Refugees, mi­grants? Ter­mi­nol­ogy con­fu­sion reigns


I saw a photo in a Thai-lan­guage news­pa­per with the cap­tion “Eng­land builds a higher and heav­ier fence to fend off refugees.” Another news re­port ex­plained that, in the wake of the Calais mi­grant cri­sis, the UK has sent money and ma­te­ri­als to France so it can bol­ster the fenc­ing at the en­trance to the Euro­tun­nel.

Build­ing walls seems con­trary to what rights ad­vo­cates are urg­ing coun­tries to do, and I’m rather con­fused about whether na­tions should se­cure their borders against un­wanted im­mi­grants or welcome them in the name of hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism.

The rest of the world tends to look up to the UK as a role model in terms of hu­man rights, so it’s dis­turb­ing to learn that it’s spend­ing mil­lions of pounds to erect bar­ri­cades against the in­flux of mi­grants.

But what is the proper way to han­dle the prob­lem? The fences pop­ping up around Europe might give us a clue. World lead­ers of­ten voice dis­may at other coun­tries’ shoddy han­dling of refugees, but it’s a dif­fer­ent story when it comes to their own na­tion. Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron ba­si­cally aban­doned his usual po­lit­i­cal correctness when he dis­mis­sively cat­e­go­rized the refugees try­ing to cross the chan­nel at Calais as a “swarm of peo­ple.”

Here in Thai­land, im­ages we’ve seen of Ro­hingya stranded in their boats at sea are still fresh in our mem­ory. I un­der­stand why Thai­land was roundly crit­i­cized on the is­sue and why it was urged to take quick ac­tion. I also un­der­stand why my fel­low Thais were branded “heart­less” for ob­ject­ing to any more refugee camps.

What I don’t see is any dif­fer­ence be­tween block­ing the Ro­hingya at sea and build­ing walls around Europe. Maybe we should fol­low Europe’s cue and strengthen our sea de­fenses.

Per­haps we should clas­sify who should be let into Thai­land and who shouldn’t be, based on their rea­sons for mi­grat­ing. As for the boats packed with des­per­ate Ro­hingya, many are refugees flee­ing for their lives. Some of them are “eco­nomic mi­grants,” hop­ing for bet­ter in­come and work­ing con­di­tions else­where. In the worst cases, they are the vic­tims of traf­fick­ing.

“I’m sorry,” Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott de­clared to refugees try­ing to reach his na­tion. “If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.” Many of these peo­ple, though, are so des­per­ate that they pre­fer be­ing stranded at sea off Aus­tralia’s shores rather than try­ing their luck at the coun­try’s front door, it­self a wall of bu­reau­cracy.

The prin­ci­ple of in­ter­na­tional law known as non-re­foule­ment for­bids Aus­tralia from bar­ring “boat peo­ple” in mid-ocean if their lives are at risk back home. Thai­land has been widely con­demned for not res­cu­ing the Ro­hingya. Again, it’s con­fus­ing. By the same yard­stick, the peo­ple bot­tled up at Calais are called “mi­grants,” but they’re risk­ing their lives in the hope of bet­ter prospects. Not all of them are mo­ti­vated by eco­nomic ne­ces­sity — some have fled home for safety’s sake.

Clas­si­fy­ing these peo­ple is the job of the United Na­tion High Com­mis­sion of Refugees, but we all know that what’s writ­ten on the pa­per isn’t al­ways prac­ti­cal. Those flee­ing their home­lands, like the Ro­hingya and Uighurs, have noth­ing in the way of money, pos­ses­sions or le­gal sta­tus that might open for­eign doors. Bri­tain views the Calais hordes as mi­grants, with Cameron sure they are seek­ing land­fall in Eng­land for eco­nomic rea­sons.

The UNHCR rep­re­sen­ta­tive in France, Philippe Leclerc, ar­gues that most of them are flee­ing vi­o­lence at home — in Syria, Eritrea, So­ma­lia or Afghanistan. If Leclerc had his way, they’d all get en­try visas.

The Calais “swarm” is not yet see­ing any light at the end of the Euro­tun­nel, and nor can most observers try­ing to spot the best way to deal with this is­sue. Is build­ing fences and se­cur­ing sea ter­ri­tory the only way? If so, what about peo­ple left be­hind in those dan­ger­ous and poor home­lands? Don’t ask me: I’m as con­fused as the next per­son.

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