Legal terms need a rethink as refugee numbers grow
Mixing refugees and politics is not new, but this relationship has become more complicated due to warfare, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Those unfortunate souls who have been uprooted from their homes often face dangerous struggles on their journey to find safety. Naturally, the problem — and its remedies — are complex and difficult.
Research shows there are now 82 million forcibly displaced people around the world — more than at any other time in modern history. These are people who have fled extreme danger, such as bombings, assaulting armies or gang violence, only to face other life-threatening situations that can occur during transit or in migrant camps.
The statistics are not good: In the past 10 years, the global refugee population has more than doubled. According to research, more than 26 million refugees currently live in host communities, many of which are in neighboring countries that are facing multiple pressures.
About 68 percent of the world’s refugee population comes from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Libya and wider African migrant flows are a whole other matter. Finally, Latin American migration numbers are beginning to add complexities to border control in North America and challenging, yet again, American policies and attitudes toward migration.
It is important to break down the definitions used when discussing migration. There are key differences between migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. A refugee is a person who has crossed a national border to escape conflict or persecution due to their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group and “is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear” of further persecution or harm.
An IDP has been forced to flee their home for the same reasons as a refugee but remains in their own country, while a migrant is somebody who voluntarily leaves their home country to live in another due to its ostensibly better working or living conditions.
Finally, an asylum seeker is a refugee who seeks longer-term legal harbor in another country, applying for sanctuary and/or asylum in the hope that the host country will grant such a right. These individuals face legalese in terms of “due time,” which can be a subjective and unfair unit of measurement given that they are detained in some countries until their applications are reviewed.
Governments and communities react differently to these unfortunate individuals depending on their label. Once that occurs, a stigma is attached to the victim that must be dealt with appropriately. Currently, there is very little help across the four different types.
Specialists and practitioners are constantly finding new ways to treat displaced people. When governments and local communities fail in their responsibilities, migrants require appropriately structured outreach programs for victim empowerment. The focus should be on providing vital medical care, including mental health support and treatment for sexual violence.
The geopolitics of migration are well known and have been used for many years to challenge neighboring states. The primary way to make migrants “political” is the weaponization of their movement flows and, subsequently, the definition of “what type of refugee is in transit.” In 2015, the refugee crisis in Europe involved a huge influx of arrivals from Turkey, so the EU cut a deal with Ankara to close its borders and stop the flow of people. Brussels, in turn, provided Turkey with financial help to deal with its refugee burden.
Ankara used this case to get Europe to pay for a problem that it had looked the other way on, thereby throwing off the legal definition of who these migrants were and increasing detention center populations. This tactic is still used today as migration flows from the Levant continue. Belarus, for example, is using migrants as a weapon and a way to send a message to its neighbors.
Other methods of control involve the refugee camps. A refugee center in Tripoli, Libya, this month witnessed a violent crackdown against thousands of migrants, with many escaping amid the chaos. The episode ended quickly, but it is an example of refugees putting their lives in other people’s hands as they attempt to transit to Europe. The body count of those drowning while crossing the Mediterranean is the end result of the political aspect of migration flows.
Governments and communities react differently to these unfortunate individuals depending on their label.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Finally, in the US, the Biden administration is moving quickly and using all legal means to accommodate 55,600 Afghan evacuees from US military bases, where they have been living since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. These individuals are being treated in a way that helps them effectively and efficiently move through the legal system that governs the movement of individuals based on their legal status. This is why in many migration “events,” that definition becomes important in terms of finding a good policy solution.
It may very well be that a global revisitation of the definitions that affect migration policymaking is warranted to match the new, dynamic environment we find ourselves in today.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik