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Why the EU Should Reconsider Renegotiating the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal

Guest Contributor Ali Cain is an M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. She is additionally the Program Coordinator for the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR). Her research interests include populism, refugee rights and transatlantic relations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used over 4 million refugees in Turkey as political blackmail against the European Union (EU). Leveraging the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal, Erdogan has consistently threatened to “open the floodgates” and allow refugees to cross into neighboring Greece whenever his demands are not  met. Previous demands have included quicker EU accession talks, European support for a refugee safe zone in northern Syria, and more funding to support refugees.

 In late February 2020, Russian and Syrian government forces attacked the Syrian province of Idlib, forcing thousands to flee into northwest Turkey. In response, Erdogan finally fulfilled his threats and allowed thousands of refugees to leave, even providing buses for transportation to the Greek border. Upon arrival, refugees were greeted with tear gas, barricades and shouts to go back home. Videos later surfaced of the Greek Coast Guard circling refugee boats in what looked like an effort to both deter them from landing but also capsize them. The New York Times further reported that the Greek Coast Guard beat migrants with sticks and shot at them, resulting in the death of a Syrian refugee. Worryingly, the EU’s willpower and ability to address this crisis and reinvigorate the discussion over modifications to Europe’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is substantially reduced as it now faces the surmounting challenge of tackling COVID-19. 

In discussing this new migration crisis, the EU has taken a defensive position in calling for the protection of Europe’s borders. Instead of using this opportunity to reinitiate a conversation on a “fresh start” for Europe’s asylum system as she advocated for during her consideration for EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen instead commended Greece for being Europe’s shield and offered its government €700 million ($769,968,000) of aid, €350 million ($384,984,000) of which would go to strengthening Greece’s border control. While offering support to Greece, Ms. von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel also visited Turkey to discuss renegotiating the 2016 EU-Turkey Migration Deal. At the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU and Turkey agreed that each individual who arrived at the Greek border by boat and/or without official permission would be returned to Turkey, as it is considered a safe country for “irregular” migrants. In exchange for every individual sent to Turkey, a Syrian would be accepted into an EU member state. The EU initially agreed to provide €3 billion ($3,299,860,000) of assistance to the Turkish government to fund on-the-ground projects for refugees. 

Since the agreement was finalized, Erdogan has demanded more funding and the EU has obliged, increasing its contributions to €6 billion ($6,599,720,000) and extending its support of projects until 2025. Other parts of the deal have faltered; the EU agreed to visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and a reinvigoration of accession discussions regarding Turkey joining the EU. However, there has been little movement on both of these commitments due to Erdogan’s growing usurpation of power which has led to an increased crackdown on opposition, heightened violence towards the Kurdish community, and greater involvement in the Syrian conflict. The EU has additionally failed to accept its agreed exchange of Syrian refugees. Only 27,000 have been resettled since 2016. 

Many European governments would see the original agreement as a logistical success given that its goal was to deter refugees from coming to Europe. Yet, although migration from Turkey has fallen by 97%, a crisis still remains. Turkey is growing increasingly unsafe for refugees. The renegotiation of this deal would allow Erdogan to continue fostering an unsafe environment, pressure Europe into more funding, infringe on refugee’s human rights and further challenge Europe’s human rights commitments. 

First and foremost, Turkey does not meet and will not meet the EU’s standards for accession. Since a 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has made Turkey, which was once applauded as a successful Muslim democracy, into an increasingly authoritarian state. Following the coup, he fired thousands of government workers, educators, and military members and arrested many of them for “anti-state” crimes. He then issued a referendum in 2017, allowing him to consolidate executive power by controlling elections, intervening in the judiciary, and appointing ministers directly. This power grab led to international outcry, including from the EU who referred to the constitutional changes as a “big setback for democracy.”  

Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian state is best exemplified in its status as the biggest jailer of journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists and its ranking as “not free” by Freedom House. Erdogan’s actions clearly violate Europe’s commitment to human rights and its principles for the accession process; any previous reforms that satisfied the EU’s conditions for membership should now be considered completely null and void. Therefore, a renegotiation of this deal that commits to reassessing Turkish accession is not only woefully misguided but jeopardizes the human rights standards and legal commitments the EU is obligated to uphold. 

Second, refugees in Turkey are facing increasingly hostile conditions due to rising unemployment and growing xenophobia that conflict with Turkey’s status as a safe country. There are over 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. 64% of those living in Turkish cities are living at or below the poverty line because it is extremely challenging for refugees to obtain working permits. Unemployment in Turkey is now at 13%. 

This had contributed to an increase in xenophobic sentiment among Turkish society. It has been reported that 60-80% of Turks  want Syrian refugees out. Violence has begun to occur, with Syrian owned stores being attacked in July 2019 after a false rumor about a Syrian sexually assaulting a minor was circulated. The hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum (I don’t want Syrians in my country) has become prominent throughout Turkish social media. 

This public pressure, as well as the clear strain on Turkey’s social services, has led to increased deportations. There is a lack of accountability in ensuring asylum procedures are lawfully carried out. Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and is therefore required to not only protect refugees but also uphold the international legal principle of non-refoulment which mandates that refugees cannot be sent back to countries where they will face human rights violations.  A 2019 investigation by Refugees International found that Turkish authorities were increasingly stopping Syrian refugees to check their identification papers and accelerating deportations to Syria, many of which were forced returns. Furthermore, Erdogan has sought to resettle Syrian refugees in a “safe zone” controlled by American backed Kurdish forces. Many have criticized this plan, including the Europeans. A resettlement in northern Syria, where violence continues, not only threatens refugees but also enflames Turkey’s tensions with the Kurds. Although this plan is at a stand-still, Erdogan continues to seek out and demand support, using his release of refugees into Europe as political bait.  

Finally, the 2016 deal has allowed for conditions to also worsen for refugees in Greece. Those who arrived in Greece following the agreement were prohibited from crossing into mainland Europe, resulting in refugees having to seek asylum in Greece or face immediate deportation to Turkey. Because the deal mandates that all of those who fail to qualify for asylum be deported, Greek authorities must detain everyone who is considered to have entered Greece irregularly, which has led to overcrowding in detention centers. An estimated 40,000 people live in facilities built for 6,000. Conditions in these camps are dire; Amnesty International reported those detained on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios had “no access to legal aid, limited access to services and support, and hardly any information about their status or possible fate.” The Greek islands have thus become a prison of both limbo and inhumane living conditions for asylum seekers. According to the New York Times, Greece has detained migrants at secret detention centers and is sending them to Turkey without any due process on their asylum claims. Although Greece does have the right to detain those who enter its borders, it is nevertheless obliged by international law to give each asylum applicant a fair and timely consideration. 

Additionally, the European Commission announced it would offer €2,000 ($2,199) to those living in Greek detention camps who voluntarily agreed to return home. Although the Commission stated that the intended recipients of this funding are economic migrants and not refugees, poor camp conditions and severely delayed asylum decisions could put pressure on refugees to return to their home countries. It is also questionable how many economic migrants are in Greece, considering that most individuals are from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead of trying to buy out migrants in returning home to potentially unstable states, the Commission could instead use its funding to better improve the living conditions in detention facilities and support Greece’s government in processing its asylum applications more efficiently. 

Turkey’s concerns about the refugee crisis  are not totally unfounded as it is the largest host country in the world. Considerable strain has been placed on its social services and its population. Hosting four million refugees in a country that is struggling economically is not an easy task. However, growing anti-refugee sentiment and the subsequent harms to the refugee population in the country is one of many clear signals that the EU should not renegotiate its 2016 deal with Turkey. Rather, steps ought to be taken to address the structural causes of such a high number of refugees forced to leave their homes. The EU should not allow itself to continue to be in Erdogan’s chokehold; by continuing its “payer not player” status in using funds as a conflict resolution mechanism instead of diplomacy and mediation, the EU is helping to prolong violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the world is currently occupied with COVID-19, and rightfully so, the EU will have to return to its discussion on migration reform eventually.  When it does, it has moral and legal obligations to protect refugees and to figure out a solution that is dependent on European states and international law, not Erdogan’s will. 

A Fresh Start in EU Migration Policy: Re-examining the Dublin Regulation

Guest Contributor Ali Cain is an M.A. Candidate in the European History, Politics and Society Program at Columbia University. She is additionally the Program Coordinator for the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR). Her research interests include populism, refugee rights and transatlantic relations.

During her 2019 candidacy for European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum to “relaunch the Dublin reform of asylum rules.” Ms. von der Leyen is correct: Europe’s asylum system needs a fresh start. The Dublin Regulation III mandates that asylum seekers register upon arrival in the first European Union (EU) member state he or she enters. At the refugee crisis’ peak in 2015, 1.3 million asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Europe. Many traveled through the Mediterranean Sea, designating Italy and Greece as first ports of entry and, therefore, responsible for processing asylum claims. The influx of asylum seekers has led to immense strains on local governments, inciting animosity against refugees and creating a significant backlog of asylum decisions. 

According to Politico, there is a backlog of 90,000 asylum cases in Greece alone. The Greek government recently released a plan to create a “floating wall” to block migration routes on the Aegean Sea and will soon begin construction of closed detention centers that will limit the movement of asylum seekers. At a press conference on February 27, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis explicitly told those who do not qualify for international protection to “not come to Greece”, and warned that they will remain stuck on the islands until they are returned home. Although Greece’s treatment of refugees is appalling, their actions and rhetoric towards refugees demonstrates the depths of desperation which border states are being driven to due to EU inaction. To complicate issues further, the EU received its highest numbers of asylum applications since 2015; the European Asylum Support Office reported that 714,2000 applications were received in 2019. Future migration crises are inevitable, especially given climate change as an increasingly central driver of forced displacement. Commission President von der Leyen must prioritize the reform of the Dublin Regulation to create a cohesive asylum process in Europe. 

The Dublin Convention was created in 1997 in response to the Schengen Zone’s development. Under the Convention and its succeeding regulations, geographic arrival points determine state responsibility for refugees. The number of refugees already present in a state are not taken into consideration when determining relocation destinations or places of stay during the processing of asylum applications. Although the Dublin Framework includes rights for refugees that are already solidified under international law, including family unification and speedy asylum decisions, those rights are not enforced equally among EU member states. Following the 2015 refugee crisis, the EU began to discuss reforming the Dublin system to include burden-sharing measures and increased human rights protections. The European Commission proposed a reallocation quota determined by each country’s population and gross domestic product (GDP). The European Parliament suggested amendments to the Commission’s proposal also to include family reunification and prior residence/study in relocation decisions. The European Council must decide whether to implement burden-sharing provisions, but has been divided on the best way to actually relocate refugees since December 2018. The Visegrád countries – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have refused to accept refugees or abide by quotas.

As a result of Council gridlock, member states have relied heavily on third-party agreements to curb migration. These agreements have been successful in achieving the EU’s overall goal of curbing migration but pose threats to human rights and are not sustainable in the long-term. Although the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey led to a 97% decrease in migration from Turkey to Greece, 3RP reported that over 64% of the 3.6 million refugees living in Turkey are living in poverty. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for the “voluntary” resettlement of refugees in a “peace zone” in Northern Syria. Pushing refugees to return to Syria would violate non-refoulement standards under international law, which mandates that a host country cannot return asylum seekers to a country where they would be in danger or would be persecuted. Furthermore, President Erdogan announced on February 27, 2020 that Turkish authorities will not prohibit Syrian refugees from leaving Turkey to go to Europe, as Turkey is facing an influx of Syrian refugees from Idlib due to recent attacks by the Assad government and Russia. This recent announcement demonstrates the precise issue with third-party agreements: they provide short term reprive for host countries but kick the can of dealing with refugees down the road at refugees’ expense.  

The EU-Turkey deal also has implications for those already in Europe. For example, thousands of refugees are stranded on the Greek island of Lesbos as the EU-Turkey agreement prohibits their arrival on mainland Greece. Most recently, protests against inhumane living conditions broke out at the Moria refugee camp, where 20,000 refugees are cramped into facilities built to house 3,000 individuals. These conditions, which are common in many refugee camps throughout Europe, infringe on basic human rights secured under international conventions, including the 1951 Refugee Convention.  The EU’s 2015 Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has decreased economic factors that encourage migration from Africa by providing over 50,000 jobs and improving living standards. However, as explained in a recent Oxfam report, European investment in specific countries and regions is tied to migration levels stemming from each origin country. Addressing underlying societal issues like poverty and inequality, and political issues like corruption is not tied to aid. The EU also increasingly has depended upon the Libyan Coast Guard for search and rescue (SAR) missions, which intercept boats and return passengers to Libya. Those sent back to Libya face torture and trafficking in detention centers run by both the government and militias. Forced returns to Libya also violates the principle of non-refoulement.

A report released by the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that member states may now be more open to asylum relocations and burden sharing. In July 2019, fourteen states signed a solidarity mechanism, pledging to relocate migrants across the EU. In September 2019, Italy’s staunchly anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini was recently replaced by migration specialist Luciana Lamorgese in September 2019. Italy’s migration policies have already begun to change as private charity’s boats can now dock at Italian ports. Additionally, a recent European Council on Foreign Relations survey found that a majority of EU citizens no longer see migration as the most pressing issue of concern. Instead, survey respondents reported “health, housing unemployment, and living costs as standout issues.” Although it is easy to get caught up in the pessimism of current EU affairs, all European countries can agree that the current system under the Dublin Regulation is not working. A November 2019 EU Council Presidency report acknowledges the importance of the EU speaking in one voice about migration and concludes that “the more members states have the perception that EU legislation is meeting their concrete needs and taking into account their administrative realities, the more likely it is that the implementation will be successful.” The new Commission’s expressed interest in reforming the CEAS and the designation of €949 million ($1,039,120,000) to the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund presents an opportunity for reform. The EU has also pledged 30.8 billion ($41,608,700,000) for immigration and border control issues in the 2021-2027 budget.  Furthermore, the conclusion of Brexit provides a pivotal moment for the remaining 27 member states to reestablish the EU’s joint efforts and cohesiveness.

Migration is one of the most complicated and emotionally-driven issues to nation-states, as it heightens various concerns regarding economic and cultural security. The EU’s current approach in relying on third-party agreements, increasing general border control, and remaining gridlocked over how to better distribute refugees throughout Europe is a significant problem. Border states, especially Greece, and larger financially stable states like Germany, cannot be solely responsible for asylum seekers. The European Commission must push states to reopen discussions and negotiations on reforming the Dublin Regulation.

A Way Forward? Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part II of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

A potential solution to the looming issue of climate migration has recently been put forward by a commission of academic and policy experts who spent the last two years developing the Model International Mobility Convention. The proposed framework establishes the minimum rights afforded to all people who cross state borders, with special rights afforded to forced migrants, refugees, migrant victims of trafficking and migrants stranded in crisis situations.

A Way Forward? Advancing the International Mobility Convention

The Mobility Convention broadens the scope of international protection by recognizing what it terms “forced migrants.” Climate migrants lacking legal grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention would qualify for protection under the forced migrant definition it advances.

“We were looking for rules that will really improve protections for forced migrants and refugees,” says Michael Doyle, who helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention as the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project. “The moral claims that they make on us— environmental reasons— are not that different from the grounds of the 1951 Convention, which are just too narrow,” he said. “We have no expectation that Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Andrzej Duda in Poland will be interested. But this is a long game, so we’re visiting universities and NGOs to explain the logic behind this highly comprehensive convention that we’ve prepared.”

Doyle rattles off an enviable list of recently visited cities— Nairobi, Mumbai, Paris, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, Barcelona, São Paulo— where he’s travelled to spread the word about the convention. “The hope is to build a valuable network of alliances, building the kind of coalition that will get the attention of friends in government, a sufficiently significant number of them that this prospect might be established,” he explained.

He cites the landmark Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa in 1997, as exemplifying the power of academic and civil society organizations mobilized in pursuit of a common goal.

The Mobility Convention proposes key changes to international migration, for instance in terms of responsibility-sharing. “The current principle is responsibility by proximity,” Doyle says, referencing the disproportionate impacts of the Syrian conflict on neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. “84 percent of refugees live in developing countries nearby, and that is not sustainable.”

On the outskirts of Dadaab refugee camp, a family gathers sticks and branches for firewood and shelter. The carcasses of animals which have perished in the drought are strewn across the desert. //  Andy Hall // Oxfam East Africa, 2011

According to Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, the vast majority of climate migrants will be internally displaced, or will travel cross-border to a neighboring country that isn’t much better off than they are.

“Some are able to use their social networks and social capital, their skills and financial resources to move, but the most highly vulnerable people don’t have any of that capital – and if they can move, it’s not very far from where they’re already endangered,” she said. 

“Responsibility is nominally determined by your capacity to exist, but this top-down quota system fell flat in Europe,” Doyle explained. “We’re proposing using naming and shaming against a set of standards to encourage better behavior.”

The proposed system would have UNHCR annually identify refugee costs and the number of refugees needing to be resettled worldwide. The agency would then examine country population, GDP, past refugee loads and so on in order to determine a proportionate quota system based on each country’s capacity. Countries would be expected to make voluntary pledges in terms of dollars and resettlement based on the agency’s calculation. To create a naming-and-shaming incentive, UNHCR would publish a report at the end of each year revealing whether each country lived up to its commitments and resettled its fair share of refugees according to its socioeconomic capacity.

The political tensions that come with responsibility-sharing could be dramatically lessened if we start now. According to Martin, the key is building resilience early by focusing on increasing financial resources and human capital. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have begun admitting people in small numbers who can form the backbone of a diaspora for later climate migrants. Seasonal programs providing supplementary income for farmers and fishers affected by environmental impacts can similarly help raise financial and educational resources.

“This way, they’ll be better able to meet the standards of immigration in other countries rather than being treated as an emergency,” Martin said.

“It’s much better to help people qualify for legal immigration instead of responding to it as a crisis,” Martin emphasized.
“That’s what happened with the Syrian crisis – European countries, including those in Eastern Europe, could have easily absorbed those numbers.”

Conflict, Chaos, Money: Good Preparation is Good Politics

Governments have many incentives to prepare for climate migration. Climate impacts will exacerbate conflict, and failure to prepare legal avenues for displaced persons will only further increase the risks of regional destabilization. For example, climate-related conditions, particularly droughts, have driven conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and contributed to the outbreak of the Arab Spring across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010.

Man holding a boy during a clash near the border train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, as Macedonian riot police block refugees from crossing the border, August 2015. // AP Photo // Darko Vojinovic

“If no attention is paid and no relevant action is taken to resolve conflicts, you have thousands of refugees in the region with no solution and no prospects for peace to allow voluntary return,” Bertrand warned, highlighting that refugees now make up 25 percent of Lebanon’s population. “Those very numbers can destabilize the destination country – and these situations can last 15, 20 years.”

Bertrand pointed to Afghanistan to illustrate how protracted refugee situations can be. He was sent to Kabul in 1988 to repatriate Afghans after the departure of Soviet forces, as legal arrangements were made for UNHCR to open a repatriation office and ensure that displaced Afghans could return home. “But it’s been 30 years and there are still significant numbers in Pakistan that have not yet returned,” he explained, “and the situation is still triggering new movements.”

Second, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, immigrants actually have positive economic impacts on host countries. Doyle urges the implementation of labor-based migration. “Why not identify where a country is likely to experience shortages and open up visas for this?” he asked, pointing to Canada and Australia, two countries that have already started doing this.“Legal documentation is a win-win all around: design a better system, say, matching recent graduates with openings. There will be a large demand in many areas.”

Martin similarly highlights that many immigrants have the skills needed for the labor force in highly developed countries, especially when considering the implications of aging baby boomers. The reality is that immigrants are not often competing with natives for jobs. 

What now? Making Migration a Social Norm

To convince people opposed to migration,  we need to focus on making migration in urgent circumstances a norm. Looking at the populist boom in North America and Western Europe, Martin highlighted that framing migration solely in terms of international law and international frameworks can feel elitist, as it excludes large swaths of society who have been excluded from these types of issues and discussions. Rather than appearing as hot topics during sudden times of unrest, concepts of migration and displacement should be promoted at an earlier stage so people of all strata, education levels and belief systems grow up understanding the phenomenon to be natural and normal.

A “Refugees Welcome” sign displayed on the Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, October 2015. // Harvey Barrison //  Creative Commons.

Doyle urges students to campaign in the human rights sense of climate migration, lobbying governments, forming campaigns, and mobilizing in support of low-hanging policy fruit like family reunification. He suggests looking to cities as bases of support. 

The private sector, too, presents a key partnership opportunity. Companies like Ikea, Google, and Uniqlo all have corporate social responsibility initiatives that can be mobilized in support of more adept immigration policies.

Over the next ten years, Doyle hopes that civil society and academia will mobilize in support of the Mobility Convention, urging cities and governments to adapt immigration policies and offer stronger protections to both conflict and climate-driven migrants.

“By 2028, we hope to have formed a coalition,” Doyle says. “A coalition that will see the value of bringing international law up to date.”


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

When the Wave Comes: Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part I of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“Climate refugees”— broadly defined as people displaced across borders because of the sudden or long-term effects of climate change—are not a future phenomenon. Climate migration is already happening in a growing number of countries around the world: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that the impact and threat of climate-related hazards displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. In 2016 alone, climate and weather-related disasters displaced some 23.5 million people.

Floods, droughts and storms are the primary causes of climate-related displacement. In the coming decades, severe droughts are expected to plague northern Mexico, with some studies predicting up to 6.7 million people migrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result. High-intensity storms like cyclones have already displaced thousands from Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and rising sea levels are projected to put Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island with the smallest carbon footprint in the world, completely under water.

A woman and child walk through Chennai, India after severe floods in December 2015. // Anindito Mukherjee // Reuters

Projections of future migration patterns expect at least 200 million citizens to flee their homelands by 2050. Further, according to a recent paper investigating the correlation between migration and significant fluctuations in temperature, asylum applications will increase by almost 200 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

“Climate Refugees” Do Not Exist  Technically

The problem, however, is this: under international law, there is technically no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Additional Protocol adopted in 1967 define the term “refugee” as “any person outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In other words, under the current framework, the millions of people soon to be displaced due to climate-related impacts will have no legal grounds to seek international protection.  

 


“It’s interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems polar bears will face, rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.” 

Bill Gates, 2009

According to Pierre Bertrand, former Director of UNHCR in New York and Lead Rapporteur to the UN Global Migration Group, the “climate refugees” phenomenon is increasingly visible in the public discourse, despite its lack of legal status. “People are on the move for many compelling reasons. But what is more compelling than people whose country disappears?” he said.

The 2016 Paris Agreement, a landmark international climate agreement signed by 195 countries, failed to address climate-related disasters as a basis for asylum despite significant lobbying by international NGOs.

Bertrand says this was due to fears surrounding amending or expanding the definition set out by the 1951 Convention. “The thinking in UNHCR is that if we put this up for revision and discussion to adapt the Convention to contemporary forms of forced movement, it will risk downgrading the standards of the Convention itself,” he said. 

UNHCR// Ibarra Sánchez

Citing the current political mood towards migration, Bertrand highlighted the risk that opening the Convention to review may carry.

“Countries in the North and in Europe want to review the Convention to bring some limits to it, rather than improvements,” he said.

In December 2015, for example, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen suggested that the 1951 Convention might need to be renegotiated in light of the European migration crisis.

“In the discussion of migration, there is a divide between countries who export migrants, and the countries who receive them. Some are interested in how their nationals are treated in countries of transit and destination; they want the best treatment possible for their nationals,” Bertrand told RightsViews via telephone. “But then you have the elephant in the room: the countries in the north arguing that they have the competence to decide who to admit, which is a sacred principle. It remains the right of states to decide, based on the classic concept of sovereignty enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”

He points to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, developed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, to illustrate his point. “This Convention has 51 ratifications, all from the South. No developed country has ever ratified it,” he said.

Walls Won’t Work: Adapting National Immigration Policies

Despite the predictions of climate-fueled migration on the horizon, American and European political leaders are currently building walls and slashing annual refugee quotas. Among the most visibly anti-migrant is the Trump administration, which in only one year cut its federal refugee program by more than half, cracked down on undocumented immigration, deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border while the president’s controversial wall remains stalled, and proposed slashing legal immigration numbers by half over the next ten years. Anti-migrant policies are hardly unique to Donald Trump and strongly correlated with the rise of far-right populist parties across the European Union. The number of border walls around the world has jumped from 15 in 1989 to 70 today.

Flooding in the Walia neighborhood of N’Djamena in Chad, October 2012, caused by the rise of the Chari and Logone rivers. // Pierre Peron // OCHA

Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, notes that migration is a natural and effective adaptation process for environmental changes. “There needs to be preemptive action to provide legal avenues to facilitate those movements,” she said.

Some countries have already begun to adapt their immigration policies in preparation for climate migration, particularly those who have already experienced it. After a devastating earthquake in 2010 killed 300,000 Haitians and displaced more than one million, Brazil developed a policy issuing humanitarian visas and work authorizations for those arriving from the stricken nation. Argentina and Peru have implemented similar policies accounting for people affected by environmental disasters, and New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to introduce a climate refugee scheme by creating a special “refugee visa” for Pacific Islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. Humanitarian visas, work authorizations, and other legal pathways are innovative policy options that states can institute even without an overarching international legal framework.

Other states, however, have responded to high rates of current asylum applications by closing existing legal avenues for climate migrants. In response to the European “refugee crisis,” for example, both Finland and Sweden— previously hailed as the only two countries in the world recognizing environmental disaster as a basis for protection— recently removed the clause from their respective immigration and asylum legislation.

Part II of the two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law coming soon.


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews. 

 

Israel’s Two Minutes Hate: Netanyahu Reneges on Refugee Deal

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

During the climax of 1984’s “Two Minutes Hate,” the image of the despised enemy of the state, the cowardly traitor (and probably the entirely made-up) Emmanuel Goldstein, is replaced with that of the supreme leader— the beloved, worshipped, unparalleled Big Brother.

This infamous scene from George Orwell’s dystopian society is grotesque, violent and extremely emotionally charged. Yet it is this same scene currently flashing across the Israeli social network in reality. The role of Goldstein is being played by an NGO called the “New Israel Fund” (NIF), and the part of Big Brother is, appropriately, occupied by another “BB”— Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The book 1984 has experienced quite a rejuvenation of late. Perhaps it is in preparation for the 70th anniversary of its publication, or maybe it is the never-ending war, the terribly partisan political sphere or just a few certain “alternative facts”— but regardless, it is once again relevant for Israeli, as well as American, British and French, politics.

Last week, Israelis awoke to news of the country signing an agreement with the European Union that pertains to illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The main decisions reached included Israeli recognition of some 16,000 immigrants as either refugees or legal residents, the deportation of roughly the same amount to Western countries through the UNHCR, and new investments in infrastructure in south Tel Aviv, which has become home to some 35,000 immigrants since 2010.

A good overall agreement for all sides, the deal was perceived as a political victory for the Israeli left (which objects, mostly, to deportations of illegal immigrants, especially from Eritrea and South Sudan) and a loss to Netanyahu’s base– the right, which objects to accommodating any immigrants or refugees. Almost immediately, the left began celebrating the new agreement– and the right, which has stood by Netanyahu even when potential corruption charges surfaced against him, turned on him. He was bashed by pundits, politicians and commenters for giving in to the left and reneging on his promises. Even his most devoted allies left him hanging alone. And surely enough, this worked: less than 24 hours later, Netanyahu retracted the agreement, stating that he had “heard the people’s cry.”

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. // REUTERS

Soon thereafter, faced with having to explain this astonishingly acrobatic flip from yes to no, Netanyahu resorted to what he does best: divide and conquer.

He uploaded to Facebook a short statement suggesting the reason for the agreement’s falling apart was in fact an NGO called the New Israel Fund. He alleged that the NGO had caused foreign states to retract their decision to accept deportees from Israel, and called it unpatriotic and anti-Israeli, specifically for its being largely foreign-funded. An NGO worth 300 million, NIS was to blame, he said, for his government’s diplomatic conundrums.

The internet roared. The left mourned. The right, which had attacked Netanyahu, immediately quieted down and began cheering him on again– and then, began aiming its arrows at left-wing activists, calling them traitors, backsliders and foreign agents. The far-right NGO “Im Tirtzu” uploaded– in remarkable proximity to Netanyahu’s statement, by the way– a propaganda video depicting the NIF and its president, Talia Sasson, as foreign agents who operate as a fifth column in Israeli society. Death threats soon ensued.

Netanyahu had done it again: with just two minutes (or so) of pure hate, the tides changed. He was soon adored again as the one and only Big Brother, the “protector of Israel” (as he once professed he wished to be remembered). The masses rallied behind his leadership once more, turning their attention to the made-up demon that is the NIF and the Israeli left in general.

The furious public found in the telescreen an image of Talia Sasson and a logo of the NIF on which to spill its rage, which had climaxed mere seconds before Israel’s own BB reappeared in the form of Netanyahu’s calm and reassuring image.

War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and only Bibi can lead us.


Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

A Hidden Population of Disabled Refugees in the U.K.

By Jason Hung, a guest blogger from the University of Warwick

Currently, there are an estimated 118,995 refugees living in the U.K., composing less than one percent of the country’s total population. Three to ten percent of these refugees are thought to have a physical or mental disability. Due to the small number of disabled refugees living in the U.K., the rights of these refugees have often been disregarded, according to Keri Roberts and Jennifer Harris, research fellows from the University of York who generated data on the numbers and social characteristics of disabled refugees and asylum seekers living in Britain. Their research, which was completed in collaboration with the Refugee Council, found that U.K. communities are unable to provide sufficient aid for these vulnerable groups.

“Disabled people in refugee and asylum-seeking communities frequently experienced great hardship,” the authors note. “Considerable confusion about the responsibilities of different agencies and National Asylum Seekers Service (NASS), a lack of coordinated information and service provision, and gaps in professional knowledge on disability-related entitlements increased the difficulties experienced by disabled people in refugee and asylum-seeking communities.” For example, disabled refugees in the U.K. encounter inappropriate housing, as well as inadequate aid and equipment. There is also no official source of data about disabled refugees in the U.K, and it is noteworthy to highlight that even the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) fails to estimate the number of disabled refugees who have been resettled. Roberts and Harris conclude in their report that the insufficient statistical and empirical data about disabled refugees implicates the possibility of an invisible population of disabled refugees residing in the U.K. The extent of the social needs of these refugees remains unknown.

An image of refugee children in school // DFID // Flickr

A lack of financial support and access can bar disabled refugees from learning English and other valuable languages, such as British Sign Language (BSL) for deaf individuals, for example. In addition, communication difficulties have discouraged some disabled refugees from seeking community support and accessing benefits. One Vietnamese refugee missed out on disability-related benefits for 22 years because he was not properly informed about the availability of the Disability Living Allowance, according to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The same report noted that a disabled Somali woman was never properly informed about how to apply for humanitarian aid due to language barriers. Without a helping hand, disabled refugees could find it challenging to live in the U.K. unless their English proficiency improves.

The year 2017 has further marked a bleak future for disabled refugees in the U.K. The government terminated the acceptance of disabled child refugees arriving from the war in Syria and other countries, including Libya, Yemen and Iraq. The Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme hoped to resettle 3,000 of the most vulnerable disabled child refugees prior to its suspension. These children must now stay in refugee camps, instead of being placed in the U.K. Shantha Barriga, director of Human Rights Watch’s disability rights division, denounced this action, stating, “Shutting the door on vulnerable children is an affront to British values…. People with disabilities endure unimaginable hardship during conflicts, and many faced huge hurdles in escaping the violence.” Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, supplemented this statement by adding that disabled refugees are by definition the most vulnerable groups. The U.K. government should thus prioritize the resettlement of these cohorts and accommodate them safely, advocates argue.

Allan Hennessy // Noticias del Mundo // YouTube

Allan Hennessy, a blind Iraqi refugee and a recent law graduate from the University of Cambridge, told the BBC in July 2017 that he might have joined ISIS or been killed in war if he was not able to stay in the U.K. as a refugee. In the end, the biggest hurdle refugees with disabilities face might not be any physical limitation but the social discrimination that impedes them from pursuing a better life. “When you’re an overweight, brown, blind guy climbing the greasy pole, everyone can see and they judge you – even though they are doing it too.” Hennesy explained to BBC reporters.

Whether individuals have a physical or mental disability does not necessarily limit their work and life prospects; however, there is a contempt for disabled refugees, according to Hennessy. Refugees with disabilities suffer from social discrimination, including being sidelined in many aspects of humanitarian aid, such as health and rehabilitation services, reports the Division of Social Policy and Development Disability.

research report published by Research and Consultancy Unit (RCU) at Refugee Support and Metropolitan Support Trust defines disabled refugees in the U.K. as a “hidden population.” The number of disabled refugees and the multiple disadvantages they are up against are rarely known by local humanitarian service agencies and government authorities, the report notes. The research adds that most disabled refugees, in line with the rest of refugee cohorts, experience war and torture in their home countries and cultural and linguistic differences in their host countries. Their disabilities cast a further shadow on their livelihoods. As Hennessy wrote in The Guardian, “I have a disability; but I am not disabled.” It is the responsibility of both the U.K government and local communities to maximize the social capacity of refugees with disabilities by endeavouring to remove social stigmatization and ongoing impediments to aid.

Jason Hung is a visiting research scholar at UCLA for his original research project, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: The Existence or Absence of Cultural Tolerance toward American Muslims?” He will be presenting his research at the 7th International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Science Studies at the University of Oxford. He is also a featured writer for both the Oxford Human Rights Hub and the LSE Human Rights Blog. His research interests include migration issues, refugee rights, feminism affairs, women’s rights, and public health policies.