Opinion: Differentiating refugees and migrants

Sirijos pabėgėliai

The last great migration of people led to the colonisation of the two Americas. There was much blood, sweat and tears and sad stories, but the overall consequence was the spread of European civilisation and the creation of today’s most powerful country.

If we take a look at our own nation, we‘ll see that there‘s been no shortage of migrations, even though we see ourselves as a nation of sedentary farmers. We can possibly start with our ancestors who moved into these climes several thousand years ago, pushing out the forefathers of present-day Estonians, Finns and Mordvins to the north. We‘re old-timers compared to the Hungarians who arrived where they are today only a thousand years ago, but we‘re newcomers compared to the Persians (today‘s Iranians) or the Syrians who trace their history back ten thousand years to the Mesopotamian civilisations.

During some parts of the twentieth century, Lithuanians migrated of their own accord while at other times they were forced. There were those who emigrated at the beginning of the century for economic reasons, most of them supplementing the new nations in the Americas. In the middle of the century there were the deportations carried out by an occupying forces. Then at the beginning of the 21st century Lithuanians once again were on the move for economic reasons.

What’s true for Lithuania is true for China. Over there, they’re currently experiencing the most massive migration in the history of mankind. It has to do with improvements in standards of living and technological revolution. In the olden days, one person in an impoverished village would lead and the others would drag the plough; afterwards, everyone would dig melioration canals. All this labour would barely keep them fed.

Today, there’s technology available and bank loans. One enterprising villager buys some equipment and is able to work the surrounding land with the help of a few hired hands. The rest have nothing to do and so they move to the cities where there‘s more opportunity. It is estimated that there are up to 400 million of such people.

The government of China has so far succeeded in managing this process. New housing estates spring up. In a country as huge and diverse as this, migration from, say, south China to central China is not much different from migration within Europe.

At this time, the world is witnessing two massive migration processes that are completely unmanaged. They take place on different continents, for different reasons, but cause similar conundrums in the countries that they are affecting.

Rohingyas or Bengalis?

A new wave of boat people is on the rise in south-east Asia, one reminiscent of the Vienamese boat people who fled communist oppression in 1978 and 1979. These are refugees from Myanmar‘s coastal Arakan state, the north of which borders Bangladesh from where in the 19th century many Bengalis migrated. They are Sunni Muslims while the Burmese are Buddhists. The last large wave of Bengali migration occurred in 1971 during the war in Bangladesh. They mixed with the old inhabitants and now they number around 800,000 in Myanmar and around 1 million outside. In accordance with the 1982 Citizenship Act of Burma, these people who in Burmese are called the Rohingya people have not been granted citizenship.

As long as the military dictatorship was governing the country with an iron fist, everything was quite. When it released its grip and took the road of democratisation (like the effect that the “perestroika” had on Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestr in the USSR), bellow-surface enmities rose to the fore. In 2012, lingering tensions erupted in Buddhist Burmese pogroms against the Muslim Rohingyas.

The Rohingya consider themselves indigenous to the land, whereas the Burmese call them newcomers. In Arakan state they make up 10 percent of the population and in the northern part and coastal areas they are in the majority. The government of Myanmar has introduced a restriction against them in that they may have no more than two children; however, there are four to five offspring in a typical Rohingya family.

In 2014 the government of Myanmar forbade that they be called Rohingyas and announced that they officially be called Bengalis. Bangladesh has publicly rejected them and does not accept them. Neighbouring Thailand has strengthened its border security. The only way left is by sea.

After setting sail on the ocean in flimsy boats, the outcast Rohingya become victims of pirates and human traffickers, some of them perish. South East Asia does not want them. It was reported that in 2009 a Thai military boat pushed a boat carrying 190 Rohingya into the open sea and simply left them there. It is only recently that there has been a humanitarian reaction to their plight. The Philippines, for example, has announced that it is taking in 3,000 refugees.

Australia vigilantly guards its borders and since 2014 only one refugee boat has managed to enter its territorial waters. After intercepting the approaching boats, the Australians, in accordance with an intergovernmental agreement, send then to Nauru or to an island off Papua New Guinea. According to Australian minister of foreign affairs Julie Bishop, approximately one third of the people are Rohingya, while the rest are illegal Bangladeshi workers.

Refugees or migrants?

Human trafficking across the Mediterranean can help Lithuanians realize that the world does not end near Lazdijai or Lavoriškės. Although UN conventions say that refugees must be handled by the country where they first arrive, we must follow the EU principle of solidarity help solve the problems faced by southern EU states together.

According to The Economist magazine, 626,000 people applied for asylum in EU countries in 2014, half of them successfully. Sea refugees are encouraged by international law: a person must set foot on the EU soil in order to apply for asylum. And so they set sail.

According to the Dublin agreement, after arriving, an asylum seeker must file an application and have their fingerprints taken. If their application is approved, they get the right to stay only in that country. However, because of the huge flood coming over the sea into Italy, the entire procedure is increasingly hard to manage, so some migrants do not get their fingerprints taken and travel freely further to the north in the Schengen area. There could be infected people among them and it is easy for terrorists to mix in the uncontrolled flow of migrants.

The first thing to do therefore is to create a system to check everyone quickly and deport those denied asylum. The other option under discussion is to get North African countries to agree to host camps on their soil. It is not clear, however, if they will agree or how much money they will demand in exchange. There are fears that camps like these may start attracting even more asylum seekers from all of Africa.

According to official data, half of the illegals who cross the Mediterranean come from Syria and Eritrea. Yet the entire geography is much wider – Mali, Gambia, Nigeria and Kenya. These are generally poor countries, but they have not been struck by any humanitarian crisis.

Comparing photographs of migrants from North Africa with those of the Rohingya, one sees obvious differences. The faces of the Rohingya reflect hopelessness, their bodies are emaciated from undernourishment. Most of the Mediterranean boat migrants are lively, look healthy and are decently dressed.

These images remind me of Lithuania’s first decade of independence when Lithuanians would request asylum in Western Europe, pretending to be Belarusians and explaining, in broken Russian, how they were persecuted by the murderous Lukashenko regime. I therefore wonder how accurate are the official figures on the migrants’ country of origin, if some of them turn up in Italy without any documents and the only source of information is their word.

There is a difference between a refugee who is fleeing to save their life and one who is looking for better standards of living than those in their home country. Documents must therefore be examined thoroughly for authenticity. And if there are no documents, then authorities can check mastery of language or knowledge about declared region origin, etc.

There is little chance that there will be a breakthrough in those African countries soon and their people’s lives will start to improve. Furthermore, it has been estimated that the population in sub-Saharan Africa will double in the next 30 years.

Moving people from poor countries to rich ones is not the way to fight poverty in the world. What would happen to the abandoned countries and what would become of the host countries? The only way is to help those people change conditions in their countries that are responsible for mass poverty. And resist any illusions.

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