Terra incognita: A world of migrants and refugees - time for an honest discussion

Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eritrean migrants in Tel Aviv.
Abdul Rahman Harom should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. In early August he walked 31 miles, mostly in the dark, under the English channel through the Channel Tunnel.
Meters from completing his journey he was stopped and arrested. He has been charged with obstructing a railroad.
Were he the only person to have tried to illegally migrate to England his eccentricity and daring might well have gained him celebrity of a different sort.
But he is one of tens of thousands of migrants who have camped out in Calais, many of whom have and discovered that jumping on trucks waiting to cross the Channel is an easy and convenient way to enter the UK illegally, where they think a better life awaits.
The International New York Times asked whether this “bold and foolhardy” act should be punished because Harom put himself and others at risk, or whether “his desperation [should] be met with empathy.”
Migration stories like this always get shoe-horned into this dog-eared zero-sum game – punishment or empathy? Perhaps Harom deserves both. The debate about migration in Europe and other countries is so angry and heated it clouds judgment.
Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer, told the Times that “like all refugees, he should be immune from prosecution for irregular means of entry to a country of sanctuary.” The theory goes that he is protected under the 1951 United Nations refugee convention “since refugees are, by definition, fleeing persecution.”
Thus criminalization of his journey is “unjust.”
Notice the bait and switch that takes place here.
The assumption is that because he was willing to make a long, dangerous journey he is “fleeing persecution.”
What persecution was that? The rudeness of the French chefs in Calais? The hot French summer perhaps? Obviously he wasn’t fleeing any sort of persecution in France. Whatever he might have been running from back home, thousands of miles away, he had long since found numerous safe countries to seek refuge in. As a result, he likely wasn’t a refugee at all, but what should be called an “optimum refuge seeker.” This fits a recent trend throughout Europe and elsewhere of refugees country-shopping to see where they can get the best deal.
Most people never read the 1951 Hague Convention to get a handle on what it sought to accomplish. In the aftermath of World War Two there were huge population movements, some 40 million refugees in Europe alone. The convention called upon governments to “continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation in order that these refugees may find asylum and the possibility of resettlement.”
The convention noted that it was to protect those with a “well founded fear of being persecuted.”
What is particularly interesting is that article two of the convention describes the obligations of the refugee: “Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.”
Article 31 notes: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened...enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”
Refugees adhering to these guidelines, according to the convention, would have rights to wage-earning employment, and “the Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees.” Such refugees were not to be expelled, except if they were a danger to national security or public order. In addition they could not be returned to the “territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
The Hague convention bears almost no connection to the way the refugee and asylum seeker issue has been treated in recent years. There is no real attempt to assimilate and settle the hundreds of thousands of people pouring into Europe, but rather a whole-scale abandonment of them. Ther is no enforcement of laws relating to them, and a rotating door in which most of them are encouraged to move on from their initial arrival point to seek an “optimum” residence in another country. There is no determined call for refugees and migrants sitting in Calais and illegally jumping on trucks to “conform to public order”; rather fences are built higher to keep them out. In short, no solution to the larger issue, just band-aids. There is also little discussion of the fact that the millions of migrants routinely violate their obligation by not presenting themselves to the authorities “without delay” upon illegal entry. In short, there is no discussion of the obligations of the migrants and asylum seekers, only propaganda about their supposed persecution and demonization meted out to them by politicians who object to their presence.
In June the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claimed that more than 60 million people were refugees around the world.
“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. That is more than in the aftermath of WWII. The Syrian civil war has produced some 11 million displaced people, while there are another four million refugees from the fighting in Iraq. A million have fled fighting in Ukraine and eight million from various African conflicts according to the report.
But the numbers confuse some of the picture. Countries like Jordan or Lebanon have been swamped by millions of refugees, a massive number in comparison to their population. One in five people in Iraqi Kurdistan is an Arab refugee from somewhere else in Iraq. This is a burden far beyond whatever stories the European statesmen tell about refugees coming in from the Mediterranean. But some places in Europe have had an unfair and dismal notoriety forced upon them. The little Greek island of Kos off the coast of Turkey has only 33,000 residents, but some 7,000 refugees have come to the island recently. Beaches were strewn with litter and migrants demanding their “rights” fought with police. When a massive ferry was chartered to house and move 2,500 of the refugees to the mainland, asylum-seekers fought each other to board it and scuffled with police.
The Greek situation is total chaos, with some 124,000 migrants having landed illegally on Greek islands this year. Greece – one of the poorer countries in Europe – is not their destination, just a ticket to the rest of the EU. The main problem is that despite the massive wealth of the EU, the continent cannot seem to regulate and properly process these people.
Why is that? The UNHCR called the Greek handling of the situation in Kos “shameful.” But the behavior of some of the migrants is equally shameful. Their first actions when seeking “refuge” in Europe betray an attitude of entitlement. The lack of respect given to European authorities is matched on the part of the authorities by an equal lack of competence and willingness to invest in manpower to handle the influx.
The BBC did an interesting report to cover the Calais crises.
“I heard good news about England. They give you a house and some money to spend and live. And then they give them the opportunity to study, to have a good life,” one migrant was quoted as saying in the report. The article detailed the many benefits migrants receive: “Asylum seekers will be given accommodation, either in a flat, house, hostel or bed and breakfast...get free National Health Service healthcare, enabling them to see a doctor or access hospital treatment. They also receive free prescriptions, dental care, eyesight tests and help paying for glasses.”
So you can see why most of the world might like to live in the UK. But that doesn’t mean they all have a right to.
The migrant issue affects many countries in the world. In 2013 some 26,000 people on 400 boats reached Australia and the country began sending them to detention centers in Papua New Guinea. Israel built a fence to keep out the thousands of Africans arriving via Sinai. The US has never been able to come to terms with the millions of “undocumented” immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.
All of these first world countries should be able to solve the migrant issue by settling some of them, but on the other hand there should not be a perception that just because a country is wealthy, everyone who is poor has a right to live there. This issue isn’t a new one; in 2003 Italian politician Umberto Bossi urged the Italian navy to use live fire against ships full of illegal immigrants.
Even in those days, when I was living in Florence, asylum-seekers from Sudan would barge into restaurants, plop themselves down at your table and try to foist CDs on you. One doubts that they behaved the same way in Sudan. It was clear that the demonization of Africans on one hand and total coddling on the other was creating a toxic situation.
Until Western states understand that migrants cannot just be ignored and left aside, while at the same time being sent the message that they have no reason to respect local laws the situation will continue.
Investment in proper procedures at point of entry, and not letting all asylum seekers become “optimum country” shoppers who demand the highest possible surfeit of “rights” will reduce the “irregular” and hostile cycle. Start with an honest conversation about rights and responsibilities, stop treating migrants like children or unwanted criminals, and they can be absorbed with as much success as the post-WWII millions were.