It’s Time to Stop Compartmentalizing Refugees and Migrants – republished article by Lucy Hovil and Melissa Phillips

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The division between refugee and migrant remains a powerful legal tool. But in today’s world of hypermobility, compartmentalization of international aid along the same lines is illogical and wasteful. Worse, it threatens to exclude many people from much-needed aid because their experiences don’t match strict criteria.

That is not to dispense with the term “refugee.” In this era of record levels of displacement and shrinking protection space, refugee status is crucial for maintaining focus on a specific legal category of people: those who can demonstrate credible fear of persecution. Yet realities on the ground have shown that refugees have multiple identities, deploy various coping strategies and often defy tidy categories.

The same can be said of migrants who move for multiple reasons and whose experiences often do not fit within neat groupings. When both refugees and migrants are on the move together, as in Turkey and Libya, labels and distinctions may matter less at certain times – for instance, when rescuing people at sea – but remain critical when trying to identify people in need of resettlement or return.

The tension here lies in the fact that, on the one hand, legal categories are crucial for protection. Any dilution of the definition of a refugee can easily become a political excuse to tighten borders. And yet, at a programmatic level, stark legal distinctions make less sense.

Rigidly adhering to these categories leads to an overreliance on policy-driven approaches. Instead, programs must function in the gray areas of overlapping legal and social identities. Binary categories – refugee and returnee; home and exile; migrant and forced migrant – are often inadequate in dealing with the complexity of reality.

We don’t have to choose – we need legal categories and flexibility in programmatic response. So what are the operational barriers in the way of a more integrated approach?

First, there is a schism in the aid sector itself, which is largely divided between people working on refugees and on migration. This is partly because refugee issues in the past landed more in the humanitarian basket, while migration was more aligned to development. There are separate agencies dealing with each group – the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the case of refugees, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the case of migrants – with no one supra-entity coordinating between them.

But with refugees and migrants often moving and staying together, maintaining programmatic silos is inadequate. It can also result in pitting “good” refugees against “bad” migrants. The arrival in Europe of large numbers of refugees and migrants challenged the logic that those groups could be dealt with separately. Yet many in the field acknowledge that the age-old tension between the U.N. agencies for refugees and migration contributes to this divide.

Second, there needs to be a broader discussion about mandated agencies and their responsibilities. Many were surprised when IOM was selected to lead the response to the arrival of over 600,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, partly as a result of the Bangladesh government insisting they are “undocumented migrants.” UNHCR was criticized for being slow to respond to the outflow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Both agencies are under pressure in many other emergencies from donors and partners.

Finally, the Global Compacts reflect this operational and policy divide; a wasted opportunity for a more innovative approach. The Global Compact on Refugees and Global Compact for Migration were initially conceived as part of the same global discussion, addressing interrelated challenges – the need for better protections for refugees and more orderly migration. Yet there has been a lack of coordination between these two compacts, with the result being separate instruments that do not speak to each other. The two processes have become increasingly siloed, echoing the long-standing debate over how to categorize people on the move.

As Jeff Crisp, former head of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Analysis Unit told us, “A truly progressive approach would have been to establish a ‘Global Compact on Human Mobility,’ which elaborated on the intimate connections between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as well as ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ movements of people. But it is much easier for states and international organizations to think in a binary manner, maintaining what in many contexts is an artificial categorization of people who are on the move.”

As the world negotiates two separate compacts on migrants and refugees, now is the time to think clearly about how these two categories relate – not to dilute them, but to strengthen them.

One need only look at the current situation in Greece as an example of people falling between the cracks. Clearly there is an urgent need to improve collective response to the needs of migrants and refugees at all levels – from host governments, donors and international organizations to implementing partners. Ensuring that all parties do what they are supposed to, and do it much better, also requires acknowledging that tension can exist at technical and operational levels.

Crucially, we must recognize that UNHCR and IOM are creatures of states and donors with different histories, mandates and structures. In brief, IOM is accountable to member states and UNHCR is heavily reliant on donor funds. Both organizations often compete for the same funding, and coordination structures that bring them together such as Mixed Migration Working Groups often operate on an ad hoc basis, for example, in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

Arguments for keeping migrants and refugees as distinct categories and arguments for merging them are both compelling. But maybe that is precisely the problem: We should not have to take sides. Categories can exist. In fact, they need to exist as a tool for protection. But at an operational level, the need for far greater coordination and flexibility has been thrown into sharp relief by the compact process – or rather, processes.

The views in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

The compact processes have also been negotiated far away from most migrants and refugees – a point being made by groups such as the Network for Refugee Voices. This top-down approach points to the reality that as soon as we disassociate from what is happening on the ground, convenience can all too easily trump sense.

This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about the global migration crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees email list.


Sometimes outrage just ain’t enough*

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In 2012 the world witnessed a series of tragic incidents of asylum seekers drowning after their unseaworthy boats capsized off the coast of Australia. Following these events, Australia’s parliamentarians spent six long hours debating a bill about asylum in the Federal Parliament. Having seen 90 people die and a further 130 people rescued on the high seas off the coast of Christmas Island, the debates were filled with emotion, concern for humanity and demands for human rights protections. I personally watched for several hours as politician after politician expressed heartfelt grief for the plight of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia by boat.

Fast forward to 2015 and the world reacted with shame and grief following the death by drowning of a young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, on the Turkish coast as he and his family attempted to reach Europe by boat. Once again there were demands for a more humane approach to refugees and the image of the young Aylan’s body washed up on the beach was claimed to be one of the most striking images of 2015. Countries like Canada pledged more resettlement places for Syrian refugees. Refugee advocates thought this might be a watershed moment for both the conflict in Syria and Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis.

Yet here we find ourselves again in 2017 expressing outrage, shock and grief over the revelation of migrants being subject to slave auctions in Libya. EU leaders are calling for action, others demanding a military force and an emergency evacuation operation has been agreed to.

Across these three very different contexts we have witnessed very similar reactions of outrage. In the case of Australia where just over five years ago the plight of people dying at sea moved some politicians to tears, it currently has one of the most draconian systems of offshore detention for asylum seekers. In Europe, tens of thousands of refugees who made the boat trip from Turkey over two years ago remain stranded in Greece and a planned relocation scheme for refugees remains stalled. At present a multitude of plans are being formulated to assist migrants and refugees stranded in Libya with protests against these conditions being held in many capital cities. But there are cautionary tales to be learnt from these earlier events.

Firstly, outrage, hand-wringing and expressions of shock and awe do not always lead to positive change. This could be because the news cycle moves on, but also that policies require time and good monitoring to be developed and implemented. Secondly, outrage can be distracting. There are copious words written about the current conditions for migrants and refugees in Libya but less attention on solutions. Finally, shifting the narrative after catalytic moments requires public support and dedication from advocates. Otherwise the world may unfortunately look back on Libya 2017 as yet another ‘never again’ moment.


* with apologies to Patty Smyth

Mixed messages along mixed migration routes

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Today I read this appeal from UNHCR asking for more funds to assist refugees taking irregular routes to Europe. But statistics indicate that most people taking the Central Mediterranean route – which is now the most prevalent irregular sea route to Europe – are overwhelmingly migrants (from countries such as Nigeria, Bangladesh etc). An earlier UNHCR appeal noted that they estimate there to be 900 refugees and asylum seekers in detention and 60 refugees have been referred for resettlement. While every case is significant these are relatively low numbers. So rather than focus on people in greatest need using this route, we have a bifurcated approach between refugees and migrants.

There has been a lot of necessary attention on the way the media uses the word ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ when describing the people who are taking irregular routes to Europe. I think most people understand the basic difference between a refugee and a migrant. But there has been less attention on the way international organisations employ labels to invoke need. See this screen grab from twitter that discusses the use of the term ‘non-Syrian’ which has been used to describe other groups reaching Greece across the Eastern Mediterranean route.


One of the issues we rarely talk about is competition between agencies for funds. The aim of any press release or funding appeal is to highlight how a particular agency or organisation is best placed to assist a target group of vulnerable people. But in the case of mixed flows of migrants and refugees how do agencies like UNHCR with its focus on refugees and IOM with its focus on migrants work together? According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in one of the above-mentioned press releases “We have urgent work to do in Libya and can only do it together”. But are separate agencies and separate appeals the best way to achieve this.

Despite launching a Mixed Migration Working Group for Libya in late 2016 , it would seem that a jointly coordinated approach is still in the making. This could partly be due to working modalities – many international organisations working on Libya in reality do so from neighbouring Tunisia (albeit due to security reasons) and with the Libya funding appeal only 28.4% covered competition for funds is real. However there are funds for migration, with the EU launching a EUR 90million programme for migrants in Libya only a few days ago. So now we see read lots of tweets, press releases and appeals about how best to address the situation inside Libya and across the Mediterranean that arguably shows the international community is not speaking with one voice on this issue.

This makes for a very confused message that reaches Libyan actors, affected governments and the general public. While it may be too much to ask for everyone to speak with one voice, agreement on a few key messages is surely not too hard an ask.

3 reasons for Mediterranean sea arrivals you won’t see reported

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There are a multitude of reports about the Central Mediterranean route, which I’ve also contributed to myself. But with so few people reporting from inside Libya, there are a few internal factors that some recent reports may have missed:

1. Good weather + Ramadan/Eid = surge of departures. It has been noted elsewhere (by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat over the Horn of Africa-Yemen route) that during Ramadan and Eid, many people try to take advantage of changing work hours (quieter mornings etc) and the fact that border posts may not be as heavily guarded during Ramadan. Combined with calm seas this may have been a reason for people to consider departing Libya during the past few months

2. It’s the economy stupid: Libya is facing a significant financial crisis, the currency is dropping and inflation is high. This affects migrant workers as much as ordinary Libyans who may in the past have enjoyed relatively high wages when paid in Libyan dinar. Today those dinar will not buy them the same amount of goods and, most importantly for migrant workers, not allow them to send money home. If the financial situation in Libya was to normalise then perhaps some migrants would prefer to go back to earning local salaries in Libya where there is demand for skilled labour, guards, cleaners.

3. Money, money, money: Linked to the point above, some migrant workers (for instance Bangladeshis) were paid by public institutions for services such as rubbish collection. Today those services are not operating and even if a worker was to be paid, getting money from the bank is near impossible. This in turns affects Libyans’ access to currency, with ‘hard currency’ even more scarce which is possibly why smuggling has become such a lucrative business for some.

Of course there are other external reasons, rescue at sea being a key one, but without the full picture any interventions to address smuggling and trafficking will be misaligned. The overarching security situation, financial stability and political dynamics affect all people inside Libya including migrants and refugees.

Developing migration policies for Europe

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A recent IRIN article on the need for work visas highlights the limited thinking on realistic policies to address rising irregular migration. As the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, has said – the so-called migration crisis is policy driven. But as the numbers of people trying to reach Europe irregularly continues to cause alarm, beyond shock and awe where is the policy dialogue?

Most European countries have very few migration options outside of highly skilled employees or work sponsorship and, for refugees, small resettlement quotas. The UK probably has the largest range of immigration options including work, family reunion, short-stay and student visas. Further afield countries such as Canada, the US and Australia have large, relatively unproblematic annual immigration intakes.

Drawing on the country I know best – Australia – I would suggest a couple of options to start with:

  1. Temporary work visas: while this visa type has its critics (especially as it links the worker to an employer), it offers short term work opportunities in areas of skill shortages. Temporary residents pay tax, have no access to social services although for some temporary residence may be a pathway to permanent residence
  2. Seasonal work visas:  another short-term employer driven category for seasonal labour

For those who would argue that Europe has its own unemployment problem and cannot incorporate more irregular migrants, I would concur with Francois Crepeau who has highlighted how most irregular migrants end up employed in the informal sector already.

Currently most people reaching Europe irregularly have few, if any, options for applying for visas prior to leaving their own country. If the substantially large sums of money they spend on irregular passage could be instead put towards formal entry into Europe this could surely be money better spent. If Europe had better developed migration systems this could set a positive precedent in nearby transit countries, such as Libya, that also lack migration programs and regulations.

Surely in the face of continued irregular migration, countless deaths and overwhelmed reception systems, at least one of the above-mentioned options be trialed to show some new thinking in the migration policy space.


Research projects with community groups

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I’ve posted this on Research Whisperer, a great site for researchers, about research partnerships with the community, take a look –  http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/community/