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Migration backlash - Martin Scicluna

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The informal European Union summit in Salzburg on September 20 brought home starkly that migration is the deep underlying current affecting every aspect of politics in the EU. Migration has become the lightning conductor for populism and the upsurge of populist parties across the continent. But the electric charge has other origins and these concern culture, race, religion, and Islamist terrorism.

These are truths that make uncomfortable reading. But we must not shy away from these truths. The EU ignores the migration backlash at its peril. Mediterranean crossings in ramshackle boats have begun to fall. Now is the time for the EU to take a hard look at a problem that has been poisoning international politics not only in Europe but also the United States for decades.

The EU and the US should tackle the root of the issue. The West must look again at the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the so-called Geneva Convention) and, the real culprit, its extension worldwide in the 1967 protocol. These provisions lie at the heart of the West’s problem with illegal immigration.

The search in recent years for political asylum has slowly but inextricably tied itself with economic migration. The tangle lies not least in the minds of would-be migrants themselves, but also in the West’s own moral imagination. The generosity of the Geneva Convention’s wording is the problem.

In the context of 1951, when it was drawn up, the breadth of its drafting is understandable. European nations, exhausted after World War II, gathered in Geneva to discuss a clear, pressing but limited problem. War had displaced whole blocs of humanity in Europe. National boundaries had changed. Ethnic and other groups had been expelled or left stranded. Entirely identifiable ethnic, cultural or religious groups had ended up in places where they could not stay safely. The problem was acute but not open-ended. 

To our global eyes today, the Convention’s definition of entitlement to asylum is almost irresponsibly loose. This is because when it was framed, everyone knew who they were talking about. It was about persons displaced by the aftermath of two world wars in Europe.

But the 1967 protocol extended this definition – originally applicable only to movement between European countries – to the whole world.

That, not the original convention, is the calamity. What they were thinking when they extended the definition was before – though only just before – the age of mass global travel and mass global communications to which billions would have access. It did not occur to signatories in 1967 that half the population of Eritrea might want to come to Europe. That they might discover their rights to do so. And then be able to find a network of traffickers to organise the journey.

But the number who might wish to escape not only state oppression but oppression of a sometimes crueller kind is far larger. Abject poverty oppresses too. Destitution extinguishes human rights and human hopes as brutally as any despot’s diktat or any mullah’s creed.

The cruel logic is that rights to asylum cannot expand to embrace poverty. So rights must be reduced, to leave poverty far outside the concept of asylum

Why should a journalist or columnist who faces persecution if he criticises his government be entitled to asylum in Europe, while a father trying to help his children escape grinding poverty, illiteracy and disease has no case?

The moral distinction between the tyranny of politicians and the tyranny of poverty is so flimsy as to be negligible.

Unsurprisingly, many of the tyrannies and anarchies from which people might want to escape are also places of economic distress and collapse.

An Eritrean, a Syrian or a Yemeni on a leaking craft in a storm not 50 miles from Malta’s shores is not giving much thought to whether heis an economic migrant or a political refugee.

He yearns simply for a better life. I doubt that most people, when they talk of “refugees” have in mind any clear distinction between the political and the economic kind.

There is a clear way to resolve the confusion. To the Geneva Convention’s list of qualifications for asylum, add the misery of poverty. But of course we would never do this. Because, then, billions more in the poorest countries of the world would be entitled to settlement in the richer ones. And immigration on this scale would smash western democracy because it would never gain the consent of the governed – as we are already seeing vividly today.

The cruel logic is that rightsto asylum cannot expand to embrace poverty. So rights must be reduced, to leave poverty so far outside the concept of asylum that few will embark on a boat from North Africa – or trek from Mexico – with any faith in their chances before a tribunal. This would not remedy the moral gap left by rejecting those who flee poverty while accepting those who flee persecution. But it would at least disentangle and clearly separate the one from the other.

Europe and the US must be cruel to be kind. Donald Trump in the US is already partly down this road. In Europe, Italy now turns boats back. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic have opted out. Austria, Germany and others are whistling far-right tunes. Disregard for the Convention is growing de facto and with it the march of populism.

There are strong arguments for amending the Geneva Convention de jure before respect for the law is eroded and leads to its destruction. Europe should lead the way in modernising the terms of a Convention drawn up almost 70 years ago to meet radically different circumstances that have changed beyond all recognition.

Drawing a clear distinction between those fleeing from their home country for their lives, and those leaving because of poverty, is vital to the future of migration policy. The former category are refugees whose rights under international law should be protected. The latter are economic migrants, with no similar right to escape.

Mass migration to Europe must be shown not to be the answer. An intelligent and targeted strategy of generous financial help to promote economic development and prevent economic migrants, alongside political intervention to bring about the end of those conflicts that drive so many refugees from their home countries, are also required.  

But the rules and context in which the law on the rights to asylum are framed have to change.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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