"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.
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 countries should share the same fundamental values when dealing with those seeking asylum.
A number of EU asylum initiatives have taken place over the years, the primary ones being:
- 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 continuing time of financial instability and high unemployment it will be interesting to see the priority member States of the EU give to this measure and to what extent “national interests” will supplant “humanitarian” considerations.