The term “refugee” should be expanded to include more than those fleeing conflict. South Asians looking for better opportunities or displaced by climate change should be included too.
- By Priyali SurPriyali Sur is a journalist and documentary film maker reporting on human rights violations with a focus on women and LGBT rights. She was a Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow 2014-15 at the Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland.
The dark eyes and hair of the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Afghans almost blend with the other migrants’. The brown skin tones are also not giveaways, but ask them where they come from, and you notice the hesitation — trying hard to blend into the crowd of Syrian migrants at Europe’s border crossings, afraid of being spotted and sent back.
“When they find out about our nationality, we are pushed back in the line. The others get priority to board the buses. I have been waiting here at the railway tracks for two nights now. I hope I can board the bus for Hungary tomorrow,” Abbas, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, told me in Tovarnik, Croatia. Abbas is not alone in trying to navigate the challenging politics of Europe’s refugee and migration crisis. More than 6,000 Bangladeshis were intercepted at the border crossing points of European Union member states between January and July 2015, according to data from Frontex, the European Union’s external border management agency. (Afghans and Pakistanis make up 11 percent and 1.8 percent of migrants intercepted in Europe respectively.)
Abbas falls on the wrong side of the line drawn between refugees fleeing political oppression and migrants seeking better opportunities. Many European governments — who are worried about this huge influx of non-Syrians — are drawing distinct lines between the two. And the distinction matters greatly. Unlike refugees who generally have access to faster entry mechanisms and social benefits, migrants are dealt with under states’ typically slower and restrictive immigration laws and procedures. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, called the migration of people from relatively safer places “unacceptable” and has warned that most Afghans would be deported.
Sitting calmly at the railway tracks, Abbas tells me that he left his home in Bangladesh four years ago. “There was no work and no money to feed my family. After crossing over to India, an agent promised to get me work in Turkey, but instead, he put me on a plane to Azerbaijan. I worked in Azerbaijan for a year and then came to Greece. I was working at the BMW factory. But many South Asians have started to leave Greece a year ago. The economy is going down, and for that reason, getting your paper work done is becoming very difficult.” Abbas adds, appearing embarrassed, “I was in jail for a few months because of no papers, and then I decided to leave.” His friend, 23-year-old Porosh who worked as a dishwasher at a hotel in Greece notes, “I didn’t have to do the dishes by hand like in Bangladesh. It isn’t that bad. But I now want to go to France.”
Abbas left Bangladesh for economic reasons and thus is not at the center of the current discussion of the “refugee crisis” that focuses on Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country. However, to simply label Abbas –and others like him — an economic migrant obscures the narrative. Geoff Dabelko, the director of the Environmental Studies program at Ohio University and a member of U.N. Environment Program Expert Advisory Group, said that calling the Bangladeshis coming to Europe “economic migrants,” while true, is insufficient. “We can call them economic migrants, but for many people coming from Bangladesh it is intertwined from environmental conditions that are pushing them to move,” says Dabelko.
A 2012 ActionAid report labels Bangladesh a hotspot for displacement due to climate change. It finds that more than 50 million people there are affected by disasters every five years, and approximately one-quarter of the country is inundated by floods annually. The 1998 flood overran up to 61 percent of the country, rendering 45 million people homeless.
Some caution against blurring the line between refugees and economic migrants. Roger-Mark De Souza, who heads the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center, argues that the term economic migrant remains fitting for the Bangladeshis traveling to Europe. “When we think of mobility and displacement there is a climate and economic angle to that. But people who migrate have additional assets that allow them to deal with the risks that include climate,” states De Souza.
Abbas, however, tells a different story. He says that he had to get out in search of work and money to feed his family. “That’s the reason we are here without our wives and families. It is not easy,” he adds.
The 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum in foreign countries from persecution in their home nation. In the past six decades, however, the convention has failed to expand the definition to include economic migrants or people displaced by climate change. Some experts argue that the convention needs to be more inclusive to address modern crises that are forcing people out of their homes.
When asked if the refugee convention should include climate-displaced people, Mary Robinson, the United Nations special envoy for climate change, said that more support programs and policies are necessary to address the issue of climate driven migration. “It is a big question. At the moment we are not honoring the refugee convention at all. It is being dishonored all over Europe and Asia. I am not going to predict what the right solution will be, but I will be part of engaging heavily in how we get the best possible result for those who are displaced by climate change,” said Robinson. Dabelko was more certain, but recognized the political limits, commenting, “It is critically important that our international laws take these issues into play. The nation states will never agree to have that formally added since the numbers would overwhelm. That does not mean, it should not be looked into.”
In the meantime, Abbas, Porosh, and thousands like them try to evade detention and deportation back to the poor and difficult conditions they came from. Stranded for two nights at the Serbia-Croatia border, they also remain stuck amid the definitional and legal debates over who should be let in and under what framework. Porosh still strikes an optimistic note: “I want to submit my papers in France and seek asylum in a legal manner. I know I may not be accepted but I will keep trying.” Abbas adds, “At least we will be able to send some back money home then.”
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