The recent events in Europe over the refugee crisis have escalated into one of the worst in European history since the end of the Second World War. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that over 2600 refugees have drowned crossing the Mediterranean in order to flee persecution and war. The seriousness of the crisis was highlighted by images of the dead three year old refugee Aylan Kurdi washing up on Turkeys shores. Images and news pertaining to the crisis are inescapable. Yet the media’s seemingly innocuous habit of interchangeably using migrants and refugees has dark implications – one that could end the lives and liberty of all refugees, including Syria’s 10,700 refugees who account for only half of all refugees attempting to enter Europe.
So what is the difference between a migrant and a refugee?
Increasing the quotas of refugees accepted in Europe is widely unpopular because of the perception that refugees introduce foreign (and therefore dangerous) concepts in the nation, including crime. This in fact is based solely in xenophobic beliefs and prejudices born out of a lack of empathy and understanding
In layman’s terms a migrant is a person who willingly enters a country – illegally or otherwise – in pursuit of better economic or social standards and opportunities.
Governments are at liberty to turn them back if they do not have the appropriate paper work. Migrants are offered all forms of protection by their government of origin if they are rejected entry into the country of choice.
Refugees on the other hand are, to quote the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. These are people for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.” Ever since the 1951 Convention on Refugee’s, refugees have certain inalienable rights;
* The right not to be returned to their country of origin or transiting nation if their rights cannot be assured (Non-refoulement)
* The right not to be penalized for entering a country illegally, if they request asylum,
* The rights to life, security, primary education, religious expression, free access to courts and equal treatment by taxation authorities
How important are these laws?
Two legal reasons, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“(1) everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
As mentioned earlier, the UN Declaration of Human Rights is the pillar of the United Nations and sets the non-negotiable standard for all other Human Rights and Liberties. All nations must uphold the UN Declaration of Human Rights, or risk isolation or damnation of the international community.
Secondly in international law circles, Non-Refoulement is classified as a peremptory norm – a classification which is a titan in international law. Why? Because a Peremptory norm is a globally accepted standard from which there can be no deviation. No national law or international law can possibly hope to supersede it. Prohibition on genocide and torture are peremptory laws, for example – it is simply unacceptable to expel persons into regions where their life may be endangered, in the same way that it is simply unacceptable to systematically eradicate a race of peoples.
Who are the refugees entering Europe and are they really refugees?
The people entering Europe by treacherous sea journeys across some of the deadliest waters are mostly of Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, Eritrean and Sudanese origin. Of the 381,412 refugees entering Europe, fifty-one percent are Syrians. The fate of 1.59 million refugees in Syria are closely linked to the outcome of the European crisis, because they live in legal limbo – they enjoy non-refoulement, but do are banned from being employed (a violation of the Convention). The Arab states of the gulf despite pledging financial aid to refugees have accepted zero refugees. For others not directly involved in conflict, i.e. Eritreans, they flee systemic rape by officials, forced labor, extrajudicial killings and a state with one of the worst human rights records in the world.
So, yes they are refugees. Which means that the current law passed on Tuesday morning in Hungary, which criminalizes the illegal entry of refugees, with up to 3 years, and the deployment of a 100km barbed wire fence bordered by soldiers is a violation of the Refugee Convention and international customary law to a degree equivalent to the committing an act of genocide. The lives of not only the 381,412 refugees are not at stake, but all 2.9 million refugees across the globe as it sets the precedent for whether or not nations will be punished for violating international refugee law.
So why is the distinction important?
If the world continues to refer to the wave of refugee’s entering the Europe and the West as ‘migrants’ it legitimatizes nation’s illegal deportation and refoulement of refugees. When Western media such as CNN, BBC or Fox News commonly use the term refugee and migrant interchangeably, they tap into existing anti-immigrant sentiment that are as old as the nation’s themselves. Increasing the quotas of refugees accepted in Europe is widely unpopular because of the perception that refugees introduce foreign (and therefore dangerous) concepts in the nation, including crime. This in fact is based solely in xenophobic beliefs and prejudices born out of a lack of empathy and understanding – plenty of research, including an article by the Wall Street Journal identifies that refugees and first wave immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than those who are not.
Additionally there is intense Islam phobia in the west, which is embarrassing espoused by political leaders, such as Hungarian Prime minister who says that they must keep Muslims out of Europe to “keep Europe Christian”. By making such a statement, as renowned author John Green pointed out, “he’s not just denying the multi-cultural and multi-religious history of Europe; he’s denying the international law that requires countries to protect and house refugees regardless of religious beliefs”. To be brutally honest, it isn’t an alien claim to say that European governments want refugees to die to deter a large influx.
If the term ‘migrant’ continues western voters are increasingly likely to back, or choose not to intervene against, leaders who force refoulement against those hazarding the Mediterranean seas and the human trafficking hubs of slave and sex labour in east Europe. In fact those not directly part of the solution are part of the problem- and that includes you dear reader. As Sri Lankans we can testify to how energetically Europe and the West can call for the enforcement of international law in smaller developing nations, but when they are the ones that are severely violating international refugee law it is up to the third world to bear down on them.
“And I think the reason the world reacted so viscerally to that image of that dead boy on the beach is that instinctively, we all knew that his blood was on all of our hands”
– John Green.