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  • Above: Somali Refugees are seen in Malkadiida Refugee Camp, Ethiopia. 25 August 2017. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

    This post first appeared on the ICRC Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog, 9 October 2017

    ‘It is not the movement of persons that is the problem, it is the movement of persons without the protection of fundamental rights and norms.’ Thus concludes the recently published report on “Forced to flee: A multi-disciplinary conference on internal displacement, migration and refugee crises”, supported among others by the ICRC and held last November at SOAS, University of London. Throughout history people have migrated in search of a better life—for a wide variety of reasons. Today, however, the extent of migration is challenging the international order and is accompanied by largely negative perceptions about migrants. In a sense, this is nothing new. History shows us that people on the move have often been treated as an inconvenience rather than as being entitled to humanitarian assistance and protection. Yet, all people who leave their homes—for whatever reason—deserve our respect and our support. In this context, labels matter. The labels chosen by observers determine the future of these vulnerable people in a very real and heart-rending way—whether they are called ‘economic migrants’, ‘forced migrants’, ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) or ‘refugees’. In order to find truly sustainable solutions to the current crises of people on the move we must look beyond these labels. This blog considers the scope of the global crisis, the negative labels placed on migrants, the historical use of these categories, and how we could respond in a better way.

    The global reach of the crisis

    The conference took place against the background of Europe’s continuing inability to deal humanely and effectively with the twin crises of refugees fleeing the armed conflict in Syria and economic migrants escaping poverty and deprivation in Africa, but also—as the report points out—of a less visible but much bigger crisis in the developing world: ‘Today, 86% of refugees are in developing countries; the top six host countries in Africa have three times the number of refugees as the top six in Europe.’

    Quoting UNHCR data, the report states that: ‘In 2015, there were reportedly some 20 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide.’ However, it also points out that ‘In addition, there are many so-called “economic” migrants, who are also vulnerable to violence—including kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion and sexual violence—along the route to their destination, and many are detained or interned.’ Thus, Europe’s refugee crisis is in reality a relatively small part of a much greater global phenomenon of vulnerable people on the move—often at great personal risk. Speakers at the public event accompanying the conference emphasised that these people have not decided to leave their homes lightly; as the accompanying film produced by the British Red Cross put it, they have embarked on ‘journeys filled with resilience, determination, and uncertainty about the future’—and they are entitled to our respect and support rather than our indifference or hostility.

    Labels and negative connotations

    This brings us to the leitmotif of the conference: forced to flee. In a sense it is quite an unhelpful concept: who is to determine what constitutes being ‘forced’ when it comes to abandoning situations of conflict and violence, extreme poverty, or marginalisation? Contemporary discourse, at least in Europe and North America, distinguishes between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’. The implication is that while the former are forced to flee their homes, the latter do so of their own volition—and are therefore somehow less deserving of our sympathy. Although international law does reserve particular rights for refugees, and in that sense the distinction is valid, the terms ‘migrant’—and even more—‘immigrant’—have acquired decidedly negative connotations in contemporary western society. Thus, a phenomenon as old as the human race itself has been reconceptualised as a problem. But what seems to have happened also is that negative feelings about migration have been projected onto refugees, so that even those fleeing persecution no longer command our sympathy in a way they might once have done—and the force of international law is also diminished.

    Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the Mediterranean region, where economic migrants from Africa and refugees from Syria come together in a crazy and anarchic maelstrom of human misery. Both groups have undertaken hazardous journeys, often at the mercy of unscrupulous people traffickers—and yet neither is welcome in Europe. They are just contributors to ‘our’, i.e. Europe’s, problem, and Europe’s preferred solution is the questionable notion of ‘humanitarian border management’. This concept is, as contributors to the conference pointed out, fundamentally self-referential and contradictory—and is in fact an abuse of the word ‘humanitarian’: one can ‘manage’ people more or less ‘humanely’, but it certainly is not ‘humanitarian’ to take action that primarily serves the interests of the person taking it.

    Learning from history

    The conference’s starting point was that a deeper historical understanding of migration might enable contemporary society to deal with migration in a better way. Certainly, history reveals that the problems we face today are not new. But, sadly, it also reminds us of the enduring ability of States and other authorities to treat vulnerable people on the move as a threat to the established order and as a risk to be managed rather than as people at risk and in need of our protection. Refugees, IDPs, and other migrants have always been vulnerable to a realpolitik that puts their human rights second to the interests of the powerful.

    For example, as the conference report explains: ‘Decolonisation exposed the limitations of the Refugee Convention, since its way of separating refugees, IDPs and economic migrants bore little resemblance to what was happening on the ground.’ In reality, people in colonial and postcolonial societies were displaced from their communities for a wide variety of reasons that defied such neat categorisations. Yet, the way they were categorized and treated depended more on what was convenient for the authorities than on the human rights of those displaced.

    A similar conflation is evident in the treatment, in the 1980s, of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who took to small boats to escape the chaos in their country. The British government and the colonial authorities in Hong Kong quickly decided that those arriving there were economic migrants rather than refugees. These ‘economic’ migrants were kept behind barbed wire in detention centres—where some of them stayed for many years.

    During the Cold War, those fleeing communism and coming to the West were welcomed as refugees because their flight supported the narrative of ‘The Evil Empire’ with which the West was in conflict. After the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘forced migrants’ became ‘economic migrants’—a burden on the West. Even when the countries of East and Central Europe became part of the European Union—with guaranteed free movement of people—their citizens’ desire to pursue economic opportunities in Western Europe became a political hot potato in the latter. It seems that while we embrace the free movement of capital we do not feel the same way about the free movement of labour, i.e. economic migration.

    Today, would-be immigrants into the United States who have fled into Mexico from violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are still mostly treated as economic migrants regardless of the reasons that caused them to flee in the first place. One of the most heartbreaking stories at the conference was from a young woman from El Salvador whose husband had been murdered as a result of local political violence. Fearing for her own life she risked the journey to Mexico in an attempt to find safety in the United States. Her account of the dangers faced by a young woman travelling alone with her children as an illegal immigrant with no protection from various forms of exploitation encountered along the way was truly humbling—and shaming. (This and other cases are documented in a powerful report published by MSF in May 2017.)

    Responding to today’s migration crisis

    Thus, whether someone is deemed to be a ‘forced migrant’ or an ‘economic migrant’ is likely to depend on the point of view of the observer. Certainly, the labels will mean nothing to those on the move and yet the labels that are chosen will frame the nature of the debate about their future: the fate of ‘refugees’ is discussed in one way and that of ‘migrants’ in another. Only by turning this through 180° and seeing things from the perspective of vulnerable people themselves can we claim any moral high ground in the way we respond to their situations.

    It is not that international law is somehow absent from or unhelpful to this discussion. Admittedly, the Refugee Convention of 1951 contains a narrow definition of what it means to be a ‘refugee’. And this continues to cause problems for international agencies grappling with the issue of IDPs. The 1951 Convention provides protection for people who have crossed national borders but not for those who have been displaced in their own country. But, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977, not to mention the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, provide a clear framework for protection of vulnerable people whether they are on the move or not, and, depending on the convention, whether they are in situations of armed conflict or not. Greater respect for existing law would therefore be a good place to start. And let us not forget that the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) originated precisely from the need to articulate the responsibilities of sovereign governments towards IDPs in their own country: the notion of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’. The framework is there if we choose to use it.

    The bottom line is that people on the move have the same rights as everyone else, whatever it was that caused them to embark on their journey in the first place. Our inability to make this the starting point for how we engage with the challenge of protecting them is—or should be—a source of shame in a supposedly civilised international society.


    Sir Michael Aaronson was chief executive of Save the Children UK from 1995–2005, having previously been the charity’s international director. His earlier career was in the UK Diplomatic Service, although he first worked in the relief action in Nigeria during the Biafran conflict. Mike is a founder member and was Chair of the Board of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. An Honorary Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, he is also an Honorary Visiting Professor and Director of cii—the Centre for International Intervention—at the University of Surrey. He chairs the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Strategic Advisory Group for the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

    Follow on Twitter @MikeAaronson

    Related material

  • I’ve talked before about how negotiation theory might throw some light on the Article 50 process, but it seems useful to return to the subject, given the continuing difficulties that the sides are encountering: might the literature offer some insights?

    Today, it’s Zartman who springs to mind. He writes on the conflict management side of negotiation, which might appear to be a bit heavy-handed for this situation, but his analysis of the basic mechanics is one that I (and my students) offer find helpful in more mundane situations.

    Zartman argues that negotiation is about the resolution of structural differences between negotiating parties and his big thing is about reducing differences: the more you can close the gap between parties, the more likely you are to find space for a mutually-acceptable agreement.

    He suggests there are four ways that differences get reduced; two softer options, and two harder ones, with each pair being the opposite of each other.

    The soft pair is about making options look more or less attractive. You might suggest that taking a particular option will produce benefits, or that taking another will come with costs.

    The hard pair finds parties arguing that they either have to take an option, or it is impossible to take it, because their hands are tied in some way.

    The soft pair is ubiquitous in politics and in Brexit: everyone’s telling us how option X will lead to sunlight uplands or the end of civilisation as we know it, so I don’t care to revisit all of these.

    But what we’re seeing in recent weeks is more of the hard option, on both sides.

    For the EU, there has always been some element of this, from the insistence that Article 50 is the only legal framework for departure negotiations, to the Commission explaining that its mandate doesn’t let it talk about transition before sufficient progress has been made on Phase I issues.

    For the UK, the original hard position – Brexit has to mean leaving the EU – has faded over time, but now it creeps back into discussion.

    This was most vividly seen in this week’s mixed messages on a no-deal scenario. First, Philip Hammond told the Select Committee that there was no money yet for such a situation, before his boss popped up in PMQs to say that there was money already committed.

    What seems to have passed most media comment on the spat of the day by is that both of them were essentially working towards a position of making no-deal ever less of an option, through incapacity.

    Money is obviously important here, but more important is how that money is used. In a no-deal scenario, there will be an immediate requirement for substantial increases in border controls for customs, much regulatory uncertainty and a wealth of other impacts (see this for an overview).

    None of those gaps can be closed immediately: to take the most obvious example, if customs controls are needed, then land has to be secured, built upon, and staffed by people you’ve trained.

    As of the moment, none of the necessary procurement activity for this to happen has begun, and even on the most ambitious timetable that would take 18 months to do, which is about now.

    Thus while May might seem to be taking a more conciliatory line with her party’s hardliners, she actually looks to be providing cover to a push on working towards a deal, since if the UK is simply incapable of policing a non-deal, then that might encourage domestic opinion to accept the need for a deal.

    But this incident also raises another perspective that ties back to Zartman’s model, namely May’s seeming unwillingness to reduce alternatives at all.

    May remains a very elusive figure, refusing to tie herself down to any one option; or, more accurately, tying herself to many, simultaneously-inconsistent options.

    As has been widely discussed, her apparent lack of a desired end-state makes it almost impossible to reach any kind of agreement in Article 50: you can’t negotiate with someone who doesn’t know what they want.

    Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see May’s position as one where she’s running two sets of negotiation at the same time: one with the EU and one with her party.

    While Article 50 points to a need for a strategic objective from the UK, party management points to a need to keep options open (or at least fudged) so that she isn’t removed from office or defeated in the Commons.

    Seen in this light, May’s actions make more sense, as she tries to engineer faits accomplis in Article 50 while arguing for much more back home.

    Whether this is a viable long-term strategy is doubtful, especially as we move towards the European Council’s decision next week on ‘sufficient progress’, where rhetoric is going to become a big factor once more. Adding that to an already-deeply-suspicious Tory party and it’s not too hard to imagine someone pushing the leadership challenge button more firmly.

    And at that point you can expect a whole lot more examples of why contender X is good/bad or must/mustn’t lead the country at this critical juncture.

  • There’s nothing very useful to be to added to the general cacophony around Theresa May’s speech to her party conference yesterday: the jokes have all been made, the judgments handed in.

    But one aspect that’s been relatively overlooked is the impact on Brexit: as discussion continues to swirl about, could it improve things to have her out of office?

    The case in support of this looks pretty solid. Her authority, her policy and her communication are all severely lacking.

    Firstly, her position within the party is severely compromised, and has been since the general election this spring. The trashing of her reputation was as swift and brutal as any that has been seen in recent times. The Tories are an unsympathetic lot when it comes to power and May failed the most basic of tests.

    The speech appears to have done nothing more than convert some of the contempt into pity, which is not really an improvement, but instead another stage in the party’s rejection. It opens up the line of argument that she is tired and needs a break, ‘for her own good’: the attempt to get the party to buckle down on Brexit can now be met with a ‘there, there’.

    Secondly, May’s policy line on Brexit remains utterly unclear. To all intents and purposes, we are still at the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ phase: empty rhetoric and incomplete and contradictory positions. The speech contained nothing to change that, a strange omission even if one considers the Florence speech to have been the main place for this: the conference as a whole was full of Brexit-talk, but without the push from the leader that might have mattered.

    And this runs into the communication gap. This isn’t a matter of having a cough, but of having a communication strategy that reaches those it needs to reach, with appropriate messages.  To take the obvious example, the stronger response to Boris Johnson’s sniping would have been to re-appropriate the narrative on Brexit and Article 50 and demonstrate leadership on the matter, rather than skulking in the sidelines.

    So, case closed. Right?

    Not really. For as much as May is now damaged goods, there are good reasons to think that she remains the preferable person to be in Number 10.

    First and foremost is the time question. As I think I’ve mentioned before, time is very much of the essence now in Article 50: we are now only just over a year away from the time when a deal needs to be finalised with the EU. Having already lost two months to a general election, losing another one or two months to a leadership contest – plus maybe another two to a further general election – looks deeply irresponsible. While there are still some who would happily leave the EU on a ‘no-deal’ basis, they are ever fewer in number, so the desire – which has built up markedly in recent weeks – to get to an agreement points towards making done with the current personnel.

    Secondly, there is no one in the Conservative party who looks to have a more settled position on how to handle negotiations. There is a choice between the various shades of softening, and the various shades of hardening, but neither direction is built on a rigorous model and vision. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson might have been the darlings of the conference, but neither had any more to offer than platitudes on the greatness of Britain and how it would all work out in the end.

    Even if a new leader did take over, the Conservatives would still have no single-party majority in the Commons, plus a potentially more hostile Opposition, galvanized by the scent of blood in the water: any hardening would also make internal party rebellion more likely.

    Finally, and in contrast to the negative reasons for keeping May, there is also a positive in her premiership: the very ambiguity on policy that has hurt her so far. Article 50 is a negotiation and one in the which the UK was always going to have to make some compromises. While it might not have been the optimal way to go about it, May’s rhetoric has at least allowed for adaptions of position over time: consider sequencing, finances, transitions and all the other points she has given way on.

    The original May plan was to be bold, but vague, then win a huge majority against Labour, then negotiate whatever deal, and then say “that’s what Brexit meant, and there’s nothing you can do to gainsay it, since you gave me a huge mandate.”

    That plan now lies in the dirt, but May probably remains the best person to pursue something similar. Her very weakness means that she can now shoulder the blame as she compromises further.

    In short, May has been the author of her own, slow-burning disaster. But that doesn’t mean she is yet to meet her end.

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