Refugees or economic migrants?

Photographer: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Who Counts as a Refugee?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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What's the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant? 

It's an important question, because the distinction has become central to an asylum system that developed nations use to control immigration flows. Yet in many ways it makes no sense. 

Every year, the U.K. spends about half a billion pounds ($790 million) processing the 20,000 to 30,000 asylum seekers who make it to Britain, trying to decide if they really are refugees or are just pretending so they can disappear into the unregistered economy. This is substantially more money than the U.K. has committed to spend on all Syria-related aid this year, despite being one of the most generous donor nations. 

QuickTake Political Asylum

The situation exists because of the 1951 convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol, under which every signatory nation has committed to give shelter to any refugee who reaches its territory. Countries such as the U.K. do their level best to keep refugees out so they can't ask for refugee status. For the same reason, refugees go to desperate lengths to get a toe onto British soil.

So where does Rafaat fit in? He's a 21-year-old Syrian I found living under the overhang of a warehouse near the Calais docks, on the French side of the English Channel. (He wouldn't give me his last name.) For a month, he's been sleeping in one of a row of small tents ranged along the raised warehouse platform, together with other Syrians from the city of Daraa, close to the Jordanian border. Daraa is split between loyalist and rebel control and is currently the focus of an offensive by Islamist groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. 

So Rafaat is clearly a refugee fleeing a war zone. Right? 

Earlier this year, he left his young wife in Syria and went to Lebanon, and from there he flew to Turkey. He didn't stay long -- learning Turkish would be too hard and in any case there's little work there, he told me. So he made his way to the Turkish coast, where he paid to be smuggled via a short boat ride to the Greek island of Kos. Once Rafaat arrived on Greek soil, the authorities there let him go to the mainland. That costs Greece relatively little, because refugees like Rafaat -- tens of thousands of whom have arrived on the islands -- have no intention of staying in the country. 

He walked across Greece and Albania to Montenegro, a journey that took about 15 days. And then he walked through Serbia to Hungary. The Albanians, Montenegrins and Serbs are fairly lax about letting refugees cross their borders, because they, too, know they are mostly transit states. Once in Hungary (which now plans to build a fence on its border with Serbia to stop the flow), Rafaat was in Europe's borderless Schengen zone. From there he hitchhiked to Austria and through Germany to Paris, making the last section of the trip to Calais by train. 

From the moment he left Syria, Rafaat's destination was the U.K.: He has a cousin there, he had learned English at school, and he knows that in Britain he can get work and some help from the state. He could have stopped in any country along the way, including Lebanon, and he would have been safe. But not even France was right. 

Rafaat and his friends -- George, a Christian farmer who left his children with his mother in Syria and his wife in Turkey; Mohamed, whose family was killed in Syria; and half a dozen others who gathered around to talk -- all agree. French is too difficult to learn, the state offers no help, and it's too hard to get work, either legally or illegally. "I could get papers here, but I don't want to," said Rafaat. 

So he and the others in this little community from Daraa are really economic migrants. Right? 

Rafaat is both. He comes from a country at war, but like migrants everywhere -- and indeed you and I -- he wants a better life for himself and his family. 

Given the choice of going to the U.K. or back to a more peaceful Syria, Rafaat would return to Daraa and his wife. But Syria will remain at war, he said, unless the U.S. imposes a no-fly zone -- and there's no sign that it wants to. "Tell them: Stop the war in Syria, and we'll stop coming here," he said. 

In the meantime, he tries every night to find his way onto a ship or truck headed for the U.K. -- though he's beginning to lose hope. A friendly French doctor gives him pills for heart palpitations. Sometimes, he admitted a little sheepishly, he cries. 

The refugee system encourages this game of cat and mouse between states and people fleeing war and persecution. The principle that countries can't send refugees away once they arrive -– non-refoulement, as it's called -- was less problematic after World War II, when most refugees were already in the European countries where they would settle, or else were welcomed by a U.S. still open to the world's huddled masses. Today's refugees trek across the world to find the refuge they want. 

Trying to renegotiate the terms of the 1951 treaty would probably be counterproductive: Governments would use the chance to reduce their obligations toward refugees. The U.K. has also opposed the most obvious solution: a resettlement program that would let refugees apply for a limited number of asylum places while they still live in Lebanon, Turkey and other host countries. They would then be settled proportionately across Europe.  EU leaders clashed over such a plan at a summit meeting last night, agreeing only to an unenforceable version.

Instead, Prime Minister David Cameron proposes more fences, British security personnel and sniffer dogs for Calais, to keep the refugees in France. It's an unimaginative approach, and it will continue to fail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net