Human Rights Program
Migration and Human Rights
Migration and Human Rights
In its efforts to address timely issues in the human rights community, the Human Rights Program has decided to bring attention to the pressing concerns of transnational and transcontinental migration around the world today. Included herein are just four major focal points: the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia/Australia, and Central America.
Migration within the Middle East
The world is currently facing the greatest migration crisis since the Second World War, in which millions are being internally displaced and forced to flee their countries. The majority of these refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (the latter often being interchangeable with the refugee experience, posing questions of discursive appropriateness) are forced to leave their homes due to various conflicts, particularly violence and instability in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. This mass influx towards particular areas in the Middle East, Europe and the United States has been complicated by a rise in terrorist attacks in these countries, which are believed to be connected to these conflicts. Though media attention has been allocated to the exodus of people towards European borders, it often fails to highlight the struggles of migrants who are within the Middle East.
Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have received the majority of refugees and migrants, presenting varying barriers to resettlement and adequate shelter. Turkey has taken in approximately two and half million refugees, Lebanon over one million, and Jordan half a million. Both Iraq and Egypt have played their part in accepting tens and hundreds of thousands of migrants, though many entering these countries go undocumented. Migrants entering these countries are not always well received and face immense hostility. An Amnesty International report began circulating at the beginning of April, claiming the Turkish regime has been illegally and forcibly returning thousands of refugees to Syria. This practice exposes a flaw in the recent deal between the EU and Turkey. Most crucially, under the “non-refoulement” principle of international humanitarian law, a state is prohibited from deporting individuals to a war zone, making Turkey’s actions in direct violation of this principle.
While many refugees and migrants may cross the border into camps, a large proportion are also scattered throughout cities and towns in informal communities, seeking shelter and security wherever it may be found. According to UN reports, in Lebanon, over 70% of Syrian refugees live below the Lebanese extreme poverty line. As Syrian refugees now constitute about a quarter of the Lebanese population, there is a crisis to meet basic needs of those who are residing in the country, with mounting concerns over food security. Like many refugees, Syrians are restricted in their access to the job market as well, making their independence and stability difficult and creating an atmosphere of tension among citizens and refugees who are searching for employment. Moreover, just over half of 6-14 year-olds in the refugee community are attending school and fewer than half who entered primary grade one reached grade six, according to December 2015 UN reports. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees further documents that only 5% of 15-17 year-olds attended secondary school or higher. In Jordan, too, refugees also do not have the legal right to work and must depend on UN food coupons. Syrians often take the jobs held by migrant workers like Egyptians, in construction and agriculture, but also those of the poorest 14% of Jordanians, who accept less than the minimum wage.
Many are puzzled as to why the Syrian migrants are disproportionately fleeing to these three countries, rather than to wealthy, Gulf States surrounding the conflict-ridden zones. Among the Gulf States, only the United Arab Emirates has received around 250,000 migrants. The UAE has contributed millions towards refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. The Gulf nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE) claim they have each given millions of dollars to aid refugees, amounting to more than $500 million over 2½ years, according to the United Nations. The Gulf States also say that Syrians have entered their countries on visas and continue living there.
One reason the Gulf States have failed to address the migrant crisis is because they have still not ratified the 1951 U.N. treaty on refugees, and as a result these nations aren't legally obligated to provide refuge or asylum. For those with less money, the sheer distance between Syria and the Gulf poses another problem. Officially, Syrians are able to apply for a tourist visa or work permit to enter one of the Gulf States. However, Syrians face various obstacles to getting a visa, particularly the high cost of the process, as well as less official or unwritten restrictions hindering Syrians from obtaining one in the first place. Without this hard-to-obtain visa, the Syrians primary options are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen. Other barriers for refugees include the lack of work in Gulf States, which in recent decades have relied heavily on unskilled migrant labor from South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. A shift by countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait toward employment of their own nationals in skilled mid-level employment has the effect of reducing jobs for refugees. Kuwait, in particular announced in 2012 its plans to reduce the number of foreign workers by one million in the next ten years. Prospects for refugees look even bleaker in light of strict nationality policies that prevent integration.
Would relocation to the Gulf States be a practical solution for the Syrian refugees? Critics argue that Gulf citizens and Syrians speak Arabic and share certain cultural traditions. Most of these states are also substantially wealthier than Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan which have accepted the bulk of refugees. Yet, due to fears of destabilizing national security, many of the countries continue to be wary of accepting refugees from the Syrian crisis. According to Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor from United Arab Emirates University, there is a perception in the Gulf States that accepting refugees would play into the hands of the terrorists and feed into the violence. As a result, the wish to preserve stability remains the paramount objective.
The migrant crisis in Europe has assumed an important role in our global consciousness in the past year. Images of young children and families facing the horrors of crossing the oceans in makeshift boats have taken the internet by storm. More than one million migrants entered the European Union by boat from Turkey in the past year, which, in turn, forced the States of the region and the European Union itself to adjust their immigration policies. Europe moved from an initial position of welcome to one of limited access. In early April this change in policy resulted in removals of migrants who illegally crossed from Turkey. Migrants are now fearful that they may be returned to camps in Turkey or even stuck in Greece for an undetermined period of time. Migrants are voicing concerns over the lack of information regarding the asylum procedure that would allow them to stay in Europe. States now face the challenge of processing asylum applications to keep pace with new arrivals on their shores.
Tensions mount as law enforcement officers in some refugee camps have been documented to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of migrants who have tried to break through restraining fences. There have been a number of such uprisings taking place in the camps in Greece since main routes used to get into Germany have been closed off and blocked to migrants. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people, mostly women and children, have been stuck in Greek camps for more than a month waiting for the routes to reopen.
Migrants are said to be arriving at about 4,000 migrants per day on the Greek Islands. And those numbers are expected to increase as the weather becomes consistently warmer. A controversial deal between Turkey and the European Union supports new controls on migration flows into Europe. For each migrant who is sent back to Turkey, the European Union will resettle a migrant who is currently living in a Turkish refugee camp. The deal also provides that Turkish citizens may travel without visas to the European Union. This portion of the deal is particularly important to the some 15-20 million people Kurds who live in Turkey and face persecution.
Human rights groups have criticized the deal saying it is unethical and could be illegal if refugees are not given the fair chance to seek asylum or if migrants are forcibly returned to countries where their safety is compromised. Greece’s capabilities to document and process the thousands of refugees has also been called into question as the country’s facing its own financial instability. Human rights organizations highlighted the mistreatment the migrants face at the deportation camps in Turkey and Greece. Amnesty International says Turkey rarely processes asylum requests and has forced migrants to return to their war ravaged countries, which is a direct violation of refugee protections. As concerns about these violations mount, the European Union will continue to be faced with the challenge of how to meet its international obligation to protect migrants.
Australia: Taking the Hard Line on Migrants and Refugees
Amidst the largest refugee crisis since World War II, many nations especially in Europe are looking for a short-term solution to their current situation. Thousands of refugees and migrants arriving daily on the shores, train stations, and cities throughout Europe, an unprecedented number of those are asylum seekers and displaced persons from war.
Some European conservatives have suggested using the Australian model of handling refuges: utilizing naval forces to halt boats, using offshore processing facilities and detention centers, and outsourcing the operations of the facilities to private contractors.
Australia took on the new set of policies in 2012 to deter new arrivals at the cost of serious human rights violations and under accusations of its political motivations. Australian officials claim that only one boat of asylum seekers reached its shores in 2014.
The Australian government argues the journey of the asylum seekers is ridden with danger and may be the result of human trafficking. Critics assert that opposition to the asylum seekers is heavily racially motivated, treatment of asylum seekers is poor at best, and is ultimately damaging Australia's international reputation.
The asylum seekers arriving mostly originate in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran or Myanmar, traveling to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations before taking a boat intended for Australian shores. UNHCR's Asylum 2014 report cited Australia at receiving 8,960 asylum applications in 2014, about 1% of all applications made globally that year.
Australia introduced in 2012 its Operation Sovereign Borders, under which naval vessels would be particularly tasked with patrolling Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in dinghies or lifeboats. In the major nations of origin, Australia has also started media campaigns with videos and flyers, deterring people from making the migration by stating they will never reach the mainland and will not receive work, citizenship or benefits.
For asylum seekers that have already arrived, the options are bleak. For those who need assistance or time to process their claims, they may be sent to neighboring, offshore island detention centers or such countries as Cambodia or Nauru for residency. Through this plan, the government is able to outsource its responsibility to private contractors which carry out administrative activities such as operating and providing security at temporary detention camps. Australia also provides financial aid to the countries that acceptance of the asylum seekers.
In December 2014, the Australian Parliament approved changes to its immigration laws, reintroducing temporary visas for refugees, allowing them to work in Australia for three to five years, but denying them permanent protection and rights. These short-term solutions show little regard for the wellbeing of the people concerned, dumping seekers onto third party islands and casting them off in dangerous territories.
The Journey from Central America to the United States
Concentrated primarily in the Southwestern portion of the United States, the Latino community was just under 6 million—or 3.2% of the total population—in 1960. Fifty years later, more than 1 in 6 Americans trace their heritage to Hispanic roots, and they make cities and towns across the entire United States their home. The history of Latin American immigration to the United States is complex and highly nuanced, but it is important to consider the serious human rights implications from which many are fleeing today and into which many are coming as they make their journey north.
Teresa Ortíz’s children were between the ages of 1 and 11 when they witnessed their neighbor being fatally shot by members of one of El Salvador’s street gangs, or “maras.” Threatened by the gang for what her children had seen, Ortíz worked day and night as an immigrant to New York to gain enough money to send back home to fund their children’s travels. It was in July of 2014 that the family was finally reunited, after seven years of separation
While this does not tell the story of every Salvadoran—or Latin American—immigrant family, it highlights the very serious conditions which many across Central American face every day. Gang—and state—violence is a constant pressure for many. The homicide rate in Honduras in 2013 was over 90 for every 100,000 inhabitants—the highest in the world. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico have also seen an increase over the past decade, sitting at 41.2, 39.9, and 21.5, respectively. In contrast, the rate of homicide in United States has hovered around 5 for every 100,000 people since 2001.
If the threat of murder is not enough, many of these individuals face unstable living conditions. While on a slight decline, over 70 percent of individuals in Mexico and Central America live in poverty (defined as under $4/day) or are vulnerable to it. Gang violence is particularly high in many parts of these countries, and young boys are often pressured either from members themselves or by their social and economic situations to join. Many of these communities are still facing the legacy of violence and fragile institutions following a series of civil wars in the 1980s.
In large part because of the gang violence and economic devastation, many individuals—and children in particular—felt it safer to travel north than risk remaining in their homeland. This has reached a climax recently, with more than 68,000 unaccompanied children being detained by Border Patrol in 2014 alone. The vast majority of these children—many as young as five years of age—originated from Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and were fleeing extortion, domestic and community violence, and economic despair.
However, for those who are able to escape violence at home, many are faced with new dangers along their journey. Immigrant children and families often use smugglers to get across the border, placing themselves in the hands for others’ doing. Teresa Ortíz paid over $4,500 to have her 15-year-old child smuggled via car, van, truck, and foot, across Mexico and into the US.
The sector that has sprung up around the smuggling process is tied to another, much more abusive system: exploitation. While Mexico, with funding from the United States, has increased its surveillance and security of migrants from Central America in recent years, many face the dangers of forced labor or serving as drug-mules and assassins by drug gangs in Mexico. For girls and young women—and increasingly boys—sexual exploitation adds another dimension, while the Mexican Migration Southern Border Survey has recently reported that at least 15 percent of all migrants through the country are facing extortion along the way.
Human rights violations facing Central American migrants do not disappear as migrants reach the United States. For many children and adults who are undocumented, the threat of deportation lingers overhead, and exploitation of their labor is widespread. First-generation migrants are more likely to hold low-skilled jobs, and many are unofficially employed in the service sector, farming, construction, or seasonal work at much lower wages than non-immigrant. The threat of being reported to authorities, deported, or separated from their families again places added pressure on Central American immigrants to remain in the shadows.
The unexpected influx of children has kicked off a national debate in the US on immigration and border security in recent years. As politicians such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are vying for the US presidency in the 2016 elections, have spoken of major migration reform, the discussion seriously overlooks the human rights dimension of the issue. As a world leader, the United States has the ability and responsibility to protect and promote human rights within its boarder and abroad. Voices are growing for more humane regional solutions. In January, 22 U.S. Senators called for an immediate halt to the Department of Homeland Security’s recent targeted arrests and deportations of mothers and children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and urged the Obama Administration to consider temporary protected status for these migrants.
April 14th, 2016