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The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
–Usually attributed, but probably erroneously, to Joseph Stalin
In the comments on a number of posts concerning the global refugee crisis, some Ricochet members have asked me questions about the refugees’ demographics. A rumor has been circulating that they’re mostly men, and that most are not legally refugees, but migrants. Let me do my best to explain some of what I know.
Begin with legal definitions. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was mostly drawn up by US diplomats; the drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The United States voted for it in the General Assembly. The Declaration isn’t a treaty, but it’s considered a customary part of international law. From Article 14(1) of the declaration: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
The most important documents devolving from it are the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The US ratified the 1967 Protocol in 1968. The Refugee Act of 1980 is modeled on the 1951 Convention and in places uses identical language. The key passage is Article 1A(2):
… the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who: … owing to a 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 …
Most states that are party to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol — including the US and all of the EU member states — have incorporated the Convention’s definition of a refugee into their domestic law. People who have been compelled to leave their country of origin as a result of international or national armed conflicts aren’t normally considered refugees under the 1951 Convention or 1967 Protocol, but they’re provided similar protection through other instruments such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions and its associated protocols on the Protection of War Victims and Victims of International Armed Conflicts.
So the definition of a “refugee” is fairly settled and clear. It hinges on “well-founded fear of persecution.” And it is the law in the signatory countries, until it’s legally and constitutionally repealed.
The states in question apply the laws. Typically, the determination is made by an official from a designated government department or agency; the process usually involves interviewing the person who’s seeking asylum to evaluate his evidence and credibility. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker. He has to prove that he meets the definition of a refugee, and if he doesn’t, too bad. Since refugees often flee with, literally, nothing but the clothes on their backs, my guess would be that more legitimate refugees are turned away than phony refugees admitted, although I do not know this for sure.
Economic immigrants, or migrants, on the other hand, are people who are seeking better jobs and economic security. I’m a migrant. The key distinction is that they can return to their native country, without fear of persecution, whenever they want. Individual states deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes, which, obviously, vary considerably. But countries that have signed the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol have committed to dealing with refugees through particular norms of refugee protection and asylum; they have already undertaken specific responsibilities to anyone seeking asylum on their territories or at their borders.
So a great deal of the debate you might be hearing about whether Europe should admit these refugees is nonsense and lip-flapping. It’s not a matter of debate. Countries that have signed these documents but refuse to accept asylum-seekers who meet the established definition of a refugee are breaking their own laws.
Here’s the latest update from the UNHCR on Syrian refugees. It dates from September 6. Now, the UN does have a tendency to exaggerate numbers in emergencies, as we saw during the Ebola epidemic. But even assuming, and this is highly unlikely, that they’ve outright trebled the numbers, we’d still be looking at a massive crisis. In fact, given that these numbers refer to registered refugees, it seems more likely to me that this is an undercount of the number of people who would be eligible for refugee status were they all registered:
The ratio of men to women is almost the same in every age bracket, and more than half are children.
The way the UNHCR determines refugee status parallels the way asylum adjudications are conducted by states party to the Convention or Protocol. Asylum-seekers register with the local UNHCR office; then they’re interviewed by a UN Eligibility Officer who examines their application and supporting documentation.
It’s entirely possible that some or even many are not genuinely eligible, and may well be found ineligible by the states where they eventually seek refuge. They will then be sent back. Naturally, when you’re processing applications in such huge numbers, the interview and intake process will not be as thorough as they would be if you were dealing with a smaller pool of people.
Here’s the 2011 Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, if you’re curious about the way the UN assesses this. But definitely, when they say “refugee,” they mean “refugee,” not “economic migrant.” You can see from the questions they use that the distinction is precisely the one they’re seeking to establish.
That the UN has declared someone a refugee doesn’t mean every individual state must agree. Every state retains its sovereign right to conduct its own inquiry and assess the petitioners’ claims — and does. But the idea that many of those considered eligible by the UN — or even a substantial minority of them — wouldn’t be eligible in the signatory states seems extremely far-fetched, for the simple reason that the number of Syrians seeking asylum is correlated to the known and rising scale of the disaster in Syria — and likewise with other refugee populations.
Fighting has intensified in almost all Syrian governorates. There’s been a rise in rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus; a rise in vehicle explosions in Lattakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hassakeh, and Qamishli; heavy bombardment in Zabadani and rural Damascus — of course such things turn people into real refugees, not just people seeking better jobs.
Now, is it true that having reached Turkey, the refugees are safe and should thus stay put? Yes for some, no for others. Turkey’s refugee camps have been widely lauded as the best in the world. But the refugees lack legal status, which increases their vulnerability to a range of abuses. Forced and early marriages have reportedly risen compared to the pre-crisis period, for example. Domestic violence and violence against children are high in the three countries (Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq) that accept the most refugees per capita; these risks are increased by crowded living conditions. There is a great deal of prejudice against the refugees, too, as you might expect.
Even those dismissed as mere “economic migrants” are hardly taking these nightmarish risks to flee toward Germany because they reckon they’ll be given a Ducati or a ticket to EuroDisney on arrival. Acute malnutrition among refugee children — five-years-old or younger — is a growing concern across the region, given the collapse of Syria’s health service. Large numbers of children have been out of school during their time in exile; capacity in local schools is overstretched; many families rely on their children to support their households. Thus much discussion of a so-called lost generation of Syrians, who, even if they can ever safely return to Syria (unlikely in our lifetime), will return illiterate, possibly brain-damaged from trauma and malnutrition, and utterly unable to participate in the rebuilding of the country. Unsurprisingly, parents want to get their kids to countries where they might have a shot, at least, at having access to food and medical care, and where they might be able, at least, to learn to read and write.
Today’s legal protections for refugees were drawn up in response to the Holocaust, “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” In other words they were designed, God help us, with exactly the situation we now confront in mind.
Yesterday, according to the usually-reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 161 Syrians were killed. Among them were eight civilians, including a child and an old woman.
Here’s the news from today, from the same source:
Mortar shell fell on near the Damascus Citadel, which caused injuries, also two citizens died today and others were wounded by a mortar shell landed at al-Amara area in the King Faisal Street at the center of the capital, while clashes continue between the regime forces and members of the popular committee – General Command against the Islamic Factions in the northeastern areas of al-Yarmouk camp, and information about casualties among both parties, amid shelling by the regime forces on areas in the camp.
The regime forces opened fire of heavy machine guns on the areas in the town od Om Batneh in the mid-sector countryside of Al-Quneitra, while the regime forces renewed the targeting using heavy machine guns on places in the villages of al-Ajraf and Western al-Samadaniyya in the countryside of Quneitra, no information about casualties.
The regime forces targeted using heavy machine guns areas in the city of Talbiseh in the northern countryside of Homs, no information about casualties, the countryside is witnessing ongoing shelling and airstrikes carried out by the regime air force where a lot of people were killed and wounded.
If you have the time, listen to this radio interview with a Syrian mother of three in Budapest. It reminds me of my grandmother’s story. She too crossed every border in Europe, while pregnant with my father, trying to find safety. My grandmother didn’t want to go to Germany, of course — even though she too had relatives there. She wanted to go to America. She made it. Her relatives in Germany perished in Auschwitz.
Here we are, still alive. I cannot say I that I intuitively understand why some people feel contempt for these refugees because they’re fleeing a nightmare of savagery beyond all imagination and trying to get their kids to a country where they might have a future.