Getting migration policy right after onset of ’asylum fatigue’
by John Dardis SJ
There are over 45 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide and 80 per cent of these are women and children. In Africa and Asia they live in camps while here in Europe they are frequently detained in detention centres.
Human rights organisations worldwide are expressing concern about the increasingly restrictive asylum policy of different countries and the gradual erosion of rights for asylum seekers and refugees.
There are many reasons for these developments. One is what we could call “asylum fatigue”. Three decades ago, we were sympathetic to the Boat People of south-east Asia and just 10 years ago to refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and to one or two other groups of asylum seekers in between.
But now it takes a highly visible catastrophe to move our hearts and to convince us that, yes, these are real refugees. We are slow to believe in the more subtle forms of persecution that are taking place daily around the globe and from which people flee. Another reason for our lack of concern is what is commonly called the “asylum-migration nexus”.
This means that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish migrant from refugee, that migrants and refugees arrive in mixed flows and that the grey area between refugee and migrant is hard at both a theoretical and practical level.
On the migration side, numbers are more difficult to pin down. Besides the number of legal migrants, there are also those who arrive irregularly, that is, with no permission to stay or work. Numbers of these are, inevitably, hard to quantify. We do know, however, that over 700 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in a recent 18-month period. Were they migrants? Or refugees? One thing we do know is that they were so desperate that they risked life and limb to get to Europe.
The human suffering and desperation underlying all this is enormous and it points to the major injustice that must be addressed. The fundamental point is that at a basic level our world system – be it economic, social or political – is not working anymore. Africa is poor and unsafe for many. Europe is rich and people are voting with their feet, coming north in search of safety, jobs, money, housing and food. That is a reality, which no amount of visa restrictions can fully stop.
As Europeans, and as Irish people with a tradition of hospitality, we need to reflect whether we want a “fortress Europe”, ever more determined to keep people out, while migrants, in their turn, will be ever more determined to arrive.
Here in Ireland we can play our part in the search for a global solution to the problem. We need to deal with a number of issues urgently.
We need better human rights protection for those who flee persecution and are genuine asylum seekers. These are among the most vulnerable and must be protected under international law. We should not water down these rights out of a mistaken view that we are thereby solving the wider question of migration numbers. Nor should we narrow the definition of asylum seeker. The UNHCR definition of refugee is restricted to people who flee their country and cross the border for five very specific reasons. Catholic Church documents add to these reasons and thereby broaden the definition of refugee. The church speaks of people who are fleeing because of economic injustice and because their lives are threatened by such injustice: it calls these de-facto refugees. While wider society pretends that it can restrict the number of refugees coming, and interpret the Geneva Convention in a narrow way, the church is inviting us to a wider interpretation of refugee, which I believe is more sustainable and more just.
We need migrants in our economy and we need a better migration policy. The issue of green cards is vital. Work visas should be held by migrant workers, not by their employers.
We need better integration of migrants. Much money is spent on the restriction of migrants crossing our borders but little on the integration of those migrants who do arrive.
This is building up a problem for the future. Do we want to see riots here in 10 or 15 years, like those of November 2005 in the French suburbs? Asylum seekers need to be given the right to work in certain defined circumstances. They themselves are frustrated waiting for their claims to be processed. They are given food and shelter but are not allowed the dignity of work. Public opinion unfairly turns against them because they are seen as “spongers”; the reality is that asylum seekers want dignity and want the right to work. This need not create an automatic pull factor, inducing other asylum seekers to come to our shores.
We need public education about the asylum system so that people really understand it and can appreciate the need to give refugee status to those most at risk. Public education is vital.
We need political leadership, leaders who stand for values, who stand up for the rights of those who are being tortured and threatened with murder and against those who would deny these rights. We need leaders with the courage to say this is a right that will be inalienable in Ireland and will not be compromised under any circumstances. Too often, politicians wait to see which way the wind is blowing and asylum becomes a political football. We in Ireland must stand up and demand of our political leaders that they reach out to the vulnerable, make a stand for them and protect the right to asylum in our country.
We need responsible reporting. The media have generally played a positive role highlighting situations such as Rwanda, Burundi and other conflicts and encouraging us to reach out and to make room for refugees and asylum seekers. However, occasionally media headlines have regrettably been negative, speaking, for example, of “waves” of asylum seekers.
Ireland is facing a challenging and rich future and migrants are making a valuable contribution to the Irish economy. But we cannot take for granted that this transition from a relatively monocultural society to a multicultural one will be painless.
I am not calling for unrestricted entry of all-comers. That would be foolish and unsustainable. I am calling for a clearly thought-out policy which addresses the issue at a variety of levels as indicated above. The Government is beginning to take this kind of approach. It is the only viable one for the long term.
Fr John Dardis SJ is provincial of the Irish Jesuits and former European director of the Jesuit Refugee Service.