Livin’ on a Prayer A look at the migrant crisis on International Migrants Day

18, Dec 2017 | Mansi Mehta

Today, on International Migrants Day (December 18), CJP believes that it is vital to recognise the plight of both refugees and migrants, who often face similar struggles, though their legal definitions differ. According to the United Nations (UN), “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” The UN says there is “no formal legal definition of an international migrant, most experts agree that an international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status.” The number of refugees globally spiked from 15.9 million in 2000 to 21.3 million in 2015, while the number of migrants swelled from 172.7 million in 2000 to 243.7 million in 2015.


Once Upon a Time in England

Between 1330 and 1550, medieval England saw a flood of migrants, ranging from labourers to bankers, hoping to make a life there, and prompting resistance from locals who felt they were stealing their jobs and destroying their culture, according to Quartz. On May 1, 1517, London saw violent riots in which an armed mob attacked the immigrants, and London deputy sheriff Thomas More attempted to prevail on the crowd. His speech features in the play The Book of Sir Thomas More, which was edited in part by William Shakespeare. In it, More attempts to appeal to Londoners’ humanity, asking them to put themselves in the immigrants’ place:

“… Say now the king

Should so much come too short of your great trespass

As but to banish you, whither would you go?

What country, by the nature of your error,

Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,

To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,

Nay, any where that not adheres to England,

Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? this is the strangers case;

And this your mountainish inhumanity…”

If this situation sounds familiar, that is because it is; annually, thousands of migrants and refugees flee from conflict and/or economic hardship, attempting to reach more prosperous or peaceful shores. Some lucky few are accepted by countries, beginning the arduous task of rebuilding their entire lives, while frequently dealing with resistance and xenophobia from local residents. Yet, too many are languishing in limbo, stuck in camps with cramped, makeshift residences and with some in dire need of basic humanitarian aid, while governments squabble over their fate.

Stranded on an Island

According to a report from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, which cites official statistics, 11,870 individuals are in the five Reception and Identification Centres on the Greek islands–Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros. These migrants are largely from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. The report says the centres’ capacity is a maximum of 5,576 places. Although up to 3,515 people have been transferred away between October 9 and November 27, and there have been reports of Greece’s plan to transfer 5,000, it is clear that thousands are still housed in cramped and overcrowded conditions as the first official day of winter, December 21, approaches. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) campaign, #OpenTheIslands, has persistently called on Greece’s government to ensure that this situation does not continue as winter sets in. HRW has also reported on severe mental illness among these asylum-seekers. Euractiv last week reported, citing government sources, that Greece would hasten the transfer of migrants, including Syrian refugees, from the islands after it convinced Turkey to accept migrants from both the mainland and the Aegean islands.

Homeless, Stateless, Helpless

It is estimated that more than 620,000 people belonging to the stateless Rohingya minority have escaped Myanmar’s Rakhine state in recent months, fleeing from persecution and violence allegedly perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces. They are living in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, in makeshift camps and settlements. The Guardian in November reported that Rohingya girls, some as young as 12, were having their marriages arranged by families in an attempt to create new households and qualify for more UN World Food Programme (WFP) rations. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reported that between November 3 and December 12, 804 suspected cases of diphtheria were reported among the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, including 15 deaths. According to Alice Sironi, a migration law specialist with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), stateless communities are frequently “marginalized and discriminated against when they try to access the most basic services,” such as healthcare and education, and are “also often the target of xenophobic attitudes, particularly if they belong to a vulnerable minority.” The majority of the Rohingya are Muslim, while Myanmar is primarily Buddhist.

Of Leaky Boats and Modern Day Slavery

“I’m a migrant, but didn’t have to risk my life on a leaky boat or pay traffickers. Safe migration cannot be limited to the global elite,” tweeted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September 2017. For International Migrants Day, William Lacy Swing, Director General of the IOM highlights the “hundreds of millions who are not part of the growing, truly global labor talent market,” who face “enormous income disparities” and are all too willing to “climb aboard the ‘leaky boats'”. Swing emphasises that these migrants are vulnerable to “smuggling networks, human traffickers and modern day enslavers” who “ply their trade” on social media. Indeed, CNN in November reported on an open-air slave auction in Libya, where people smugglers seem to have turned slave masters after a crackdown by Libya’s coastguard. Libya has been the primary transit point for migrants hoping to make their way to Europe, and in recent years several boats have capsized on their way to Europe.

The theme for International Migrants Day 2017 is ‘Safe Migration in a World on the Move’. The world is currently working towards a Compact for Migration as well as a Global Compact on Refugees. The Compact for Migration “will be the first, inter-governmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.” One can hope that no one else will have to hang on to a decrepit vessel as they make a perilous voyage on a cold December night.


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