We are witnessing the largest and most rapid escalation ever in the number of people being forced from their homes. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2014, just short of 60 million people were “forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations” In 2014, an average of 42,500 people were displaced every day. Millions of people fled conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as persecution in areas of Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, creating the highest level of displacement since World War II. More than 125,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, all carrying the hope that they will be able to start new lives in Europe. Many more will have arrived by other means using forged documents or will have overstayed on their visas. Those from countries subject to conflict or severe human rights abuses such as Syria and Eritrea have a good chance of being able to remain in the European Union as refugees. But the majority will be classified as irregular migrants who, in theory, can be returned to their home countries.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called on countries confronted with large numbers of arrivals to take advantage of an emergency clause of the EU Return Directive that allows irregular migrants, including families with children, to be detained in prisons rather than in separate immigration detention facilities, for up to 18 months. The detention of migrants, including children, for longer periods in prison settings would be viewed as a major retrograde step by rights groups, who have long campaigned for an end to immigration detention altogether.
“I think it represents a hardening of attitudes as part of a general concern about trying to manage the big increase in numbers,” Steve Peers, a law professor at the University of Essex, told IRIN. Peers pointed out that the EU Commission also recently published a paper providing guidelines for the use of force on migrants who refuse to be fingerprinted. “To say the least, this is hard to square with the EU’s frequent professions of support for the human rights and decent treatment of migrants.”
Referring to “a crisis of human suffering” at EU borders, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) accused member states of neglecting their humanitarian duty. “Urgent action should be taken to allow asylum-seekers entering through EU’s southern borders to get the assistance and protection they are entitled to according to EU directives.”
An aggressive strategy by the United States to deter thousands of people fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America includes keeping women and children in detention for months while they await asylum hearings. Following a peak in arrivals last year of children and families, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, President Barack Obama’s administration was under pressure to introduce tough measures to stem the flow. The response has included expanding the use of family detention. Lawyers and activists are trying to shut the new facilities down and bring an end to family detention altogether, arguing that it is inhumane to incarcerate children awaiting asylum hearings.
Mayra Cifuentes Cruz, an indigenous Mayan, initially fled Huehuetenango for the United States in December 2013 after being attacked and hounded off her land by a wealthy landowner. Although she told border officials she feared for her life, she was not granted a so-called “credible fear” interview and was deported back to Guatemala. Such interviews are supposed to be used to determine whether an individual has a “credible fear” of persecution or torture back home that would make them eligible to apply for asylum. Most of the women and children fleeing gang and domestic violence in Central America are not evading detection when they are apprehended at the border. “When they arrive they are looking for someone to help them because of the humanitarian nature of their flight,” Greg Chen from the American Immigration Lawyers Association told IRIN.
The UK is to build a 9-foot high high-security fence over 2-miles long that was previously used to secure the London Olympics and last year’s NATO summit in Wales, at the lorry terminal in Coquelles, near Calais to deter migrants.
63,000 migrants have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, overtaking Italy (62,000) for the first time, according to the UN.
Macedonia, a country of just two million inhabitants, has become a major thoroughfare for migrants and asylum-seekers intent on reaching northern Europe and avoiding the deadly sea crossing from Libya to Italy. But the route through Macedonia has many dangers of its own. Following the railway from the Greek border, they must travel on foot for 200 kilometres to the border with Serbia. The hazards along the way include criminal gangs, speeding trains, police beatings, detention and kidnapping.
In the “war on drugs” there is something called the “balloon effect”: squeeze the balloon in one place, and it expands somewhere else. Something similar is happening with efforts to crack down on migration, with an important difference: when the balloon consists of people, they get more desperate the harder you squeeze. So too do border officials and politicians.
The balloon effect puts the supposed success of some migration control operations in a rather different light. For instance, desperate EU politicians have looked to Spain and Australia as models of migration control that have worked – yet these experiments have been successful only in the narrowest sense. Spain’s much-celebrated closure of the maritime route between the Canary Islands and West Africa around 2007 simply shuffled people around. The route itself had only emerged after tough crackdowns in northern Morocco pushed routes south; and as Spain and African states started collaborating on deportations and patrols in the Atlantic, routes shifted again, now towards the Sahara. And voilà – Spain’s problem became Italy’s, then Greece’s, and on it went. As European leaders celebrate 30 years of the Schengen agreement on free movement across the Union this week, they would rather have us forget about this self-interested scramble to make irregular migration someone else’s problem.
Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders has been much praised by hardliners and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called on Europe to adopt similarly harsh measures and simply “stop the boats”. No matter that Australia, like Spain, has depended on poor and powerless neighbours for the success of its draconian offshore policy - a solution simply not available in Europe’s relations with states in North Africa, where there’s no Nauru in sight. And never mind the cruelty and human rights abuses in detention, the pushbacks and even the reported payments to smugglers. Even if taken as a success on its own narrow numerical terms, we should recall that the nationalities that were arriving in Australia now overlap with those arriving in Europe. Some 3,500 Afghans arrived in Australia in 2012-13; after the launch of Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, overall arrival figures dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, the number of Afghans arriving at Europe’s borders shot up from about 9,500 in 2013 to more than 22,000 in 2014. As the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia told The Guardian in April, “What Australia has done is just displace the issue away from the shores of Australia, by promoting an attitude of deterrence and harsh responses. They have, almost without doubt, made the situation worse for people who have tried to find safety in Europe.”
Different destinations, similar story. Israel – also keen to extol its border control model – completed a fence along its border with Egypt in early 2013, and around the same time, draconian new detention provisions were put in place. As IRIN reported at the time, until then “about 1,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, were reaching Israel every month.” Soon after, that figure was almost zero. Meanwhile, border reinforcements in Saudi Arabia and growing hostility towards foreigners in South Africa have made refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa recoil from those destinations too. During this period, detections of Eritreans at the EU’s external borders shot up, from 2,604 in 2012 to 34,586 in 2014, while the number of Somalis arriving at Europe’s borders more than doubled between 2011 and 2014.
Under US pressure after a record number of unaccompanied Central American children reached the Mexico-US border, Mexico launched “Plan Frontera Sur” (the Southern Border Plan). The initiative has seen security beefed up along the border with Central America's Northern Triangle – including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – but it has also led to a crackdown on migrants and asylum-seekers heading north on buses and trains. As a result, in the first four months of the year, deportations of Central American migrants from Mexico rose 79 percent compared to the same period last year, while detention of minors almost doubled, according to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute (INM). The Southern Border Plan is broadly viewed by migrant rights activists as a step in the wrong direction. Claudio Montoya of the Human Rights Commission of the state of Coahuila argues that migrants are less willing to report abuses or go to the hospital with a medical emergency because of fear of being detained or deported, and are more likely to take dangerous routes to avoid detection. “The migrant problem still exists, but it has gone underground. And there is more violence against them.” according to Pedro Pantoja, a Catholic priest who runs a shelter for migrants.
In short, irregular migration routes are globalising, as most recently seen with the Rohingya boats pushed back and forth in south-east Asia’s seas. As the callous response to the Rohingya’s plight showed, routes have globalised in parallel with a punitive “border security” model that generates ever larger risks for border-crossers without reducing overall numbers. As this security model has been exported from its western heartland, it has simply empowered and fed the security forces, corrupt regimes, defence contractors and human smugglers variously involved in the trade, from Mexico to Turkey to Thailand. A “not in my backyard” approach has occasionally reaped short-term rewards for national governments, yet internationally, this one-eyed approach spells disaster. Instead of an evidence-based policy, we get political point-scoring. With more and more funds poured into migration controls in Europe and elsewhere, and record fatalities at borders, it is time for a rethink. Refugees and migrants have been making the headlines like never before. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, acknowledges that since the Refugee Convention was drafted, global migration patterns have become much more complex and refugees now often travel alongside millions of so-called economic migrants. In an age when neither refugees nor migrants are particularly welcome, the line between the two is increasingly blurred and the terms themselves have become politically loaded. Economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families,” whereas “refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.” The reality is much murkier. People often move for a number of reasons that may include fear of persecution as well as wanting to find better economic opportunities, and they may move more than once, like the Syrians who initially crossed into Turkey or Jordan but are now boarding boats to Greece. Most of the boats now crossing the Mediterranean contain both migrants and refugees, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as “mixed migration”. However, it often serves the interests of politicians to refer to everyone crossing the Mediterranean as illegal migrants who are generally viewed as much less deserving of our sympathy and support than refugees. Only in situations where there are mass movements of refugees – usually as a result of war – and no need or capacity to do individual refugee status determinations, do host governments sometimes make the decision to recognise all new arrivals from that country as “prima facie” refugees. Melissa Phillips, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, has pointed out that such distinctions matter because migrants are generally viewed as much less deserving of our sympathy and support than refugees. “It is time we stopped talking solely about migrants and start to use more technically accurate and relevant labels,” she writes.
Chris Horwood, coordinator of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat. “If an Eritrean gets refugee status in Sudan and then moves on (as most do) towards Europe, even though they may think of themselves as registered refugees, once they leave Sudan they are migrants/asylum-seekers again.” While failed asylum-seekers may still consider themselves refugees, the state that rejected them now considers them an irregular migrant who must either leave the country or be forced to leave.
The term “forced migrants” is sometimes used, mainly by academics, to acknowledge the many people who migrate unwillingly but don’t fall under the Refugee Convention’s technical definition of a refugee and are therefore not entitled to international protection. This would include people who have abandoned their homes and countries because of drought or some other natural disaster.
Loren Landau at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg observed “research in southern Africa suggests that people who claim asylum or become refugees are, for the most part, little different in experiences or needs than those who don't.” He added that to say this publicly had become increasingly difficult as it was viewed as giving ammunition to those who would like to place more limits on asylum.
Ruben Andersson, an anthropologist with the London School of Economics and author of “Illegality, Inc.” commented “Our terminology on human movement is in a real muddle.”
SOYMB describe economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees as fellow-workers and in the words of Eugene Debs:
“If Socialism, international, revolutionary Socialism, does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly, and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare. Let those desert us who will because we refuse to shut the international door in the faces of their own brethren; we will be none the weaker but all the stronger for their going, for they evidently have no clear conception of the international solidarity, are wholly lacking in the revolutionary spirit, and have no proper place in the Socialist movement while they entertain such aristocratic notions of their own assumed superiority.”