“The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization,” writes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of the earliest references to those practices date back three and a half millennia. Today, the definition of a refugee and his or her rights are codified in the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

A refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Unlike migrants, refugees flee to escape imprisonment, the deprivation of their basic human rights, physical injury, death or torture. 

In the conversation around what was briefly called Europe’s refugee crisis – and is now only referred to as our migrant crisis – a pointed distinction has been made between the two.

Again, from the UNHCR: “Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”

An intolerable life in the shadows can mean many things. There is the dark shadowy hell of civil war and state brutality. There are also the millions and millions of people who lead starved lives in the shadows of more prosperous economies – lives starved of nutrition, access to education, of culture and democracy and certain basic rights. Millions are imprisoned on the street, are in fact deprived of their basic human rights because of economic and social conditions, and ultimately, face death because of it.

But it’s not those people we want to save. It’s those defined as refugees we feel half-heartedly compelled to save, and mostly because that inconvenient little thing called “international law” tells us to, and because this current refugee crisis is awfully persistent.

While there is a legal and definitional difference between a migrant and a refugee, should there be a humanitarian difference between the two?

As the UK home secretary has put it, (the person responsible for immigration and citizenship throughout the United Kingdom), while countries have a duty to accept refugees, illegal economic migrants “have no right to be here.” But anyone’s “right” to be anywhere is first and foremost determined by birth. No one is any more entitled or deserving of the rights, privileges and opportunities afforded to them by the class, society and country they are born into.

Additionally, when it comes to what migrants and refugees flee, at the end of it all, death is death. Is it important, is it humanitarian, to label, define and separate the slow, painful, economic deaths from the quick, brutal assassinations of people, their rights and their beliefs?

Regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion and political opinion, and regardless of national or social origin, property, birth or other status, everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include:

  • The right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law;
  • The right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to that country;
  • The freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality;
  • The right to change one’s nationality;
  • The right to own property alone as well as in association with others;
  • The right of equal access to public service in one’s country;
  • The right to social security;
  • Entitlement to realize of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for one’s dignity and the free development of one’s personality;
  • The right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
  • The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services;
  • The right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control;
  • Everyone has the right to education.

When we carve up the world by borders, nationalities and wealth, we lay claim to the world’s resources and forget the rest of the people we are supposed to share them with. We claim that what’s mine, isn’t yours, and that that’s okay, and that that’s just.

But in the same vein, if we’re all supposed to be born into this world as humanitarian equals, what isn’t yours, can’t really be mine, either.

“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

Our rights and freedoms may only be limited to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, as well as morality, order, welfare and democracy.

When we carve up the world in borders, and reallocate the world’s resources to accommodate our more favoured borders; when we build on histories of imperialism, colonialism, fear and oppression with little acknowledgement of the past, who is anyone to say that lives of poverty, starvation or struggle aren’t bad enough to seek refuge from, and that those living them are not deserving enough to try?



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