The Dark Incentives That Led to a Refugee Tragedy

At the core of the global asylum system lies one simple idea: Every country is obligated to offer protection to any foreign citizen within its borders who meets the legal definition of a refugee, even if they arrived without permission.

There is no central authority, no quota system of how many refugees a particular country must take. Just one basic individual right to not be deported into persecution, and one basic governmental obligation to refrain from doing so.

The simplicity of that rule is arguably the system’s greatest strength. It means that vulnerable people do not have to apply for visas before fleeing persecution, and instead they are granted rights simply on the basis of their humanity. Without that rule, it would be far easier for governments to deny protection to people deemed undesirable because of their race, religion or other background.

But it also creates a darker systemic incentive: To those who see refugees as a burden or threat, border security is a zero-sum game that can be “won” by keeping potential asylum seekers out or by forcing them into other countries. That has led to abuses and tragedy as governments go to extreme lengths to prevent migrants from claiming asylum.

Hundreds of people may have died last week in the Mediterranean, after a boat overloaded with migrants, including many children, capsized and sank. It was one of the deadliest migrant disasters in years.

Please take a moment to read this article by my Times colleagues Christina Goldbaum and Zia Ur-Rehman, who traveled to Bandli, a small village in Pakistan near the Indian border, frequently shelled in the fighting over disputed territory in Kashmir, and the hometown of 28 of the passengers on the doomed ship. When hundreds of people die it can be difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the loss, but the article movingly describes the lives of two young cousins who drowned, and their family’s profound heartbreak in the wake of their loss.

The smugglers who stuffed hundreds of people onto the ship were apparently trying to reach Italy, most likely because Greece has hardened its borders in an effort to keep migrants from reaching its shores and seeking asylum. (Sometimes it has gone even further, violating international, Greek and European Union law by expelling people who had already reached Greek territory: In April, the Times published a video showing Greek authorities forcing a van full of migrants, including children and a 6-month-old infant, onto an inflatable raft and towing it into the middle of the Aegean Sea, then abandoning it.)

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who was the prime minister of Greece from 2019 until the country’s first-round elections last month and is expected to win a renewed majority in the runoff this weekend, has claimed that his harsh treatment of migrants has built good will with the European Union. And, indeed, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Greece’s border enforcement was Europe’s “shield,” because its harsh tactics prevent migrants from reaching E.U. territory. “This border is not only a Greek border, it is also a European border,” she said after Greece used tear gas to repel hundreds of people who were trying to cross over from Turkey.

The European Union has gone to even greater extremes to deter migrants. Frontex, the E.U. border agency, has used aerial surveillance to help the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats, even though there is extensive evidence that Libya has systematically abused and tortured the migrants it captured. Frontex has claimed that the surveillance saved lives, but a report by Human Rights Watch found that it was done in service of the Libyan interceptions, rather than rescues by other boats in the area.

For a deeper investigation of abuse and corruption in the global migration system, read “My Fourth Time, We Drowned,” by Sally Hayden, which won the 2022 Orwell Prize. (I must admit, however, that I recommend it in partial violation of my own rules about not suggesting books until I’ve read them: The chapters I’ve made it through are excellent, but it is so harrowing that I keep having to take breaks, so I have not yet finished it.)

A glimpse of a different world

Other approaches, which would reduce cruelty without violating international law, are possible.

In April of last year, I visited a Ukrainian refugee center in a Polish stadium. It had been set up in just a few weeks to handle the influx of refugees from Ukraine, who were mostly women and children fleeing the Russian invasion.

It was clean, efficiently organized and full of helpful volunteers who spoke Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, to assist with form-filling and general guidance. Within a few hours, Ukrainians who had fled their home the day before could apply for and immediately receive legal status in the country, register for refugee benefits, and open a bank account. Outside, World Central Kitchen was giving out free hot meals.

Other European countries quickly set up similar programs to offer shelter and services to those fleeing the conflict.

The effort required tremendous resources, of course. But punitive, militarized border enforcement is also expensive, as are migrant detention centers and adversarial immigration hearings. The European Union has allocated hundreds of millions of euros since 2015 to address migration across the central Mediterranean route alone.

And programs like the one I witnessed in Poland, which create a sense of control and order, seem to be far more politically palatable to voters.

It is true that, as I wrote in a column at the time, Ukrainians were especially welcome because of a very specific set of circumstances: not only were they white and Christian, but they were also fleeing a common enemy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But in Britain, a program to welcome people from Hong Kong after the Chinese crackdown also barely made a political ripple, even though the government estimated that as many as 300,000 people would be able to apply.

“They are not being labeled asylum seekers,” Stephanie Schwartz, a political scientist at the London School of Economics who studies the politics of immigration, told me earlier this year. “And that is to their advantage.”

What are you reading?

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