'The refugee crisis is a test of our humanity', says Barack Obama. Are we failing it?

Barack Obama has called the response to the global refugee crisis ‘a test of our humanity’ and invited, with a compassionate and compelling speech, world leaders to do more to assist those fleeing war and persecution. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, instead went to the New York summit with a different call – to stop uncontrolled migration with three key proposals:

  • To help refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach
  • To make a better distinction between refugees and economic migrants
  • To bolster the right of all countries to control their borders

It is worth considering each of these proposals in turn to assess what impact they may have on the current crisis.

Supporting initiatives to help refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach: This is hardly new policy. On the contrary, one could argue that this has been the status quo for more than a decade and a policy that wealthy western states have actively supported with generous donations to UN agencies. It has led to the creation of more and more refugee camps, some as large as cities, and an economy of dependence among refugees that has led some observers to talk of refugee warehousing.  As Obama reminded world leaders in his speech, the large majority of refugees live in developing and middle income countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Kenya. Syrians in Lebanon, Afghans in Pakistan and Somalis in Kenya all arrived crossing just one border. Unless there was major civil unrest in France, this policy would, in reality, save the UK from receiving any asylum seekers at all.

A better distinction between refugees and economic migrants: This is easier to say than to implement. Research carried out by the University of Birmingham, with colleagues at the Universities of Coventry and Oxford (MEDMIG), shows that 88 percent of those arriving in Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route in 2015 fled their homes because of persecution, violence, death threats or human rights abuse. Despite general assumptions concerning arrivals in Italy from Libya, only 38 percent of those interviewed in Italy cited economic factors as the primary reason for leaving their home country and even then many interviewees explained that their ability to earn money and provide for their families had been curtailed due to conflict, violence and political persecution.

Stronger control of borders: Finally, May’s call for stronger border control to stop uncontrolled migration is disingenuous to say the least. Firstly, because Europe has been building fences and walls for the last 15 years – for example in Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and Calais in France. Secondly, because she forgets that all of the Syrians who entered Europe and have now been recognised as deserving international protection as genuine refugees, had to cross into the EU illegally and at high personal risk, in the absence of any legal or safer routes. As a young Syrian interviewee who had travelled alone through the Eastern Mediterranean route told the MEDMIG team: ‘Nobody gets a visa. I wish we could pay the embassy instead of the smuggler in order to come here.’

One wonders to whom Theresa May was really talking: to world leaders or the more nationalist-minded members of her party and voters (a snap election could be called at any time). Just a few minutes earlier Obama had said ‘today a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself’. Surely it is now time for the new prime minister to break free from the mantra of the past and develop a more sophisticated response.

Dr Nando Sigona

Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS)