Can Europe Make It?

What’s in a name? The complex reality of migration and human rights in the twenty-first century

Why is a refugee someone fleeing from war? Why not someone fleeing from hopeless poverty?

Pia Oberoi
15 October 2015

A road to the Libyan coast. Wikimedia/Koperczak. Public domain.Raisa Abdul Azim was eight months old and Aylan Kurdi was three when their families boarded unseaworthy boats within days of each other, seeking a future for their children in Europe. In their uprooted lives, and in their tragic, heart-breaking deaths at sea, they were very similar. But Raisa was the daughter of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Libya, while Aylan was the son of Syrian refugees in Turkey. We are told that these are fundamentally different kinds of people.

But are they?

In the absence of a universal, legal definition, the word ‘migrant’ merely describes a diverse array of people who move to and live in a country that is not their own. The data tell us that of some 232 million international migrants in the world, around 19.5 million are refugees who have fled their countries because of conflict and persecution. However these stark numbers do not tell us about the motivations and needs of migrants, particularly those migrants who are not refugees but are nonetheless marginalised, excluded and vulnerable to harm.

And regardless of whether such migrants constitute 20 or 50 percent of these tumultuous ‘mixed flows’, their lives matter.

Some 70 years ago, in the shadow of an emerging Cold War, the international community defined a ‘refugee’ as someone who was fleeing political persecution, and not the compulsions of extreme poverty. In the intervening decades since 1951, however, the nuances inherent in international migration have become more apparent. It is increasingly clear that the boundaries of human experience are not as well-ordered or as neatly separated as our finely drawn legal categories would like them to be. 

The dynamics of migration are changing.

Today, for many millions of migrants, varying degrees of coercion and voluntariness characterise their migration from beginning to end. Journeys are long and multi-directional, and a person’s circumstances and status can change, often dramatically, as the journey progresses. Many are stuck in refugee camps for years. Many others remain stranded in transit, working in demeaning jobs, trapped in vicious cycles of vulnerability, abuse and insecurity that spiral through their migration.

There are few television cameras on the beaches of Libya, and we know little about Raisa Abdul Razim’s life and death. Her parents had apparently lived and worked in Libya for years and Raisa and her 5-year old sister were born there. That her family would decide to remain in the murderous chaos of present-day Libya, and when it got unbearable to embark on a perilous journey to Europe rather than return to Bangladesh, is telling.  Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is located in one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world which experiences regular, devastating floods and cyclones. It is estimated that around 43 percent of the population live below the poverty line, in a country which is the 9th most populous in the world.

We have not come up with a better word for people whom we cannot call ‘refugees’ but who nevertheless move in this desperate search for hope and opportunity, security and dignity.

It is assumed that if they are not fleeing conflict or persecution then migrants come voluntarily and can easily return. But the concept of ‘voluntariness’ is contested; how voluntary is the migration of a person who is unable to provide life-saving healthcare for his father in a country where he can barely earn a living, or one who sees no future for her children in a country with a broken education system? Poverty and inequality, discrimination, food scarcity, water scarcity, lack of health care, housing, education; these are all, on their own or in combination, triggers for movement that is not truly voluntary. As the US writer Teju Cole has said “Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle.”

Juxtaposing the ‘deserving’ political refugee against the ‘undeserving’ economic migrant not only ignores this complex reality, but also plays into the hands of those who wish to demean and demonise foreigners for their own purposes. Human rights protection is not a zero sum game; extending to migrants the protection which they are obliged to receive according to human rights norms will not take away from refugees the protection to which they are entitled under refugee law.

Politicians and the populist media might call migrants ‘marauders’ and ‘scroungers’ and other hateful terms, but this does not mean that we should let them define who migrants are, what they want or what they deserve. All migrants deserve our compassion and empathy as human beings. As rights-holders, they are all entitled to the equal protection of human rights law.

Ultimately, the success of our migration policies will hinge on understanding the individual motivations and constraints of migrants, and on treating them as human beings rather than as threats and statistics. 

Overwhelmingly, they are not looking for charity. In Europe alone it is estimated that in some 50 years the labour force will decline by around 50 million workers. In the EU, an ageing and falling population will see the old-age dependency ratio almost double from 27.5% in 2013 to 51.0% in 2080. Care needs will increase, and there will be fewer young people to look after the growing elderly population.

For example, within the next 15 years, the Bertelsmann Institute has reported that half of all German workers will become pensioners. Without migrant workers from outside the EU, Germany’s labour pool is likely to shrink from its current 45 million to 29 million people (or 36 percent) by 2050.

Yet despite this structural need for migrant labour, regular channels to enter Europe are generally insufficient, particularly for those low skilled sectors where they are needed the most such as nursing and care work, compelling many migrants to seek out irregular routes. At the same time, it is well documented that migrants generally contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. Our migration policies need to respond to these realities rather than to damaging myths and stereotypes.

And for those uncounted migrants who move in desperation - the young woman looking for economic freedom who has survived sexual violence on her long journey through an inhospitable desert, the teenage boy who is sent abroad on a leaky boat as the sole breadwinner of an impoverished family, Raisa Abdul Azim and her family who were looking for a future with dignity – for these migrants we may need a new word or eventually even a new framework of protection. But for the moment we need the determination to match our actions to the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Pia Oberoi is Advisor on Migration and Human Rights at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This article is written in her personal capacity, the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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