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Mat Nashed

Refugee or migrant? A perilous question

The distinction between 'migrant' and 'refugee' has serious implications under international law [NurPhoto]

Date of publication: 18 December, 2018

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Comment: Vulnerable people should be protected regardless of whether they fit into the definition of a refugee, writes Mat Nashed.
Migrants are facing an unprecedented crisis of unresolved conflicts and endemic xenophobia.

A quick glance at the numbers tells the story: Roughly 258 million people are on the move after being forcibly uprooted. And since the year 2000, at least 60,000 people have died while crossing irregularly by sea, through inhospitable landscapes, or behind the overcrowded or solitary confines of detention.

Right-wing populism, violent border security, and the outsourcing of border management to warlords and repressive regimes are primarily to blame.

Acknowledging the horror, pro-refugee groups tend to defend new-arrivals by claiming that most are refugees, while others are quick to frame irregular persons as 'economic migrants'.

The distinction has serious implications under international law. By definition, refugees are people who flee due to a well-founded fear of persecution or because of armed conflict. Migrants, however, have no legal claim to protection and are often stigmatised with little consideration for their plight or vulnerabilities.

To let live or let die is thus the fundamental question in the refugee/migrant dichotomy. And with International Migrants Day upon us, it's time to assess the consequences of such rigid labeling.  

A blurry line

Research shows that people flee their homes for a myriad of economic and humanitarian reasons that are often interlinked.

Some people might flee due to armed conflict before living years without legal status in their first country of asylum. Protracted crises and the lack of access to the labour market or education may then cause the same person to migrate again.  

Migrants, however, have no legal claim to protection and are often stigmatised

Just the same, some people may flee due to famine - brought on by armed conflict or climate change - before experiencing harrowing violence and threats along their journey. This is often the case with migrants transiting through Libya, a country the European Union (EU) treats as safe despite consistent reports of rape, torture and exploitation.

In either scenario, vulnerable people should be protected regardless if they fit into the definition of a refugee. But rather than broaden the refugee definition or create additional frameworks of protection, many states are doing the opposite.

Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini recently drafted a decree that abolishes humanitarian protection for migrants, which had protected people not eligible for refugee status. Italy now only provides limited protection to few migrants who have fled natural disasters or have serious illnesses.

Any sensible person realizes that Italy's tactic won't limit the number of migrants in the country. It will, however, severely increase the number of people living without legal status, leaving migrants vulnerable to criminal networks and gangs.

That's just one consequence of oversimplifying the causes of migration.

The term 'economic migrant' has long been stigmatised, giving free ammunition to far-right leaders like Salvini to criminalise those washing up dead or drowning in the Mediterranean.

To counter this propaganda, it's not enough to claim that most migrants are refugees. A more constructive and humane approach is acknowledging that vulnerable migrants also deserve protection.

A license to deport  

The principal of non-refoulement - an international norm and the cornerstone of asylum law - prohibits the return of an asylum seeker or refugee back to a country where their life is in danger. Migrants, however, can be returned with little consideration for their lives.

Just take the case of Afghans in Europe. In October 2016, the EU signed an agreement with the Afghan government that classified parts of the war-torn country as safe.

Less than a year later, more than 50 percent of Afghans were denied refugee status in the EU, resulting in the deportation of hundreds of people to one of the most dangerous countries on earth.

That's not an exaggeration. Figures obtained by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) show that more than 16,000 civilians have been killed from armed conflict over the last two years alone.

A more constructive and humane approach is acknowledging that vulnerable migrants also deserve protection

Syrians living with temporary protection in Germany and the United States also risk deportation in the coming years despite the well documented risks of reprisal from Bashar Assad's regime.

The UN Refugee Agency nonetheless stands behind the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is fine if additional frameworks are adopted to protect vulnerable migrants. But unlike refugees, the agency claims that migrants are people not in need of protection since they typically migrate to find work, pursue an education or reunite with loved ones.

Nothing could be further from the truth. But even if people do migrate for the above reasons, they shouldn't be criminalised, especially given Europeans and North Americans can work or study wherever they please.  

That said, without a radical rethink of the status quo, which amounts to a form of global apartheid, migrants will never receive the compassion and protection they need.


Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. 

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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