This year, the media has been full of tragic images of people risking their lives in a desperate attempt to flee their troubled countries. This phenomenon is not new, by any means, but the number of people involved has increased dramatically over a short period.
The statistics – which change almost daily – are staggering. It is estimated that more than 130,000 refugees and migrants have entered the European Union this year and more than 3,000 are known to have perished during their perilous crossing in the Mediterranean from Libya. Around 7,200 landed on just one Greek island, Lesvos, during May 2015. The numbers are equally shocking in other known crossings, notably from Somalia to Yemen and in the Far East to Indonesia and Australia.
The phenomenon is truly overwhelming. Whenever we are overwhelmed, we tend to oversimplify our perception in order to minimise our discomfort.
Perhaps the most common form of oversimplification is polarisation – and this is what we are witnessing around us now in relation to these images and statistics. On one side, some strongly oppose the uncontrolled influx of foreigners, arguing that developed countries can ill afford to host hordes of people. On the other are those who base their argument on compassion, urging governments to offer people dignified assistance in their hour of need.
In fact, neither view hits the mark.
A basic right
Often, the media presents the plight of refugees and migrants by appealing to our sentiments, depicting them as traumatised people who need our sympathy. But, at least in the case of refugees, regardless of whether they are traumatised or not, the main point is that offering them asylum is their right and it should not depend on our compassionate generosity.
It’s important to recognise that refugees are entitled to protection. This is their right and their survival should not depend on the benevolence of others.
Their right is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was ratified by 145 countries. This states that a person outside his or her country who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” is entitled to be offered asylum by another country.
Migrants await their fate in Italy. EPA/Luca Zennaro
The problem is, of course, which country? Although a signatory country is obliged to offer asylum, there is no actual international instrument that forces a country to do so.
Often there is confusion between who is a migrant and who is a refugee. Although technically, refugees are people whose country fails to provide them with basic security, the difference is now becoming increasingly blurred when people flee from conditions that are, in effect, untenable due to a variety of different factors that are mainly economic. Invariably, economic and political factors are closely interconnected.
We should not forget that often “our” countries are directly or indirectly responsible for “their” countries becoming destabilised and non-viable places to live. Even when that is not the case, it is hardly their fault to have the misfortune of living in these countries.
We should also not forget that, although fleeing people are typically presented as miserable and desperate, they are often people with incredible resourcefulness and dynamism. If anything, the mere fact that they survive such ineffable hardships in their countries and make the journey out testifies to their resilience and potential. These are not people who are likely to burden us – on the contrary, these are people who, given the right conditions, can thrive and assist the countries that take them in.
One country or one organisation cannot solve this complex problem but, as individuals, we can help by avoiding simplistic polarisations.
Finally, there is an astonishing fatalism in our attitude towards the traffickers and smugglers who exploit the vulnerable people in search of a new home. The entire situation requires clear re-conceptualisation. It is unacceptable that only the traffickers perform the essential role that they do. Punishing them is not effective. New traffickers will appear because the demand is real. What we need is an internationally coordinated effort that performs the role the traffickers currently fulfil, rescuing people from untenable situations in a proper, legal and well coordinated way.
We have to grasp the complexities of this situation. Blaming others or passively hoping for the best are no longer an option.
Director of the Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees at University of Essex