Certain labels bother me. Labels like “smuggler” that replace “mass murderer”. Or “paradox”, when designed to hide consistency beneath a superficial contradiction. What got me started on all this, though, was label “refugee”.
The crisis in the Mediterranean has sparked a healthy debate on terminology. A migrant, we are reminded, is not the same thing as a refugee. Some worry about placing too much emphasis on the legal distinction, in the process creating a class of humans who are worthy of our sympathy, assistance and open arms. For others, “choices about words do matter.” The official UNHCR viewpoint: Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. The debate misses a crucial point.
The discussion of refugees tends to ask whether or not the people live up to the term. Do the circumstances of the flight from home measure up to the legal definition (i.e., a well-founded fear of persecution…)? It places the label of refugee on a pedestal. But what happens when the label does not measure up to the circumstances of the flight? When it masks a different set of relationships? In terms of the Mediterranean crisis, what happens when seeking refugee status weakens the claim to enter Fortress Europe? What we need, certainly, is for the governments in Europe to honor the ideals and protections they authored. What we also need is a new claim, one that better fits the contemporary circumstances of flight.
Stripped down, here are refugees: people living in Country being persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared then flee to Safer Country, where they are not persecuted, bombed, tortured or disappeared. Note the formula: Country destroys citizens (or, wantonly fails to protect them from destruction), so citizens flee to Safer Country.
Note also the flaw in the formula: Safer Country acts out of discretion. Refugees have the right to flee Country and the right to seek asylum, but there is no corresponding obligation on Safer Country to grant entry/asylum. Rather, Safer Country is permitted and deemed to act out of generosity, human compassion and a host of self-congratulatory reasons (but certainly not political interests). As so many have opined, nowadays such discretion comes with steep political costs, hence the shame of Fortress Europe. That delineates the battleground and the political game in which we have engaged: advocacy and action aimed at getting our states to treat refugees as refugees should be treated. But what if they should be treated better than refugees?
Note the difference between the above formula and the current crisis. Waves of Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians comprise a big chunk of the refugee population crossing the Mediterranean. They clearly meet the refugee formula. But don’t they meet more than the old refugee formula? Doesn’t the modern formula also look like this: Safer Country bombs, wages war and/or fuels conflict in Country, so people flee Country, sometimes to Safer Country.
Why should the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan have to gain entry to the US or to the UK based on the codification of magnanimity into international law? Why shouldn’t they be able to claim a right to enter based on their homes and lives having been, in part, violently destroyed by Western military intervention or the conflict and nasty forces unleashed by said interventions?
The justifications of such interventions are irrelevant. Iraqi, Afghan and even Syrian refugees aren’t Jewish dissidents being persecuted by a brutal Soviet regime. They are the victims of wars that we must, in part, own. What about, for instance, a creative invocation of the tort law concept of joint and severable liability? What about seeing them as creditors, collecting on a debt? In other words, what about moving beyond a claim to asylum and an exercise of national discretion to an obligation based on compensation for our national actions? We should be calling, hence, not just for the Refugee Convention to be fulfilled, but for it to be supplemented by a different notion, one in which people whose homes and lives have been destroyed get to live in the homes and lives of those who contributed to that destruction.
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Addendum: I will leave it for somebody else to make the parallel argument about economic migrants. The formula used to look like this: Poor Country is hopelessly incompetent and corrupt so people go to Richer Country to look for a better life rather than starve to death at home. Now it looks too much like this: Richer Country enacts global economic policies and houses global economic actors that render people in Poor Country…