"Refugees are ordinary people to whom something extraordinary has happened"

(Dr Edie Friedman, founder of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality). The 

distinction between those fleeing persecution and those fleeing extreme poverty

is often not that clear.



Politicians around the world often focus upon the economic migrant for

condemnation on the basis that such migrants unjustly take away resources

from the “local” population. This is a very debateable proposition. But through

ignorance the general condemnation of economic migrants spills over to those

asylum-seekers who have been subject to torture, life-threatening experiences

and worse.

Refugees have for centuries been the subject of prejudice and active discrimination.

United Nations

At the end of World War II it has been estimated that there were some 2 million

refugees caused by the conflict. The United Nations wanted States to commit to treat

refugees as equal in status to their own citizens. This initiative led to the creation of

the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees.

In summary the Convention provides for basic rights for those seeking to escape

persecution and danger. Even in some States which regard themselves as enlightened,

as far as refugees are concerned, there can be found significant instances of breaches

of the Convention.

But many countries have supplemental and over-riding legislation, usually increasing the

difficulty in claiming rights of asylum.

The Convention was widened in 1967 by the adding of a Protocol relating to the status of

refugees which altered its scope to include any people anywhere in the world. The

Convention and Protocol has over 130 nation signatories.

Subsequently the Organisation of African Unity created another Convention covering the

specific problems of refugees in Africa.


On a European front the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights establishes protection,

accommodation and social care to be provided to asylum seekers throughout the asylum

claim procedure. Once refugee status is granted then the same basic help provided to

legal residents should become an entitlement.

In practice, the major difficulty is the asylum-seeker’s ability to cross an EU border and

claim asylum. This has led to people trafficking and large numbers of “illegal immigrants”.

Governments stigmatise such people and call for other citizens to inform upon them so

that they may be deported. This pre-supposes that ordinary citizens are able to

distinguish between a legal and illegal migrant.

This approach can lead to further discrimination.

The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is another EU initiative attempting to

harmonise the rules relating to asylum-seekers across the EU. It was acknowledged by

the EU through the CEAS that in a situation where there are no internal borders

countriesshould share the same fundamental values when dealing with those seeking


A number of EU asylum initiatives have taken place over the years, the primary ones being:

- Directive on reception conditions for asylum-seekers

- Directive on qualifications for becoming a refugee

- Directive on asylum procedures

- The Dublin Regulation which determines which State is responsible for examining an

   asylum application

States agreed that more needed to be done for a high degree of protection for refugees

balanced against protection from abuse. In 2013 a CEAS was created.

At a time of a financial crisis and high unemployment it will be interesting to see what

priority member States of the EU give to this measure and to what extent “national

interests” will supplant “humanitarian” considerations.