A boy stands on the shore of a beach in Kos, Greece, looking back towards the Turkish coast, across water that he and his family just traversed, 18 August 2015.
In the last month, there have been numerous articles written about what is known as the refugee crisis (or as some call it, the migrant crisis). From The Washington Post to The Telegraph, western media has trained its attention on the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from war-torn areas in the Middle East and Africa. In almost every example, the terms “refugee” and “migrant” are used interchangeably, as if both words possess the same meaning. They do not. Speaking from a legal perspective, they carry different denotations and obligations.
A refugee is a person fleeing his or her home country because of an armed conflict or a well-founded fear of persecution due to nationality, race, political or social affiliation, or religion. Anyone carrying the status of a refugee did not willingly elect to leave their homes — they were forced to do so or risk being killed or imprisoned. Refugees must physically cross the borders of their country into another country in order to receive international recognition of being a refugee.
In contrast, a migrant is someone who willingly chooses to leave their home country for a multitude of reasons. This may be in the form of finding a better paying job, educational endeavors, or it could be as simple as personal preference. Migrants, unlike refugees, have the choice of returning to their respective home countries because they were not forcibly moved due to internal conflict or other perilous circumstances.
Especially in this case, the title given to those currently crossing the Mediterranean (and in many cases, drowning) in overcrowded rubber boats matters greatly. Refugees enjoy inalienable rights due to their extreme circumstances; migrants do not. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees clearly explains the rights of refugees once they arrive in a country, the most paramount of which is the concept of nonrefoulement (In French, this means “to not return”). Article 33 of the Refugee Convention clearly explains this fundamental right stating, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
Chapters II-V of the Refugee Convention further outline the basic rights refugees are entitled to. These include welfare, employment, owning property, education, juridical status, and further administrative measures (freedom of movement, travel documents, etc.). In sum, all 148 states that are parties to the Refugee Convention must bestow the aforementioned privileges and rights to refugees that the state gives to its citizens and foreign nationals.
A central question left to address is whether or not those currently fleeing to Europe are refugees or migrants. The simple answer is both, but they are overwhelmingly refugees from countries plagued by civil conflict such as Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While it is technically correct to refer to the current large movement of people across the Mediterranean as a “migrant crisis,” such framing understates the significant amount of people who have risked their lives and left everything behind (even those who may have died from starvation or drowning along the perilous journey) to reach safety.
The refugee crisis has exploded onto the international scene and grabbed the attention of people across the globe. Certainly the world did not spontaneously erupt in conflict, producing a humanitarian crisis unlike the world has seen since the Second World War. As it turns out, the current refugee crisis has been developing for nearly five years, but only recently has the West finally taken notice.
Syria is a chief example of this. The current civil war in Syria between the government forces of authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad and rebels started in the spring of 2011 when the regime started cracking down on peaceful protests in the midst of the Arab Spring. Assad has deployed nearly every tactic to prevail over rebel forces and remain in power, including the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations, torture, and barrel bombs, all amounting to crimes against humanity. Unofficially, the death toll is over 200,000. Approximately nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the conflict. The severity has convinced the head of the UN to urge the Security Council to refer the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Syria represents a mass conflict of heinous proportions that has been ongoing for numerous years, forgoing the classification as a crisis until recently. This can be attributed to the fact that the crisis was not seen as anything more than a regional disturbance until refugees started emerging on European shores, forcing the West to abandon its blind-eye policy. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu captured this sentiment in remarks made at the UNGA:
“The refugee issue, at the beginning of this crisis, had been seen by the international community as a Syrian crisis. Later it was seen as a Turkish or neighboring countries’ crisis. But now it is clear that the refugee issue is a global crisis, a crisis that we cannot ignore.”
The enormous burden of sheltering over three million Syrian refugees has largely fallen on the shoulders of countries directly bordering Syria: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. In comparison, Germany — who is leading the effort to shelter refugees in Europe — plans to take in one million, while the United States plans to accept only 10,000. Even the fragile state of Iraq has taken in approximately 247,000 Syrian refugees. While efforts should be made to bring a swift end to the root causes of the refugee crises in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, the West must also step up and share the burden of sheltering refugees. What was once a problem the West thought it could keep at arm’s length by merely giving foreign aid has shown up on its doorstep, pleading for help.