We are not going to war with France. But this might just make you think about refugees differently by putting yourself in their shoes.
First published in May 2021.
We are not going to war with France and we all know that, but let’s take it as a hypothetical for the purposes of making a relatively unrelated and spurious point. After all, it works for the government, so why not refugee rights?
Imagine we did go to war. How many of the people who claim Syrian refugees, for example, should do so would actually stick around and continue to fight, particularly if Britain lost. It is easy to comment on other people’s experiences when you haven’t faced them.
Here is an interesting difference for you on refugee regimes by the way: the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is primarily focused on those affected domestically, i.e. persecution from within the state, including in a time of war. Meanwhile the Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention also brings in being forced to flee due to foreign aggression.
It is a pretty interesting example of how the history of persecution and conflict, i.e from someone’s own government or an external power, affects refugees.
Anyway, back to the point.
We are at war with France, and probably a few other countries join in. It has gone badly.
We can’t produce enough food to sustain ourselves and the country is blockaded. What do you do?
If you stay, you risk starvation or being killed in a conflict, but are you being persecuted? That’s the question which we see time and again with refugees fleeing elsewhere from pundits and politicians.
When Nigel Farage filmes refugees crossing the Channel. | YouTube/LBC
Imagine you have to be evacuated from a city. Until you cross an international border you aren’t classed a refugee. You are what is known as an “Internally Displaced Person” (IDP). You don’t have any additional rights at this point.
Say you do manage to cross a border though. First question is what do you take with you? You can only take what you can carry. I know I am grabbing my phone for one thing. I want to be able to keep in contact.
Think about your possessions now. Do you have a smartphone? Do you have a decent jacket? How much have you spent on these things? Do they look “nice”? Would you expect to be denied refugee status because of those possessions? That’s what we are talking about when you see people saying things like, “They can’t be refugees. They have smartphones.” etc.
The most crucial item that migrants and refugees carry is a smartphone. | Quartz
Next issue, how do you get across that border? Depending on where you live how far is it? Are you walking, driving, etc.? If you are walking, how fit and healthy are you? You need to move quickly in these circumstances. How many of your family members can make that journey on foot.
What if you knew that if one of you could make it then they could apply for the others to be brought to safety? Under those circumstances who do you send? Who has the best chance of making it?
What about the cost as well though? You have to cross your own country, get into another, maybe cross that because you still don’t feel safe. You need food, shelter, maybe transport. Check your bank balance. How many family members right now can you guarantee you can afford to finance for that sort of cost? Even if you can, should the fact that you have been able to afford to flee mean you are denied refugee status elsewhere?
This is all hypothetical of course, but... it isn’t.
This is the reality for refugees across the world. People told they “can’t be refugees” because they are young and healthy, have a smartphone, have been able to afford to make the journey.
Refugees in Budapest, Hungary. | Wikimedia/Mstyslav Chernov
600 years ago, William Shakespeare wrote Sir Thomas More’s speech, and it is still, sadly, relevant.
“Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.”
“Say now the king
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? 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 mountanish inhumanity.”
We don’t know what may happen in the future.
When you see refugees, look past the narrative that they are “young men of fighting age” and ask yourself: What would I do in their place?
- The 1951 Refugee Convention | UNHCR
- OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa | UNHCR
- The most crucial item that migrants and refugees carry is a smartphone | Quartz
- Smartphones Bring Solace and Aid to Desperate Refugees | Wired
▫ Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.
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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 7 May 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Wikimedia/Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed. - Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)