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Interview: the cat and mouse game of creating ‘safe passage’

As states fortify their external borders the calls for creating ‘safe passage’ are growing louder, yet the term is hard to define and the ways to dodge responsibility are many.

Berlin, in February 2016. Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Kevin Appleby: I'm Kevin Appleby, and I'm the senior director for international migration policy for the Scalabrini International Migration Network. This is a network run by the Scalabrini fathers of the Catholic Church that provides safe haven for migrants around the world. They have programmes such as shelters, community centres, and schools that serve migrants. I try to take what they're doing on the ground and translate it to policy recommendations and advocacy, both at the UN and in Washington DC.

Cameron Thibos (oD): There's a lot of policy talk today about safe passages. This is not a term that is readily understood by many, so could you start by explaining what is meant by 'safe passage'?

Kevin: 'Safe passages' is a term that's been used in debates to describe a situation where someone migrates in security with a legal status and a definite destination, and with a purpose. That's not always the reality of it, however. Sometimes there are situations where, even if they have legal status, they might be in jeopardy for some reason, if there is conflict or some other sort of event going on. It also doesn’t mean their rights are protected when they arrive in a destination country.

So, safe passage means they should be safe on the way but it doesn't mean they are, and it doesn't mean their rights are protected in the workplace when they get to the destination country. It's sort of a pejorative term that's used, and one that doesn't describe all the rights that are in play in a situation like that.

Cameron: Today a lot of the policy and a lot of the discussion on migration seems based on two fundamental assumptions. One is that immigrants or migrants should sort out their status prior to departure, and the other is that if this status does not get sorted out then they have to accept the consequences of that. What are the consequences of these two assumptions? How do they affect people, and compare with the realities of the world today?

Kevin: It doesn't reflect the reality for the vast majority of migrants. First of all, there are not enough legal avenues available to them from the destination countries, so that they can come in a safe and orderly way. Second, there are circumstances where they are forced to migrate – reasons of climate, reasons of conflict, or reasons of employment – and they don't have time to go through the legal process because it would jeopardise their wellbeing. That's the reality for millions and millions of migrants. That's why we have such displacement in the world and why we have so many refugees: it's not a static situation, it's a situation where people are forced to migrate and not everyone is allowed to migrate legally.

Those that are the most destitute and the most vulnerable are the ones who should have safe passage.

I would also add that our global migration system is skewed toward the wealthy, and toward people who have the means to travel. People who can get business visas or pay the fees to go and get on an airplane. The system is not for poor people. A lot of the time we don't frame the issue that way, but those that are the most destitute and the most vulnerable are the ones who should have safe passage, and they should have ability to come legally but they don't.

So, if you make those two assumptions, you're assuming that they're in a position to get a visa, to get a way to come legally, and to get on a plane. That's really not the case, and their lives and their wellbeing could be in jeopardy. Hence: irregular migration.

Cameron: You make policy recommendations for a living. For you, what are the fundamentals that we should instead be basing the policy on? If it's not these assumptions, then where do we start?

Kevin: I think the principle that a person has a right to move in certain circumstances should be generally recognised. In terms of laws that penalise people for irregular movements, they should be balanced. There should be relief available in certain circumstances. There should be legalisations available.

I'm not talking about open borders, but I am talking about the fact that we're in a globalised world now. There are the haves and the have nots, and there are jobs in certain places where there aren't in others. There are labour needs as well, so we need to recognise that. People are on the move because there are forces beyond our control that are pushing them. I think that's the assumption that should underlay the global migration system: people are going to have to move for various important reasons and we need to accommodate that movement not deter it.

That's scary to a lot of people, and we see that in xenophobic movements around the world. But history has shown and the evidence has shown that generous migration systems yield benefits to the host country and to other countries where migrants are present. It has to be a paradigm shift, and we have to get away from 'all migrants are threats to us', either economically or in cases of security. That's not to say that there aren't bad apples in every crowd, but generally they're positive contributors to the world and to nations. With that thinking I believe we can move slowly but surely toward a system where these people are protected; they're more managed in a humane way and in a way that serves both their own interests and the interests of nations that receive them.

Cameron: You mentioned the right to move in certain circumstances, and one of the most protected reasons we have for moving across borders irregularly is fleeing war. Yet while the assumption that such people do have the right to move continues to be upheld in the abstract, it doesn't seem to follow that they necessarily have the right to move 'here', wherever here may be. To prevent such movement, governments have created other types of categories, such as – in Europe at least – 'safe third countries' or 'countries of first arrival'. There's a lot of dodging going on, a lot of shifting of responsibility. Do you see any way that we can change that mindset, and actually get policy makers on board with solidarity?

Kevin: As you can see, it's very difficult. A lot of the nations in the developing world take on the undue burden of protecting refugees. The wealthier nations do their part, to some degree, but do they do enough? Is there true burden or responsibility sharing in the world? I think that's part of the debate that's going on in capitals around the world. In terms of the New York declaration (the outcome of the UN’s September summit on migration and refugees), I think that's the crux of the issue: the countries of the Global South generally take most of the burden, whereas the countries in the Global North have policies that maintain that responsibility on the poorer nations.

Again, I go back to my model of rich vs. poor, but it's really what's going on here. You need more political will, you need more leadership, you need more education around the world. We're going through a period now of rising xenophobia, and I think that partly has to do with people's insecurity economically and where the world is going in a globalisation fashion.

As [states] extend the enforcement and 'extend the border', they don't extend the protection space for migrants on the move.

We need to fight back against those elements. But in terms of protection of people who are really persecuted, we really have to maintain those principles. The 1951 Refugee Convention has been very successful, generally, but we need to look at expanding those protection schemes to fill gaps in the system. There really need to be more countries that step up to the plate in terms of refugee protection. Hopefully that will increase as the global compact on refugees is agreed to, the global compact on migration, and we'll have more awareness and accountability among nations in addressing this issue.

Last point is: root causes. You have to have a strategy to address these conflicts and this income inequality around the world. Until you do that, you're still going to have the problem. So, that's the long-term solution.

Cameron: Right now we're moving to a model of more and more border externalisation. What do we mean by that, and why do states find it so attractive? Furthermore, what are the risks associated with that model?

Kevin: Externalisation of borders is like another term for the policies of deterrence that nations implement. That means they do all they can to prevent large flows from arriving at their borders. One of the things that they do is have arrangements with transit countries to interdict migrants. The problem is that as they extend the enforcement and 'extend the border', they don't extend the protection space for migrants on the move. Meanwhile, the transit countries don't have the capacity, for example, to screen asylum seekers and to adjudicate their cases. Often international agencies aren't allowed into the situation to provide protection as well. What we need to see is a shift away from deterrence and more toward protection in these schemes.

Two good examples are the Australian situation, where they are interdicting boats and sending them to Papua New Guinea to camps where they languish. That's one way to deter and to send the message that you're not welcome in our country. Those types of interdictions need to stop and to include protection. Then obviously you have the EU-Turkey agreement on Syrians, where Syrians are being sent back to Turkey but they are not safe there. Again, eventually the policy fails. So we need to think about it and make sure that there is at least a balance between enforcement and protection. Ideally protection is the emphasis and that there is shared responsibility in that area.

Cameron: Do we have good reason to worry about whether that protection would be carried out in good faith when it's taking place out of sight and outside of public scrutiny?

Kevin: Certainly, but it would be the responsibility of the destination country to assist that country to ensure that it's done transparently and according to international law. You also have other actors like the United Nations and other international agencies that can facilitate that. But if a destination country is going to give money to a transit country to interdict, they should be giving money to that transit country to build their capacity to protect as well. The destination country should also accept a certain number of those who can't return as well. There is a road map there, but you need to put pressure on nations to follow that, so that protection is available to people in transit and to large movements.

Cameron: Thank you very much for your time.

Kevin: Thanks for having me.

About the authors

Kevin Appleby is senior director for international migration policy for the Scalabrini International Migration Network.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

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