Monthly Archives: April 2015

Economic migrants aren’t refugees

Blogger Left Outside has published an interesting piece arguing against drawing a distinction between refugees and economic migrants:

Every refugee finds themselves thinking “how do I improve my situation?” and the answer usually concerns safety, but often also concern economics.

It’s right to point out the multitude of complex reasons behind migration. As far as they choose the country in which they seek sanctuary, refugees often base their decision on things like language, family ties and economics, and I agree that there’s nothing wrong with this.

Similarly, refugees aren’t uniformly destitute or likely to put their lives in the hands of people traffickers. Many of the Syrians who have claimed asylum in the UK have been able to do so because they could afford to fly here; and many others were able to flee to neighbouring countries where they owned properties.

But it is wrong to suggest that, because economic migrants and refugees share some motivations, they are the same. After all, the primary reason a refugee leaves a country is due to war or persecution – the same cannot be said for any other type of migration. We don’t need a UN agency to identify tailors in Senegal and help them resettle in Italy. Economic migrants aren’t refugees and our approach to them should be different.

In a world without open borders, the refugee-economic migrant distinction is needed: the notion of refugeehood is not (just) an ideal, as Left Outside states, but a legal classification that gives those fleeing persecution some protection from the whims of European immigration policy.

What blurs the distinction is that we see both refugees and economic migrants on the boats sinking in the Med – so we need to be more tolerant and have a more open approach to both. For one thing, that means allowing safe and legal ways for people – regardless of their reason for migrating – to get to Europe.


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What do the manifestos say about immigration detention?

Last month, the report of the parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention was published. After an eight month inquiry the panel, made up of MPs and peers of all parties, recommended that there should be a 28 day time limit on the length of time anyone can be held in immigration detention. They also called for a presumption in favour of community-based alternatives to detention. The full report is available here.

This week has seen the publication of all the major parties’ manifestos, so it’s a good opportunity to see what each party would do about indefinite detention:


There is no mention of detention in the Conservatives’ manifesto.

Theresa May did announce a review, led by Stephen Shaw, of detainees’ welfare and conditions in detention in February. She has also asked Shaw to consider the inquiry’s recommendations. Conservative panel member David Burrowes also wrote this piece for ConservativeHome.


The Greens say they would:

Ensure that no prospective immigrant is held in detention. As a matter of urgency, the administrative detention of children and pregnant women should end immediately.

This appears to suggest they would not use detention at all. It’s not clear if failed asylum seekers or foreign national offenders are covered by the term “prospective immigrant”.


Labour have pledged to end indefinite detention. Their manifesto states:

We will end the indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system, ending detention for pregnant women and those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or trafficking.

This was announced by Yvette Cooper last month. The Guardian at the time reported that the time limit would not apply to “those who have committed criminal offences and were being deported because of their criminal behaviour, or those who posed a threat to UK national security or public safety.”

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats say in their manifesto that they would ‘end unnecessary detention’:

Liberal Democrats would end indefinite detention for immigration purposes, and use community-based alternatives instead.

It’s right to deport people who don’t have the right to be in the UK, and sometimes that requires holding them temporarily in a detention centre first. But locking people up has gone too far. Routinely detaining immigrants and asylum seekers indefinitely is a waste of time, resources and taxpayers’ money, and has a terrible effect on the physical and mental health of those detained.

Plaid Cymru

Nothing in their manifesto. In February, the BBC reported that Plaid Cymru would “lobby the Westminster government to ensure that they shut ‘detention’ centres.”

Scottish National Party

The SNP manifesto has not yet been published.

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Do search and rescue operations encourage more people to cross the Mediterranean?

Standing on a tiny North African fishing boat – known as TO6411 – in London’s South Docks Marina a couple of years ago, I tried to imagine what it had been like for the 36 migrants who had travelled in it across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only a few of us could stand on the deck before it started taking on water, and UK authorities decided it could only safely hold eight people. It wasn’t too hard to imagine the Mediterranean swallowing up this rickety vessel and all those onboard. That this hadn’t happened, and that artist Lucy Wood had subsequently sailed it all the way to London, was astonishing.

I thought about TO6411 when the Government announced last year that it would no longer support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They had created an “unintended ‘pull factor'”, one minister said, encouraging more migrants and refugees to risk their lives to get to Europe.

On the face of it, that made sense – 3,500 migrants died crossing the Med in 2014, compared to around 700 in 2013. James Brokenshire, the Immigration Minister, was right to point out that Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue teams – introduced after the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy that claimed 359 lives – were being called nearer and nearer to Libyan waters. Libya is the main point of departure for those fleeing conflict and persecution in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and, increasingly, Libya itself. This trend indicated that the introduction of the Mare Nostrum operation at the end of 2013 had encouraged more people to risk their lives.

There is significant uncertainty here, and the Government’s explanation – that the promise of likely rescue was incentivising behaviour we would want to discourage – sounded plausible. But it failed to account for the escalation of conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the increasingly precarious situation for the millions of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. So far no-one has been able to provide a conclusive causal delineation for Med migration, allowing this kind of explanation to take root. At best, the Government looked like it was groping around in the dark; at worst, that it was willing to allow migrants to drown to put others off.

Even with Mare Nostrum in place, thousands drowned last year. We can therefore reasonably assume those making the crossing are willing to risk their lives to get to Europe.

What’s happened since the withdrawal of Mare Nostrum sadly reflects this: in the first quarter of 2015, nearly 500 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean. This weekend alone, nearly 6,000 people were rescued. Since the Government stopped support for search and rescue, more migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean, and more have died doing so. 2015 is on course to see a record number of people drown in the Med.

In contrast to Mare Nostrum (which had one purpose – to prevent death), the EU’s new Triton border patrol has fewer vessels and only acts when there is immediate danger close to Europe’s coast. It’s becoming clear that many more of the 200,000 rescued last year would have drowned had it not been for Mare Nostrum. That’s why Médecins Sans Frontières have announced they are funding a new search and rescue mission to fill some of the gap that has been left.

Ultimately, politicians in the UK and EU alike are trying to solve a problem having ruled out the solution: the provision of safe and legal routes into Europe. The UK has offered resettlement to just 143 Syrians. Last month, the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, tried and failed to get agreement from EU ministers to establish centres in North Africa and the Middle East to apply for refugee status and resettlement in Europe from third countries.

With no end to the conflicts and violence in Syria and Iraq in sight, and instability increasing in other parts of the Middle East and Africa, the pursuit of policies to maintain ‘Fortress Europe’ by limiting resettlement opportunities and minimising rescue missions in the Mediterranean will only end one way.

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