A Time of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants by Rene Wadlow, 2014-07-04

A Time of Departure: Forces that Create Refugees and Migrants by Rene Wadlow

    Current refugee-migrant flows (from Burma and Bangladesh toward Thailand and Malaysia and across the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East toward Europe) have highlighted the need to attack the root causes of such migration and refugee flows.  There is a need to move beyond the overly narrow definition of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees − “ a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion or nationality in his home country.”

ref01Migration and refugee flows are intrinsically of the same nature, only differing in the degree and intensity of the problems that drive them from their homes.  These root causes can be summed up as being poverty with little hope of change, social tensions − some created for political reasons − and environmental degradation.  These root causes created “the uprooted” with resulting alienation and suffering.  Some are uprooted and stay within their own country − now called “the internally displaced”.  When they cross State frontiers, they become migrants or refugees and thus a concern to neighboring States and the United Nations − in particular the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

    Ideally, there needs to be successful conflict resolution efforts in armed conflict zones such as Syria-Iraq and land reforms, greater emphasis on rural growth, improved access to credit for the poor, environmental protection and a pluralistic political order in Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh.  The same measures for ecologically-sound development and overcoming vulnerability should be taken in the African countries whose citizens join with those from the Middle East in trying to cross the Mediterranean.  Ideally also, there should be greater efforts and resources directed towards meeting the basic needs of people in their home countries.

    Yet conflict resolution takes time.  There are few signs of an end to the armed conflicts in Syria-Iraq or to the establishment of a stable and just political order in Libya.  Transition to a democratic and pluralistic government in Myanmar, granting dignity and respect to all the “national minorities” is likely to be a long process.  It is not clear that the military who have been in control since 1960 will be very helpful.  Ecologically-sound development is also slow even when governments are relatively competent.

    Faced with the problem of the arrival of refugees and migrants, neighboring countries have often hardened their responses and created growing restrictive measures. There has been a growing emphasis on the punishment of traffickers who profit from the migration flows and to an extent encourage it. In Europe, we have seen the growth of anti-migration proposals by political parties, usually parties in opposition but at times as part of governing coalition governments.  Nationalist discourses are reinvented and reasserted. We have seen the tightening of immigration controls and the deportation of “illegal entrants”. Australia and Israel have followed the same practices.

    The consequences of these methods lead many refugees and migrants to live extremely grim, inhumane and uncertain lives, unable to find regular work and the children unable to go to State-run schools.

    Fortunately, there has been a response from non-governmental organizations (NGO) to the challenge of the increased number of refugees and migrants.  Often it has been a spontaneous effort of good will by persons who have met a refugee or migrant.  But such efforts by NGOs need greater support and coordination.  Action groups need to be able to act at the same time in more than one country.  Transnational action by NGOs is needed, especially as governments within the European Union meet among themselves, often to adopt common restrictive policies.  The same is true of the Southasian States in ASEAN, some of whom have met these days in Thailand to discuss how to cope with the refugee flows.  Thus we face a double task: peace, reform, development in countries from which refugees and migrants leave and a coordinated policy of help, support, and integration in the countries receiving the refugees and migrants.  These are urgent tasks − vigorous and coordinated actions by NGOs are needed.

 

Writer, Rene Wadlow, President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.