Opinion // Declaring the Rights of Migrants

July, 05 2016

The refugee flow into Europe needs to be seen for the historic change it is.


by Konstanty Gebert

Refugees are flocking to the European continent in ever-growing numbers, and Europeans show increasing resistance to accepting them. The governments of Poland and Hungary have announced they will not take in any refugees, and anti-immigration parties have done well in local elections in France and Germany.  Those who maintain that “the boat is full”—as the Swiss did in refusing to settle refugees during World War II—make a number of more or less demagogic arguments, such as linking immigration to terror. They also make some valid ones that deserve to be treated seriously. For the refugee crisis will change Europe, perhaps more than anything has changed it since the advent of representative democracy. We need to think bigger.

Even if today’s immigrants and their children are not a security risk, critics say, they are an identity threat. And they are correct: The face of the 500 million-strong European Union will unavoidably change if it takes in several million newcomers from different cultures and religions. It’s true that people have a right to feel comfortable in their country, and for some, immigration will change that. Refugees, however, are fleeing for their lives. The only way to dissuade them would be to put their lives at risk here, too—for instance, by taking the suggestion of the German right-wing politician Frauke Petry that border guards should shoot illegal migrants. It is mercifully doubtful, however, that a majority of Europeans would support this.

We have legal obligations to refugees as laid out in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which guarantees the right to temporary asylum for persons who cross our borders with a “well-founded fear” of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political belief. It applies only to political refugees, not economic migrants—a distinction that is important, both politically and philosophically, but in practice hard to adhere to. It is not true, as critics say, that most of the current migrants are seeking economic opportunity rather than fleeing violence: Of the 287,100 first-time asylum applications in the EU in the first quarter of 2016, the EU database Eurostat shows that 102,400 were submitted by Syrians, 35,000 by Iraqis and 34,800 by Afghans, all fleeing war in their countries. Of the five next largest groups, four were from Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria and Eritrea—all places where military conflict and political oppression are major threats.

Each EU country makes its own assessment of whether an applicant’s home country is safe. Here things get complicated. In May, for instance, Finland stated that Somalia is safe, since a large part of the country is currently conflict-free and refugees can go there. But life expectancy for men in Somalia today is 54 years, while in Finland it is 78. Is it moral to deny people the chance to live so much longer, just because they were born in the wrong place?

The UN Refugee Convention does not allow “bad choice of birthplace” as grounds for granting asylum. But then, the convention rests not on universal morality but on the assumption—unquestioned by most—that asylum is a privilege, granted on a temporary basis to a narrowly defined group of people by the sovereign will of the host country.

This understanding of refugees worked well enough in a world where refugees were relatively few, most wanted eventually to go home and mass movement of populations was logistically impractical. None of this applies today. We no longer know who, of the many who want to reside on our soil, should have the right to do so.

But this dilemma in itself is not new. For hundreds of years, up through the late 20th century, the citizens of European nations fought a series of bitter civil wars, metaphorical and actual, over who had the right to rule their countries. Absolute monarchies and aristocracies faltered as mass social movements demanded democracy. The old elites eventually gave in, both because they could not pay the price in blood that defending their privileges would have entailed and because it became morally untenable to do so. And the concept of citizenship itself was successively redefined, first to include males of all classes, then females, and finally encompassing even Eastern Europeans, whose votes ran the risk of irritating Moscow and who therefore—as a practical matter—could not use them. (This shows how arbitrary limitations in access to rights can be overcome by historical events.)

The idea that the “great unwashed” actually have a right to rule themselves must have initially seemed as outlandish as the idea that the “migrant tide” has a right to settle wherever people can build decent lives. Obviously, the practical differences between accommodating democracy and accommodating migration remain huge. To begin with, the number of potential citizens with voting rights was always finite, while the number of migrants—refugees and others—is potentially almost unlimited. The rest of the world cannot move to Finland; even the rest of Somalia cannot. This means using additional criteria—which will probably be transitory.

This is what happened with democracy. The idea of granting illiterate peasant women the vote was revolutionary in 1789. Once the idea of the rights of the citizen took root, though, it spread to everyone—and in retrospect this was inevitable. Today, we grant some rights to a small fraction of all possible migrants. It is already apparent that these limits cannot hold.

Like Louis XVI, we have a choice: Adapt to the unavoidable or spill blood to prevent it. But, unlike him, we know that the unavoidable eventually will come, so it seems more sensible to prepare for it. A Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Migrant is urgently needed. Its first article could read like this: Men are born and remain free and equal in rights, including the right to reside in the country of their choice. Social distinctions and distinctions in citizenship may be founded only upon the general good.

Konstanty Gebert is an international reporter and columnist with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza and the author of 11 books in Polish.

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