Swelling crowds of refugees storming Belarus Poland border, eager to enter Europe and being pushed by Belarus have created a new flashpoint in East-West diplomacy and revived a debate on the tenability of ‘humanitarian’ right to cross national borders.
An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 migrants and refugees, many of whom are reportedly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, are camped out in what is effectively a no-man’s-land between Belarus and Poland after being denied entry to the EU nation.
According to UN High Commission on Refugees(UNHCR), 8.24 crore people worldwide were forcibly displaced at the end of 2020 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order. [18 June 2021]
This includes 207 lakh Refugees (under UNHCR’s mandate); 57 lakh Palestine refugees (under UNRWA’s mandate); 48 lakh ‘Internally displaced people’; 41 lakh Asylum-seekers and 39 lakh Venezuelans displaced abroad. The total has doubled in the past decade, resulting in more than 1% of the world’s population being displaced.
UNHCR provides further breakup of total 245 lakhs under two categories: .207 lakh Refugees (under UNHCR’s mandate) and 39 lakh Venezuelans displaced abroad. Developing countries hosted the vast majority (86%) of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad. 73% of them were hosted in countries neighbouring their countries of origin. 68% of all refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad belong to just five countries. Syrian Arab Republic 67 lakh, Venezuela 40 lakh, Afghanistan 26 lakh, South Sudan 22 lakh, Myanmar 11 lakh and Others 79 lakh. ( https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html )
Europe began registering increased refugee influx from 2010 due to conflicts in Middle East, Asia and Africa, especially wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Majority refugees entered Europe through Turkey. In 2016, Turkey agreed to close its borders to Greece in exchange for money and diplomatic favours from Europe. Turkey agreed to significantly increase its border security and take back all future irregular entrants into Greece (and thereby the EU) from Turkey. In return, EU was to pay Turkey 6 billion euros. Also, for every Syrian sent back from Greece, EU would accept one registered Syrian refugee living in Turkey who had never tried to enter the EU illegally, up to a total of 72,000. If the process succeeded in dramatically reducing irregular immigration to a maximum of 6,000 people per month, the EU would set up a resettlement scheme by which it would regularly resettle Syrian refugees registered in Turkey on recommendation by UNHCR. The agreement has not been fully implemented due to political reasons.
Last year, Turkey announced that it would no longer “block” refugees and migrants’ “access to the border”, and opened the border with Greece-Turkey was accused of pushing refugees into Europe for political and monetary gain. Something similar seems to be happening between Belarus and Europe as Belarus is pushing migrants and refugees into Poland to pressure Europe to lift economic sanctions.
Germany has taken by far the highest number of refugees. The federal government distributes refugees among the 16 states in proportion to their tax revenue and population. Germany has been warning that freedom of travel and open borders among the 28 member states of the EU could be jeopardised if they did not agree on a shared response to this crisis. France in particular has been skeptical of refugee-friendly stand of Germany and suggestion of EU migrant plan to allot quota of refugees/asylum seekers to each European country.
Since internal travel across European countries is visa free, it looks like “mending a burst pipe by spreading water round the house while leaving the leak untouched”. France fears that a liberal entry regime into any European country would attract even greater numbers of people to Europe, of which a significant part would inevitably end up in France due to the EU’s free movement policies and the French welfare state. France would like the Schengen agreement on borderless travel between European countries should be replaced with a new agreement providing border checks for non-EU citizens.
EU requires airlines flying into the Schengen Area to check that passengers have a visa or are exempted from carrying one (“carriers’ responsibility”). Since asylum seekers are usually required to be physically present in the EU country where they wish to request asylum, and there are few formal ways to allow them to reach Europe to do so, many pay smugglers for advice, logistical help and transportation through Europe, especially for sea crossings.
Wealthier countries face pressures of illegal migration from neighbouring countries. The following poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, a reminder the New York being one of the biggest disembarkation hub for refugees from all parts of the world who come to this new land of bountiful untapped resources. Even today it is the dream destination for global wannabes.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I recall this poem not just to reflect on the current refugee crisis engulfing Europe but also at the broader issue of legal and illegal migration and the dilemma faced by wealthier nations in dealing with influx from neighbouring countries. Ironically, a country like USA that basically comprises of immigrants and their descendants now has to start blocking surge of illegal immigrants eager to enter world’s richest country even at risk to life and limb. Same applies to those seeking entry to Europe.
United States has re-opened its borders to covid vaccinated visitors but the public health law allows officials at the border with Mexico to immediately expel migrants and asylum-seekers. Ostensibly, law is necessary to prevent spread of covid as asylum-seekers are processed in crowded settings at border.
The desperation of economic migrants has given rise to brisk business by human trafficking criminal syndicates who fleece poor people with the promise of getting visas, work permits and entry to their dream destination countries. Horror stories abound of the great risk to life and limb some of them take to somehow gain entry.
Big power rivalry in conflict zones usually turns millions of lives upside-down as we watch the news from the comfort of our homes. People who have been forced to flee their homes are people humans who deserve compassion, respect, and the right to safety.
However, whether they have a right to enter any country of their choice is a moot question because at times it is difficult to identify and segregate who are the refugees genuinely forced out of their homes and who have voluntarily left their home in search of greener pastures (economic migrants).
Along with sympathy for human suffering comes a concern, a very genuine concerns for nation States guarding their borders: Will the refugee influx undo all that the French revolution achieved in terms of freedom, democracy and liberal worldview. Will extremism wipe out the gains of liberty? How do we filter out terrorists trying to gain entry in the crowd of surging genuine refugees?
That is not a question just in Europe but at home front as well.
My choice is clear: Extremist and retrograde forces of all hues must be defeated to prevent the mankind turning the clock back. I want a better future for the coming generations. For this, if it means choosing the lesser evil, so be it. This ain’t a perfect world, not yet.
Frankenstein must be put to sleep without quibbling about who created it.
The source countries and others responsible for creating exodus must be called out to take responsibility as a matter of principle but there is little justification to encourage illegal migration of economic migrants and extremists through the refugee route. Internationally supervised and safeguarded refugee zones should be created in source countries.
Also, opportunities for legal immigration across borders need to be expanded. We need an International Agreement on Trade in Services Agreement so that cross border migration of skilled manpower is regulated through international norms rather than arbitrary decisions of individual countries.
The developed countries owe a generational debt to developing countries to allow greater legalised mobility. Security vetting of immigrants or expecting immigrants to fully honor local laws and get assimilated in local culture is of course every nation’s privilege.