Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:
Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
- They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
- They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor, used in the New Statesman article From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants
Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).
It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)
After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.
Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.
Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.
Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.
But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.
Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.
Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!
Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.
The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.
Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.
To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!
This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.
Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.
Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.
In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.
People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.
I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.
The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.
Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.
I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:
Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.
If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.
And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.
The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.
If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.
But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!
Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:
Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.
Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.
Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.
Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.
You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.
Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:
- A Survey of the United States Humanitarian Migrant Statuses by Michelangelo Landgrave, Open Borders: The Case, May 14, 2014.
- Barry York’s case for amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia, Open Borders: The Case, May 11, 2015.
- Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death by John Lee, Open Borders: The Case, January 9, 2015.