We often fixate on whether people seeking asylum have genuine reasons for coming: Are they “real” refugees or are they just economic migrants? But the question is increasingly irrelevant.
After a short hiatus I'm back to the blog! Now writing from Melbourne - where I'm settling back in after an incredible trip learning about refugee policies in six countries (Brazil, USA, Canada, Italy, Germany and Switzerland).
One thing that struck me on the road is that every country has a slightly different way of defining who is entitled to protection, and every country draws some sort of a line between "refugees" and people who are seen as "economic migrants".
In Australia this distinction is drawn all the time - and often in politically charged ways to discredit and demonise people seeking asylum.
Aside from the obvious political opportunism of tarnishing refugees with the economic brush, I really don't understand why we obsess so much over the reasons people flee and what category we can fit them into.
Who is a refugee?
The Refugee Convention definition of a "refugee" is incredibly legalistic and was crafted in the wake of World War II. As a result it focusses on protecting individuals from persecution only on the grounds of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
Each person claiming convention refugee status needs to go through a highly complex individualised assessment - delving into their deepest and darkest fears and traumas - and seeing whether their story can be shaped in a manner that fits the definition.
So consider a mother who flees Yemen because after relentless bombing in her neighbourhood she's rightly terrified her son will be killed in a senseless act of violence. Is she a refugee? Well no, not necessarily according to the Refugee Convention. When she applies for protection she'll have to spin a much more elaborate story than the obviously compelling truth. She may have to say it's because she and her son are members of a minority ethnic group, or because of her political activities she's being directly targeted.
Fortunately some countries such as Brazil adopt a wider refugee definition than the 1951 convention, which includes people who are fleeing "severe and generalised violation of human rights". But Brazil is the exception not the norm.
And what about people who flee because the economic or environmental conditions in their home country make it just as deadly as a civil war? This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled across the border into Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere in the past year.
I met Mariana in May in a welcome centre run by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, inside the Federal University of Roraima. It’s a great one-stop-shop for refugees to access information and register for services in Brazil. She was sitting with a friend she had made on the journey from Venezuela to Brazil.
She was 8 and a half months pregnant at the time. Her hand didn’t leave her belly the entire time we spoke.
Like many other pregnant women in Venezuela, Mariana fled to Brazil in search of medical care. The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has left the hospital cupboards bare - no medicines, no anaesthetics, few doctors and nurses left to tend to patients.
It’s a frightening prospect for a mum to be - given the potential complications of pregnancy and labour.
She was also underweight. Venezuelans are going hungry as the cost of food skyrockets with hyperinflation. One economist estimated the inflation rate to be 18,000% in April this year.
After a three-day bus to the border she managed to make her way to Boa Vista in northern Brazil with her husband. She was hoping her husband would be able to get a job so they could rent a place for the baby’s arrival. So their second priority after medical care was to get him registered for work.
Even under Brazilian law Mariana is not a "refugee" by definition. But fortunately Brazil adopts a pragmatic approach and gives two-year residency status to Venezuelans in Mariana's situation, which includes access to all healthcare, education and work rights.
When we met she had been sleeping on a mattress in a church with around 400 other people. The Church gives them dinner, and a roof over their heads. But you can imagine how crowded it is. She was totally unprepared for what she’d find in Brazil. But she had no doubt she’d made the right choice coming.
“At least they have food and medicine here”, she said.
Forced vs. voluntary migration
Refugees are generally thought to be forced to flee and unable to return. Whereas economic migrants are seen as voluntarily choosing to leave their home country.
But this is a false distinction. Mariana, for example, faces just as perilous a fate if forcibly returned home to Venezuela as would a person who meets the classic refugee definition.
Don’t get me wrong - the situation in Venezuela is a human rights crisis and many people are fleeing persecution. But the vast majority of Venezuelans are not fleeing because they’re being specifically targeted - they’re fleeing because if they don’t, they’ll starve or die without medical treatment.
I recently finished the book Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, who convincingly argues for more open border policies in order to combat global poverty and inequality. He makes the point that we bizarrely exclude people fleeing the injustices of poverty from being able to seek asylum. He says:
Take a Somalian toddler. She has a 20% probability of dying before reaching the age of five. Now compare: American frontline soldiers had a mortality rate of 6.7% in the Civil War, 1.8% in World War II, and 0.5% in the Vietnam War. Yet we won’t hesitate to send that Somalian toddler back if it turns out her mother isn’t a “real” refugee.
We're asking the wrong questions
We need to stop fixating on whether people seeking asylum are "real" refugees or economic migrants. People flee their homes for a range of complex reasons. Increasingly those reasons are linked to environmental and economic concerns.
People are fleeing the poorest countries because extreme inequality is conspiring to make their homelands unliveable, at a time when wealthy countries like Australia have never been more prosperous.
People are fleeing countries gripped by criminal violence, because the illicit trade in weapons, drugs and trafficked people (markets fuelled by buyers in wealthy countries) has eroded the rule of law in their homelands.
And people are increasingly fleeing their homes as the effects of climate change make certain parts of the world increasingly inhospitable as a result of drought, extreme weather events and resource depletion (take a look at Oxfam's 2017 report Uprooted by Climate Change). And of course the people in countries that contributed least to the problem are the ones that are most likely to have to move as a consequence of dangerous climate change.
As human beings we move away from danger and despair and towards hope and opportunity. We should embrace the magic of migration as one of many solutions to the world's problems - not try to shut it down.
Instead of trying to figure out what box to put people into, and whether the box makes people deserving or not - I think we should ask ourselves an entirely different set of questions.
We should ask how can migration help solve the problems we face in our world today - whether they be security, inequality, criminal violence of environmental calamity?
And how can we make it far easier for people to search for a better life when they are compelled to move from their homelands for reasons beyond their control?
* Not her real name - for privacy reasons