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.