What is a Refugee?

What is a Refugee?

The media, politicians, and the bloke down the pub all define ‘refugee’ differently.

By Jared Ficklin
Photo of the camp at Calais. Credit: Empathy Action

These days even the most uninformed person knows that refugees are big news. Armchair lawyers, better now called keyboard lawyers, hand down solemn or strident opinions on who is or isn’t a refugee in the comments section of online articles. But what is the truth? What does ‘refugee’ mean? Where do they come from and why are they here?

What is a refugee? The media, politicians, and the bloke down the pub all define ‘refugee’ differently, usually depending on the point they’re trying to make. But in the UK, ‘refugee’ has a legal definition: someone who is outside their country of origin and cannot return there because they would be at real risk of serious harm; but only if that risk is because of the person’s race or ethnicity, religion, political view or some other personal characteristic. A refugee must not be able to get protection from that risk inside their country, whether from the police there or anyone else, and there cannot be any safe and reasonable place inside their country to flee to. If all these conditions are met, and assuming the person isn’t himself a terrorist or a serious criminal, then they can stay.

How many are there in the UK? Not many. Overwhelmingly, refugees are in countries next to the one they left. Almost 70% of refugees in the world are in the Middle East or Africa. Turkey hosts nearly three million Syrians. Lebanon has over a million more, approximately a quarter of its population. The UK takes about 40,000 claims per year including dependents, and of course, many of these claims will fail. This is only 3% of the asylum claims in the European Union. As a whole, Europe only takes 6% of the refugees in the world. Despite the hysterical coverage of the refugee crisis, the number of asylum claims in the UK is still less than half what it was in 2002, when more than 85,000 people claimed.

So who are they? In 2016, most people who claim to be refugees (often called ‘asylum-seekers’) came to the UK from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria. This list of countries is hardly surprising. The UK helped to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and those countries have not recovered to become functioning democracies as some hoped. Instead, violent extremists took advantage of the power vacuum to flourish and terrorise their own people and us.

As we all know, the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia regularly spill over borders, and everyone with a television or the internet has seen the hell on earth called Aleppo. Many others come from Eritrea, called “Africa’s North Korea”, where any sign of political dissent or unsanctioned religious practice results in detention and torture. In Eritrea, every 18-year-old gets conscripted indefinitely; asking to go home to visit family can earn a beating. An escape attempt might be worth years in a filthy cell with dozens of others, a floor drain for a toilet, a mouldy piece of bread once a day and no way to pass the time except to watch one’s only set of clothes rot away.

Why are they here? Politicians like to keep things simple, so they usually pretend that there are two groups of people: refugees and ‘economic migrants’. But this is not just too simple, it is plain wrong. Take the example of a Syrian family who fled the war in 2011 and lived in a refugee camp in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. The family might have had some savings to live on or a relative abroad to send them money. They might have received food in the camp, but human beings need more than food. They need the chance to work, worship, study, marry, and all the other things they lost when the bombs fell on their home. Even in the best refugee camps there are security problems, and children are at risk of exploitation for their labour and even their bodies.
Unscrupulous employers are clever; in Turkey, some would rather employ children, or adults who haven’t registered as refugees because they can pay them less, and it’s off the books.

The family might be ‘safe’ from the bombs in the camp, but they can’t live. When the money runs out and the only option is prostitution or the sweatshop, the family might make the decision to come to Europe as a group or to send the strongest on ahead.
In order to hide from this reality, politicians talk about ‘pull factors’ that draw ‘economic migrants’ to Europe and the UK. ‘Pull factors’ can include everything from social housing and benefits (only available to refugees who have been recognised under international law, and only in limited areas) to rescuing people from drowning in the sea.

The fact is that a refugee is defined by what is behind him or her, not what is in front. When politicians would let people drown on the pretence that getting in the boat changed their status, they ignore what being a refugee means. Fleeing persecution and death is what makes a refugee. Trying to have a life doesn’t unmake one.

Jared Ficklin is a supervisor at University of Liverpool Law Clinic. The law clinic offers final year law students direct experience of representing real clients, under the supervision of the Clinic’s in-house legal team of qualified lawyers.
It provides much needed free and confidential legal advice and assistance to the public.

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