Focus on refugees – Reaching Europe: worth dying for?

28 August 2015 | ResolutionPossible

2015-06-16 Metro Syria migrants

2015-06-16 Metro Syria refugees










ABOVE: The media’s use of ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ as if they are interchangeable terms is damaging the general public’s understanding of who these people fleeing for their lives are. When are Syrians ‘immigrants’ and when are they ‘refugees’? The media does not have the right to decide.


The media has been full of reports on immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees recently. Only earlier today word reached us that the death toll in a truck going through Austria has risen to 70 people and a ship full of people sank off the shore of Libya.

The three terms ‘immigrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’, each meaning very different things, are casually used interchangeably and focus is often on strengthening security efforts rather than for example the background of the people who seem to be appearing on our proverbial doorsteps. There has been unprecedented mass displacement in different parts of the world, giving way to stories of people dying on boats while being forced to flee from the growing number of armed conflicts and other dire conditions. We are reminded of the destitute conditions which so many people face each day forcing them to leave their homes. It can only be hoped that there will now be a strengthened resolve to address displacement by ending poverty, inequality, conflicts, persecution and other factors which drive people away from their homes to the uncertainty of foreign shores.

For this, it is critical to understand the root causes before admonishing the displaced. Each one of them has a grave story which has led them to take such a desperate measure.

We will be running a series of posts highlighting the plight of refugees and other displaced people the world over so as to better understand the circumstances and the conditions which are behind the veil of the crisis. Also, we believe that it is important to keep the spotlight on this catastrophic issue which will continue till peace and security is achieved internationally.

Reaching Europe: worth dying for?

Deaths on boats in the Mediterranean Sea have recently been a feature of the headlines which has shocked many across the globe. Crammed into small boats, with no provisions to survive, the huge number of deaths seems to be an inevitable consequence. People make the perilous journey to Europe by paying human smugglers who, at exorbitant costs, leave them, including women and children, on unmanned small ships and fishing boats sailing towards European shores. Thousands have perished at sea.

Why are they making the dangerous journey?

The conditions on these boats are unimaginable due to the overcrowding and lack of any supplies or provisions which have led to deaths from starvation, thirst, suffocation, and more. Many who were fortunate to survive instead drowned with the sinking boats since in almost all cases the boats were left to their fates by the human smugglers in the open waters, where they would be at sea for days. Unless a rescue is effected, in most cases such endeavours end in horrific disasters as has been witnessed recently on numerous occasions.

It is to be noted that these persons are from countries which are either witnessing prolonged armed conflicts or are being governed by repressive and ineffective governments leading to widespread human rights violations. In their eyes, Europe is their hope of survival in most instances, whether from armed attacks, persecution or from destitute poverty. Thus, people from all age groups, classes and professions attempt this journey, since back home there is little hope for surviving.

What has been the response of European countries?

asylum seeker; refugee; Migration; EU; Human Rights Watch

Migration Journeys to the European Union – Map: Human Rights Watch.

Amidst the growing influx of boat refugees, the response of European governments have yet to reach an organised framework with which to deal with the situation. Whereas Italy requested assistance from the European Union in dealing with the cost of rescue operations at sea and of settling the potential refugees, certain countries, including UK, resisted any kind of assistance leading to a stand-off which ultimately led to the rise in the number of deaths. Repeated warnings from international organisations, such as UNHCR, were being ignored while European countries failed to come together on the table to discuss the issue.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was originally meant to address the issue of displacement due to events occurring in Europe especially in the aftermath of World War II. It was envisaged to be a temporary mechanism since displacement of that kind was never expected again. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s original mandate of 1950 was only for a period of three years. It was subsequently extended indefinitely when it became clear that the issue of displacement was not a one-off World War consequence. Subsequently the geographical limitation of addressing only refugees from Europe was also removed. However, under the cloak of legal terminologies (such as whether refugees or migrants!), the 1951 Refugee Convention still does little to present a compelling case of accepting persons who are looking for refuge. Potential receiving countries, including European countries, have been accused of narrowly interpreting its provisions to deny asylum seekers of their rights. It has also been pointed out that this may be against the obligation under the principle of non-refoulement which has a binding status in international law, basically stating that persons who are faced with threat to their lives back home may not be sent back.

What should be the way forward?

The plight of persons making the journeys across the Mediterranean is enough reason to acknowledge the conditions which they face back home. People are willing to risk their families’ lives, in addition to their own, under immense compulsion due to tumultuous conditions prevailing in their home countries. European countries themselves have been criticised for not doing enough to address human rights violations and armed conflicts internationally, which ultimately are driving huge numbers of people to flee.

In the absence of long-term durable stability in other countries from which persons are fleeing, we now have a choice: do we let events develop the way they currently are, or do we start to welcome those fleeing for their lives? Simple efforts on our part would go a long way in making them feel a sense of comfort after fleeing horrendous conditions. Such endeavours are being taken by people from all walks of lives in Europe which is heartening. Initiatives like ‘Refugee Welcome‘ in Germany and positive measures by the Unity Centre in Glasgow are bright examples of what we can do to alleviate their problems in simple ways. We can start by simply knowing more about the hardships which they have faced already.

Writing and research –  Anubhav Tiwari

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