World Refugee Day 2015: The Urgent Need For A Fresh Perspective On Global Migration

The world today is racked with issues, conflicts – some small and some of epic proportions – and we live in an era where ripple effects are powerful. World Refugee Day, which falls this Saturday, June 20, is an opportunity to bring issues related to refugees to the fore.

The trends, this year, are not good, as Kim Curtis wrote yesterday – indeed, with 59.2 million displaced, there are more refugees and internally displaced people today that at any point since World War II. The global response, however, has not met the extraordinary needs. Alongside these worrying trends, the situation of so-called “economic” migrants is becoming increasingly precarious and unjust, and too often deadly. The recent dramatic deaths in the Mediterranean was briefly in the media spotlight – so far this year, over 1,700 have died crossing the Mediterranean while over 3,500 lost their lives attempting the journey in 2014. The International Organization for Migration has found distressing evidence of dozens of corpses, people who died attempting dangerous crossings through the Sahara – before they even reach the sea – and warns that it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

While it would be incorrect and unwise to conflate refugee and migration flows, they do share some fundamental components. For one, the international legal instruments in place – meant to uphold basic human rights – are too often flouted. As a result, individual countries – even when they are signatories of conventions – can either circumvent or simply ignores international legal obligations. This, of course, touches at the heart of the limitations of international law – perhaps efforts to modify the international legal framework would be better directed at domestic policy.

It’s important to remember that the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was designed in response to World War II – it had to be amended by the 1967 to remove the geographic and time limits of 1951. Furthermore, the legal framework allows for countries to be responsible for the designation of refugee – which triggers the rights protected by the Convention – and many are not given this status.

Meanwhile, the international protection of migrants’ rights is also limited by national sovereignty, and the policy choices countries make. From this perspective, many of the human tragedies related to displacement – whether it be internal or cross-border, related to war or simply desperate circumstances – could be alleviated if countries chose to adopt bold policies that genuinely fulfill – moral, if not legal – obligations to protect the dignity of all human beings. A fresh mindset on what it means to welcome  – and perhaps even facilitate – the arrival of people who want and need a better life would require a significant paradigm shift.

Since World War II, the world has changed dramatically, and undergone profound transformations which leave us more than ever connected. The unleashing of global business, financial and communications flows is the foundation of this revolution. Conspicuously absent from this list is the global movement of people, which is increasingly restricted and contentious, and unfortunately often the result of fear and paranoia sown into the collective psyche.

The world seems to be turning its back on the most vulnerable. Change will be difficult, but vital to ensure we meet the obligation of protection and human dignity. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, touched on the sensitive issue of mindset when he told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday that he was “shocked and shamed by the frequent demonization of migrants that we see in many countries whose people benefit from prosperity, peace and ease.”

Indeed, politicians in richer countries are touting increasingly intransigent policies to garner the votes of populations which are, more than ever, animated by anti-immigrant sentiments. We urgently need to be more compassionate and humane in the way we conceive of policies that deal with displacement and migration. The numbers are not trending downwards. Hardening the rhetoric, tightening regulation and inflicting harsher punishment will not act as a deterrent, and ultimately will not serve the long term interest of Western and other nations.