By Keith Best

The word “refugee” engenders more passion and ignorant comment than almost any other description. Most people do not know or understand the definition of refugee in the 1951 Convention (and its 1967 Protocol which extended it beyond the borders of Europe). 

The derogatory term “economic migrant” is applied indiscriminately to many who may be both such and refugees within the strict definition – the Marsh Arabs whose economic livelihood were destroyed by Saddam Hussein by draining the marshes were, arguably, fleeing from both genocide and economic privation. Certainly, there are those who claim to be refugees who are seeking a better life in a country other than their own which provides job and personal security as well as an environment which has a fair system of justice and freedom. 

This, coupled with the widespread use of English as a second language, should surprise no-one as to why Anglophone countries are a preference – where preference can be expressed. Sadly, both genuine and pretended refugees who, increasingly, put themselves into the hands of traffickers sometimes have no knowledge or choice as to where they will end up. There was recently the sad story of a French truck driver who took money from a couple who wanted to be smuggled to the UK, put them into the back of his sealed truck, drove around the local area for a while and then deposited them telling them they had reached England! We should not forget that many refugees from Nazi Germany who got on a boat heading for the USA disembarked when the ship stopped in Cardiff thinking that they had arrived in America!

According to UNHCR there are now more refugees than ever before. That is unsurprising bearing in mind the number of conflicts in the world and the comparative ease and cost of travel as well as the knowledge about other countries through the internet and widespread communication. We can now know more about what is happening the far side of the world than in our neighbour’s house! The number of refugees in the world is estimated to be around 26 to 27 million; the number has been increasing in recent years due to conflicts, persecution and human rights violations of which readers will be only too well aware. Half of the world’s refugees are childrenand most of them are being hosted in developing countries that face challenges in providing adequate protection and assistance: most of the women and children are fortunate to cross one international border let alone travel vast distances facing exploitation, rape, robbery and other problems. That is why a disproportionate burden on hosting refugees is faced by countries close to conflict – such as Jordan (and I have seen the camps out in the desert) with over 3 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees among its own population of 10 million. 

So, who is a refugee? In the definition in the Convention it is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Every asylum seeker is to be treated as a refugee until such time as a proper examination of the claim either confirms that status or finds that the claim is unfounded. If the latter, then the host country can remove the individual to their country of origin or to another “safe” country. Moreover, the rule of non-refoulement means that a host country cannot return an individual to any country in which they might face persecution. In addition, no asylum seeker can be refouled or otherwise penalised for entering the country by whatever means (Article 31 of the Convention: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”) even if in contravention of that country’s entry requirements. So, under the Convention, there can be no “illegal” asylum seekers if they come in small boats or clandestinely across borders or on a visa for another purpose, fraudulently meaning to claim asylum.

Yet, you will observe, many countries act in contravention of these requirements even though they may be signatories to the Convention. There are two immediate problems. First, there is no international court/tribunal which can require compliance with the Convention so that the only constraint on a country to act in accordance with it is the court of public opinion (which, sadly, is seldom overwhelmingly in favour of refugees) or other international instruments which may bind the country to compliance with its own provisions – the most obvious example being in Europe the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of the Council of Europe which does have a court in Strasbourg which can adjudicate on alleged breaches. The second problem (for governments) is one of identification of those who fail to establish their status as refugees. Many will have fled without papers and others may have destroyed them: no country can be expected to receive back those who are only claimed to be their nationals without proof that they actually are (such as a passport or other means of validating nationality). 

The UK lost another mechanism for returning asylum seekers through Brexit as the European Union has a process (Dublin III) whereby not only are all EU countries designated as “safe” (ie not persecuting those on its territory) but also that if anyone claiming asylum in one EU country could have claimed asylum in another EU country then they can be returned to that country for processing. With many asylum seekers coming to Britain having travelled through France (a safe third country) it enabled the UK to return them to France (so long as it could be established that they had come from France and had the opportunity to claim asylum there. It was a clunky and bureaucratic process with some possible returns being hotly contested and not many were actually returned. Having left the EU, however, all that the UK can now do to return asylum seekers who have failed to show that they are refugees is to have a web of return agreements with individual countries (such as it has with Albania).

At the European level the answer to the so-called refugee crisis has been a manifest political failure. The fact that national nimbyism (“not in my back yard”) has prevented a successful pan-European policy from operating is a disgrace. The idea that a community of 500m people could not accommodate less than 1m refugees will seem incomprehensible to many.

What is the solution to the global refugee problem. The answer is obvious – prevent the persecution in the first place. This requires a constant vigilance and exposure when a state actor starts to persecute minorities and requiring them to desist so as not to oblige the persecuted from fleeing from their homeland. I know that is easier written than done but it is an aspiration to which all states should subscribe and bring due pressure for compliance. Secondly, where persecution leads to mass displacement there must be a fair system for burden sharing, especially among those comparatively rich countries which have the capacity to absorb them or for them to provide aid (currently done in limited fashion by some) to those countries which, because of their propinquity with where the persecution arises, bear the brunt of hosting large numbers. A mechanism for this could be by an internationally agreed quota system. Many years ago I was actively involved with the Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong who came to the UK as part of a Geneva settlement in which various countries chose and took a certain number. That could be done again through an established process whereby whenever a mass refugee situation occurred the various states could come together quickly to agree a distribution. 

Many countries have a bad historic record of expelling or persecuting minorities and it has generally been to their disadvantage. Many of their key industries were created by those immigrants. What is certain is that we cannot leave this elephant in the room for any longer. Migration generally and, I fear, refugee movement is here to stay. The ignorance about and antipathy towards refugees must end and we need an effective information system to overcome prejudice. In an international community still dominated by national states we need a greater understanding of migration and that investment in poorer countries not only limits such migration but also stimulates potential markets for these countries making that investment. That needs to be overseen by the global community as a whole meeting in whatever for are most appropriate. For world federalists this means greater global governance.

There are few countries who have not benefited from refugees who have chosen to make their home there: every country can rattle off a list of famous names of refugees who have enhanced the culture, economy and development of their host nations. It is time for a new awakening.