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Crossing into the unknown

After jumping the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, illegal migrants climb into a waiting vehicle that will transport them to the nearby town of Musina Mujahid Safodien/IRIN
After jumping the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, illegal migrants climb into a waiting vehicle that will transport them to the nearby town of Musina


Hamid’s parents migrated from Afghanistan before he was born and he grew up in Iran where life as an unregistered refugee was hard, particularly after his father returned to Afghanistan never to be heard from again. At the age of 15, Hamid paid smugglers to get him into Europe using money his two older brothers had raised from selling off their tailoring business.

Hamid was oblivious to the economic crisis in Europe and particularly the impact it had had on employment opportunities in Greece, the first and last European country he reached. With no money to continue his journey, Hamid ended up unemployed and homeless in Athens. After 15 months, he was ready to give up and return home.

In many respects, Hamid is a modern-day migrant: an unaccompanied minor - an increasingly common phenomenon throughout the world - who was a refugee, but became an irregular migrant and, after a relatively short period away, returned home.

The global financial crisis has not stopped migration, but it has led to increasingly complex patterns of movement and some changes in destination. According to the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) World Migration Report 2011, the total number of migrants worldwide remained at a fairly stable 214 million by the end of 2010. However, migratory flows to many developed countries have slowed as jobs have become more scarce and labour migration policies less welcoming.

Meanwhile, temporary or “circular” migration, in which people come and go between countries, is on the rise, according to The Economist, which has also noted the increase in young, mostly educated workers heading to the booming economies of China and South Korea.

Increasingly, the traditional distinctions between refugees, asylum seekers, forced and economic migrants are becoming less clear as people move from one country to another for a combination of reasons. In some cases, these may include fear of persecution, but often they also include the wish to improve economic prospects or reunite with family members.

Many refugees and asylum seekers now use the same routes, modes of transport and smugglers as migrants, a phenomenon of “mixed migration” that local police and immigration officials are often ill-equipped to deal with. The result is that asylum seekers entitled to receive protection and assistance, often end up arrested, detained and even deported.

Restrictive policies

Perhaps the greatest impact of the economic crisis for migration have been moves by a number of governments to introduce more restrictive policies in a populist response to the widespread misconception that migrants are bad for already ailing economies - taking jobs away from locals and burdening public services.

Measures that penalize migrants tend to feed into and fuel negative public perceptions, which may explain the dramatic increase of racially motivated attacks and hate crimes against migrants and refugees in a number of countries. IRIN’s new film, The Shopkeeper, documents the fear of such attacks that dominates the lives of Somali refugees running small shops in South Africa’s townships and informal settlements. On average, one Somali is killed by serious gun injury every week in South Africa.

In recession-hit Greece, which has found itself on the frontlines of “Fortress Europe” in recent years, extreme right-wing groups have stoked xenophobia by blaming migrants for the country’s severe economic problems, as well as rising crime and the degeneration of inner-city Athens neighbourhoods. Responding to increasing public intolerance of migrants and pressure from its EU neighbours, the Greek government recently implemented measures to secure its borders, round up irregular migrants and detain and deport as many of them as possible.

The Greek government is not alone in insisting that the vast majority of non-nationals crossing their borders irregularly are economic migrants with no protection needs. The government of Israel has labelled all illegal border crossers “infiltrators” who can be detained for up to three years under legislation passed in January. In fact, the majority of migrants attempting to enter Israel are Eritreans and Sudanese with genuine asylum claims.

“Political will is not consistently enough behind protection,” said Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in an October statement. “This is disturbingly evidenced in a prevailing attitude in a number of countries to the effect: ‘Yes, we sympathize with your plight, but resolve it please elsewhere’.”

This reluctance of countries to recognize asylum seekers and refugees is at the heart of the EU’s failure to fully achieve its goal of a Common European Asylum System. Different standards for processing and granting refugee status have resulted in a lottery for asylum seekers depending on the member state in which they apply.

Most refugees in developing world

In reality, the majority of refugees and forced migrants do not reside in Europe or other developed countries, but in the developing world where keeping their predicament in the international spotlight presents a major challenge for agencies like UNHCR. As new emergencies like the conflict in Syria produce new waves of refugees, funding for ongoing and protracted displacement crises is under strain (see IRIN’s list of the top 10 neglected refugee crises) and resources for long-term solutions, such as helping refugees to return home is lacking.

Feller noted that large numbers of former Angolan and Liberian refugees are ready to go home but have not, partly because of UNHCR’s funding constraints. When money is available for repatriation, it often does not extend to supporting the long process of reintegration into communities where, after an absence of years or even decades, returnees may be regarded as outsiders. The same issues apply to migrants, most of whom also eventually return home, often armed with skills and education that with sufficient support, could be harnessed to drive development. In Senegal, the lack of schemes to help returnees contribute to the economy, represents a missed opportunity, according to local NGOs.

Migration can be viewed both as an essential adaptation to current and future threats such as climate change, dwindling resources and over-population and as a vital component of economic growth for both sending and receiving countries. But governments, publicly at least, continue to view it as a negative and short-term phenomenon that must be reduced and discouraged rather than better understood and managed.

The message that migration is here to stay and that governments and humanitarian agencies need to better plan for it, underlies a project of the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute (IMI) to explore future possible scenarios for migration in various regions of the world.

The approach, explains IMI researcher Simona Vezzoli, “is not stuck in seeing migration as a problem that once it’s fixed will go away, but rather as a part of life that if we are clever and strategic about understanding it, actually might bring benefit, not only to migrants but also to governments and local communities.”


For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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