every single person migrates for a number of reasons, that might range from safety issues to fear of persecution to a will to obtain (or regain) a better living standard. Think about Syrians who lived in Turkey or Lebanon for a few years before moving on to Europe: the root cause of their displacement is certainly to be found in the war that is tearing the country apart, but the desire to have access to education, health care, employment and other socio-economical rights does play a role as well. Also, the idea that economical migrants move "voluntarily" needs some critical thinking: how much agency does have someone who is starving? If they succeed in leaving their country, can we say this is a "choice"? Only if we adopt a very narrow definition of what a choice is.

And yet this distinction not only remains, but is the cornerstone of many migration policies, both at a national and international level. Though differences do exist among various countries, generally speaking refugees are entitled to protection, which usually translates as a residency permit in the host country (and maybe other benefits, depending on the country); economical migrants, on the other hand, can be deported, fined, even arrested if they entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas (illegal entrance is a criminal offense in a number of countries). At a time when many European countries are still dealing with the consequences of the 2008 economical crisis (namely, high rates of unemployment, and cuts to welfare budget) migration is considered a problem, not an opportunity. Add to that the growing difficulties steaming from the different religious and cultural practice of some migrants, and you have it: a sizable portion of public opinion, that varies from (european) country to country, but that is never insignificant, does not want "foreigners" (though the term is usually meant to refer to those coming from developing countries) to come to their country. And policy makers and politicians know it. They might be "forced", by virtue of international treaties, to take in refugees: but they are not going to let in anyone else.

But it is not just governments and hostile public opinion that stress the difference between refugees and economical migrants: during the peak of the migration crisis that affected Greece in summer 2015, it was not unusual to read or hear messages from activists and right groups pointing out that the people crossing Europe were not migrants, but refugee, i.e. people who had been forced to leave their homes. Their efforts were probably aimed at raising sympathy and thus ensuring - among a public opinion that is not, as previously mentioned, particularly sympathetic - that the refugees obtained the protection they legally and morally deserved. In a way, it worked: if you want a little, anecdotical example, Italian medias, who had previously been using either the word "migrants" or the appalling term "aliens" to refer to those reaching the Italian shores, started to talk regularly about "refugees".

Yet the shift in public opinion's perception was not complete. On the one hand, people (or at least a good portion of them) started accepting that refugees are entitled to protection, and that they have the right to be hosted by european countries. On the other hand, though, this concept lead people to draw a deep line between the good (the refugees) and the bad (economical migrants). It is hard to hear your average politician saying that refugees are not to be helped. It is much more common to hear slogans along the lines of "we want to help the refugees, but a good (insert a figure above 50%) of those coming are actually economical migrants".
This line of thinking is also behind the policy that lead Macedonia to close its border with Greece to every migrant whose nationality is not Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi, fueling a crisis that is far from being resolved (it is worth noting that among those who are camped at the border are Eritreans and Somalis, meaning that they would probably qualify for refugee status, since they're also fleeing war-torn countries. But they are grouped among the "bad", and so they can't continue their journey).

I personally do not think that the ongoing migration crisis at the South-East borders of Europe is challenging the official definition of "asylum seekers", "refugees" and "migrants". I believe the distinction was blurry to begin with. Yes, there might be clear-cut cases of people leaving their country because they fear persecution for the reasons listed by the 1951 Geneva Convention, as there might be cases of people who have an acceptable living standard in their home country and yet move to another in order to increase it. But many people migrate for various reason, and these reason might change during their journey: from pressing reasons to leave the country for fear of being persecuted to a desire to grant their children and themselves school, health assistance, and vice versa.
The current crisis is simply showing what experts in the field already know: it is extremely hard to tell one category from the other. Especially when they follow the same migration routes.

Updating the text of conventions would probably be a way to address the problem: but given the current times, it is probably safer not to touch the treaties. I nevertheless hope that in a near future we will begin to take into account that migration is a complex phenomenon, and that it happens along a spectrum. The term "forced migration", used by academics to acknowledge that people not falling under the 1951 Convention still do not choose to migrate, is a step in the right direction.

On a final note, there is something that I would like to stress. I do not advocate for indiscriminate access to developed countries. I do realize the need for migration policies, and I am well aware of the impact that uncontrolled migration can have on a society that is not ready for it. I agree that, even in the future, a distinction should be made between those who are entitled to stay in the host country, and those who are not - even though I dispute the lines along whom this distinction is currently drawn.
But everyone should be treated with respect and granted his/her basic rights, even if at the end of the process is going to be deported. Everyone should be granted assistance for the time when his/her status is questionable, and of course be granted a fair procedure, which doesn't always happen. "Economical migrants" are not aliens who seek to destroy our societies and steal our jobs. They are people who seek to obtain what we - living in Europe - take for granted in our everyday life: a job, education, accommodation, health care, stability in life. Do States need to accommodate them because of that? Not necessarily. But they need to treat them with respect. As I said, they are not aliens. They are humans.

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