The European refugee crisis is over. That’s the impression one could get from looking at the media landscape over the past few weeks – Trump, Brexit and Taylor Swift’s new album now dominate. But whilst it might not be the centre of attention anymore, there are still hundreds of refugees arriving in Europe every day. Although far less than in 2015, the refugee crisis is far from solved. All Europe has done is buy time. The EU-Turkey refugee deal, the closure of the Balkan route, and the cooperation with the Libyan coastguard all merely contain the crisis at an enormous humanitarian cost (see Libyan detention centres). Now that the overall hysteria of 2015/16 has died off, it’s time to reflect and analyse. One group especially deserves to be talked about: economic refugees.
Most people associate the refugee crisis with the civil war in Syria and indeed, many Syrians have fled to Europe over the past few years. This might leave one with the impression that once the civil war in Syria is over the refugee crisis will end. Yet this is an illusion. It ignores the fact that a major group of refugees come for economic reasons – around 70 percent according to UN figures from July. And these people will not stop fleeing even if all the world’s violent conflicts were resolved.
Are economic refugees really that different from people fleeing from a civil war?
‘Economic refugee’. When we hear that term most people will think of ‘illegitimate refugees’. They are the ones that do not deserve our sympathy; they are not ‘real’ refugees. They are only fleeing in pursuit of a higher standard of living, not because they are facing the atrocities of a civil war at home. Some might even call them economic migrants, sucking the last bit of legitimacy out of their flight. Surely, we can all agree that those are the ones that have to be sent back. And indeed, from the vice-president of the European Commission to Guardian columnists, everyone seems to agree that economic refugees have to be deported immediately in order to free up resources for the ‘real’ refugees.
But who are these people, the economic refugees? They are people who flee because they are struggling to support their families, who are desperate because they have to see their children suffer from malnutrition, who are sickened by the daily struggle that their lives consist of. Are they really that different from people fleeing from a civil war? Intuitively, there seems to be a relevant difference. While refugees fleeing a war-zone are forced to pack their bags immediately, one might think that economic deprivation, although tough, is somehow bearable if one just grits one’s teeth. Yet the thousands of people dying of malnutrition every day might disagree. After all, even though it might sound cynical, what difference does it make to a child if they are killed by a bomb, or if they die after their underfed body was unable to defend itself from a usually curable infectious disease? Economic refugees’ reasons to flee are every bit as legitimate as that of any other refugee.
What makes us reluctant to accept that economic refugees are just as worthy of protection as other refugees is the fact that recognizing their legitimate claim to protection would increase the number of potential asylum seekers by millions. Considering the political reaction that a considerably smaller number of asylum seekers has prompted in Europe, one might fear for the economic and political stability of Europe if economic refugees were granted a right to asylum.
Economic refugees’ reasons to flee are every bit as legitimate as that of any other refugee.
No one denies that it is unfeasible to bring all those suffering from severe privation to Europe. But this is not an argument in favour of continuing to deny such people’s rights. It tells us nothing about the legitimacy of their concerns. Rather, it shows the urgent need to address severe poverty in the home countries of potential refugees.
So, how are these problems to be addressed? One might be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem. After all, there are hundreds of millions of people living below the absolute poverty level of $1.90 a day. Yet it might not even take a massive increase in development aid to address these issues. As a first step, it would suffice if we put to a halt the many ways in which economically powerful countries are actively harming the world’s poor – by exporting cheap subsidised meat to African countries and destroying their local economy; by sending huge swimming fish factories along the coasts, thereby depriving local fishermen of their source of income; and by taking advantage of their powerful position in international trade negotiations. This is not only in our own interest, but is a matter of justice.