Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities in January 2013. AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
Whenever there is an unexpected mass movement of people, the media is quick to name it a crisis. Before the current situation in the Mediterranean captured global attention, mass migrations in Central America and south and southeast Asia briefly made headlines in 2014 and 2015. But these events were blips on the radar and did not provoke any sustained action to change global and regional migration policies.
Migration has become an international priority only now that it has become a problem for Europe at an unprecedented level. Although this can be seen as evidence of the eurocentrism of the world system, it also provides an opportunity to learn from previous migration ‘crises’ in order to reform migration policy at the global level.
Children crossing Central America
During the summer of 2014, arrivals of children and families at the southern border of the United States reached record levels. From October 2013 to September 2014, a record 69,000 children and 68,000 families, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, crossed Central America to arrive at the southern border of the US. These figures only represent the migrants who were counted, so in reality the number is probably higher. In 2014, 18,000 children were deported from Mexico and the US. Aggressive anti-immigration policies and strict border enforcement in the US and Mexico led to fewer arrivals the following year. As a global power, the US addressed these events as an internal issue, rather than putting migration on the international agenda the way European politicians are doing now.
As long as migrant arrivals in Europe are making headlines, we should use the opportunity to push for greater debate and action on migrant and refugee rights.
The violence and poverty that caused children and families to flee these countries persist, meaning the incentive to migrate is still there, and the 2014 surge may not be a one-time occurrence. Although the media paid attention when migrant arrivals spiked in the summer of 2014, the gang violence and insecurity in their home countries rarely receives coverage, just as we now see more news about Syrians arriving at Europe´s borders than the ongoing war in their homeland. Addressing mass migrations means not only focusing on places of arrival, but also on countries of origin, a lesson European policymakers should consider.
The south Asian ‘boat crisis’
In May 2015, the south Asian ‘boat crisis’ made headlines when an estimated 8,000 people migrating from Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea. International outrage mounted as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand refused to allow the boats to land, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people at sea due to starvation, dehydration, and abuse by boat crews. The majority of those people were Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority group from Myanmar.
Most of the media coverage focused on the Rohingya, who qualified as asylum seekers because they were fleeing discrimination and violence. However, there were others, mainly Bangladeshis, who were described as ‘economic migrants’. The governments used their presence to justify their refusal to allow the boats to land, and the rhetoric of ‘economic migrants’ being undeserving of welcome is reminiscent of what we hear today in Europe. However, given that Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, these governments did not recognise an obligation to accord special protection to anyone on the boats. This stands in marked contrast to European countries, who are obliged to give support to asylum seekers by virtue of having signed the convention. In reality, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is never so simple, as people migrate for a mixture of reasons.
Once the boats were eventually allowed to land, international attention dried up. Without prolonged attention, no sustainable solutions were developed to address the underlying causes of this mass migration, nor to develop more effective policies to welcome migrants within the region.
Learning from previous ‘crises’ to take action
These previous migration ‘crises’ have garnered limited attention, but none have motivated ongoing international action around migration. The current refugee ‘crisis’ has mobilised the international community in a more sustained way than these previous events in Central America and south Asia. This is in part due to the scale and ongoing nature of the movement, but it is also because it is happening in Europe. Leaders in the west are finally being forced to pay attention and respond. As long as migrant arrivals in Europe are making headlines, we should use the opportunity to push for greater debate and action on migrant and refugee rights.
The United Nations, which has no body solely dedicated to migration, has previously addressed migration as something tangentially related to other global priorities. In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) migration is not a separate goal, although it is a cross-cutting theme that is recognised as being integral to many aspects of sustainable development.
At the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, migration will be addressed in the humanitarian realm with a dedicated special session on the topic and a high-level roundtable on forced displacement. This responds to a very specific subset of concerns regarding migrants, specifically refugees and providing for their needs in an emergency context.
Migration is increasingly being addressed as a topic in and of itself at the international level. The ‘main event’ that the international community is looking forward to is a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly Plenary on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, which will take place on 19 September 2016. This is intended to be the event of the year on the topic of migration, bringing together leaders from the United Nations, member state governments, and non-governmental organisations. It therefore has the potential to reframe global discourses around migration and set the international agenda for the coming years.
Let’s use this sustained global focus on migration to develop policy that rethinks borders in a way that will facilitate safe migration and protect human rights for all, not only in the Mediterranean, but around the world.