Migration crisis

By Arif Azad
Published in DAWN on October 11, 2023

MIGRATION has been in the media and policy spotlight lately. Several international migration-related developments have refocused attention on migration and asylum issues. Recently, the small Italian town of Lampedusa received a sudden surge of new migrants. The surge, though small, was portrayed as gigantic as it exceeded the size of the local population which had been tiny anyway.

In the US, refugees are streaming into the state of Texas, which has chosen to bus them onward to bigger cities such as New York. In the UK, reducing the number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel is one of the five policy ambitions of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. This has given the hard-line home secretary, Suella Braverman, carte blanche to employ whatever means necessary to stop boats carrying migrants. Here in Pakistan, we have seen new arrivals from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.

The Lampedusa migration crisis occasioned an emergency visit from EU President Ursula von der Leyen to the island town. While pledging extra help, she asserted it was the EU that would ultimately determine who could come into Europe. Her fleeting visit aimed at shoring up the struggling right-wing government was followed by an EU justice and home ministers’ conclave on the new migration crisis. There remain differences over how to tackle the crisis and chart a lasting way forward. The differences centre on the Italian objection to German-funded support to rescue operations at sea. The Italian proposal to do away with certain legal protection in asylum detention centres in a crisis is also a stumbling block.

Earlier, EU governments had agreed on the principle of ‘mandatory solidarity’, requiring member states located beyond the front-line states of Italy and Greece to accept 30,000 migrants a year. In case of a country not accepting the allotted number of refugees and asylum-seekers, that country would pay 20,000 euros per migrant to an EU-wide fund to boost the money available to the front-line states dealing with the growing number of new arrivals. The US has further extended protections to Venezuelan migrants already living in the country.

Pakistan has lived in denial in the matter of refugees.

In a related development, Ms Braverman chose the venue of a Washington think tank to lay out her vision for a most reactionary immigration policy. She called for a new definition of ‘refugee’ to be fashioned, besides the updating of the Geneva Convention. In the same anti-migrant vein, she railed against multiculturalism and inadequate integration of incoming migrants. In recent times, she has also singled out the role of the European convention on and court of human rights in frustrating her plans to deport all asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Her speech attracted widespread criticism from the UN refugee agency, politicians and civil society in the UK, with UNHCR rejecting her calls for reforming the Geneva refugee convention and pointing out that rather than updating it, its provisions must be implemented and adhered to by all signatory countries.

Many commentators linked her pronouncements on immigration to her domestic agenda of seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party. (Braverman has been very popular with the extreme right wing of the party for her hard-line views on migration and asylum.) The British prime minister has defended multiculturalism in an apparent rebuff to his own home secretary.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has received successive waves of refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan since the 1970s. Yet due to Pakistan’s not signing the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, the country’s refugee and asylum policies have not been framed. Despite its long engagement with Afghan refugees, Pakistan has lived in denial insofar as the historical presence of Afghan refugees is concerned, and now wants them to leave the country.

Two contradictory impulses are at work. On the one hand, the Afghan refugees have been given a final date by which to leave the country. On the other, in a landmark judgement of the Islamabad High Court, the judiciary has ruled that Pakistan recognises the right to asylum. This sets a new judicial precedent in the evolving refugee law in Pakistan, with implications for all those being rounded up with a view to deporting them to Afghanistan. This news can only be welcomed. Yet in the long term, as well as in the light of revising our flawed foreign policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to work towards signing the Geneva Convention and fulfilling its obligations in line with international law.

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