2015 has been a year of mass migrations.
Between January to August 2015, 350,000 irregular migrants entered Europe. An estimated 800,000 migrants seeking asylum are expected to arrive in Germany alone this year.
With only four mass migrations occurring in Europe in recorded history, what can be done with so many people in a modern migrant crisis?
And who can pick a true refugee within the context of mass flows of people into Europe from middle eastern countries in war situations or experiencing political or social upheaval?
What Caused The Migrant Crisis And What Is Europe Doing About It?
According to BBC News, the mass exodus of people from the Middle East and Africa is being fuelled mainly by civil war and terror with conflicts raging in Syria and Afghanistan as well as human rights abuses in Eritrea.
What Is A Refugee?
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, a refugee is:
Any person who, owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”
If it were possible to identify many of the people fleeing into Europe as refugees under the Refugees Convention and Protocol, what recognition under these international instruments should now be given to them? What protection should be afforded to them and what can, and should, be done for them as well as the large number of people who have been dubbed migrants rather than refugees?
Australia’s past response to a mass influx of people from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma and Sri Lanka in ‘turning back the boats’ was successful. It did, however, sublimate our international convention obligations by denying many true refugees the protection to which they were entitled.
At the time, this deliberate avoidance of our international obligation was, perhaps, considered ‘justifiable’ in order to save the lives of many people, including families undertaking such a dangerous sea voyage.
Which raises the question: Is this stance a proper or permanent position for Australia to adopt? According to international or domestic law, can we lawfully (or even morally) maintain this position while still adhering to our current international refugee obligations? The jury is still out on these questions.
Is There A Solution For Europe?
Whatever the legality or morality of Australia’s policy position on refugees, this type of ‘turn back the boats’ response is simply not available to landlocked European countries which are now desperate to find a viable solution for hundreds of thousands of people arriving at their borders daily.
Short of using unpleasant or violent state measures, there is no way to physically prevent mass people movements into Europe across open EU borders.
The migrant crisis is unlikely to improve in the near future without regime change, or complete political and economic solutions emerging overnight in countries being fled.
Who Are The True Refugees?
It is impossible for anyone to say now how many of these desperate people from war torn or repressive Middle Eastern countries are genuine refugees. But does it matter what label is given to them?
For Germany, France, the UK or other affected countries, there is no way to assess such numbers of people properly under their usual refugee assessment processes. Any attempt to do so would take many years and result in significant cost to affected countries, the claimants and their families.
Even Australia faces a herculean administrative and expensive task, under well-developed refugee assessment procedures, to resolve the refugee claims of tens of thousands of boat people who arrived in Australia more than two years ago. Refugee claimants who were removed to Nauru and Papua New Guinea are also still to be resolved.
Legal Change Needed
It is clear that the idea and legal definition of who is a refugee and, therefore, entitled to protection is no longer viable in 2015.
In recent years, Australia has introduced an additional form of protection called Complementary Protection. This is an extension of protection that can be given to asylum seekers. It is used for people who were not previously recognised as a refugee under Australia’s refugee assessment process, but whom the Minister finds substantial grounds for believing that they could face a real risk of suffering significant harm if removed from Australia. This is a positive step forward but does not go far enough.
Mass movements of people across the globe in response to political, social and economic crises as well as religious persecution that is unique to the 21st century require a new and robust solution.
The global approach to who is entitled to refugee protection, or other forms of protection, is in pressing need of review.
It is time for the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), perhaps, to review the obsolete definition of who is entitled to refugee protection and what obligations are imposed on countries that have ratified the Refugees Convention and Protocol.
Most importantly, the UNHCR needs to make a strong case to the United Nations for nation states to:
- find effective and enforceable solutions to mass people movements
- strive to remove their root causes more effectively; and
- resolve to develop ways to help people in need in their home countries.
This should be a priority, regardless of whether persons seeking asylum qualify for protection under the current outdated refugee definition; or under a new definition; or simply because law and order is breaking down in their home country and remaining there is not feasible without serious threat to life.
What do you think Governments should do about mass movements of people into their countries? Is there an easy answer, or will this issue continue to be placed in the ‘too hard’ basket? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!