What Can We Do to Help Support Refugee Resettlement in the United States?

With the recent change in administration, many questions remain in regard to the potential policy changes that may affect refugees being resettled in the United States, and have already started to affect refugees.

Most notable the executive orders that have been recently signed will have an impact on the number of refugees being received, the countries we will accept refugees from, as well as a proposed suspension of any refugee resettlement for 120 days.

This comes largely as a result of the negative rhetoric that came out of the campaign from various candidates, but most notably from the President elect. We have an obligation to educate the public on who refugees really are, to advocate for and defend policies to resettle refugees in the United States, and to support refugees that are arriving or are already here.

Refugees arriving in the United States are a diverse group, including those from Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Bhutan, and Burma. The commonality among these individuals is that they are all fleeing due to a, “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” as defined by the United Nations.

They represent many different religious backgrounds, languages and cultures. Welcoming refugees is woven in the fabric of our history and culture, with the first refugee legislation enacted in 1948. Over three million refugees have been resettled since 1975 from 70 countries around the world.

The United States has welcomed refugees fleeing Europe as a result of World War II, refugees escaping the former Soviet Union, those who came as a result of the war in Vietnam, Cubans, those from the former Yugoslavia as well as the more recent arrivals previously mentioned.

While refugees are welcomed primarily for humanitarian reasons they also bring benefits to the community they are being resettled in. Firstly, refugees contribute to their local communities economically. They are eager to work, and have been shown to retain their jobs longer than native born individuals. Many refugees have an entrepreneurial spirit and are more likely to start their own businesses.

Aside from that, in some cities that have lost population or that have aging populations, refugees are viewed as not only adding population but also contributing to the economy and enriching the community by sharing their culture. This has been seen in cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Rutland, Vermont who is making a concerted effort to welcome refugees. Refugees should be viewed as resilient for having survived
unimaginable circumstances.

What can social workers or those interested in supporting refugees do to help? Firstly, let your opinions be known to your elected representatives. Policy action is the crucial to maintain the existing resettlement programs. Secondly, support resettlement agencies and refugees in your community. Make your city a ‘welcoming’ community for those who are newly arriving. This may mean training police, schools and social service agencies on who refugees are and being prepared to provide culturally appropriate services. Furthermore, donate to your local resettlement agency.

Many resettlement agencies may be in need of gently used furniture and clothing for newly arriving refugees. Resettlement agencies are also in need of volunteers to help set-up apartments, as well as helping refugees to learn life skills like taking the bus or tutoring them in English. If you are a business owner, hire a refugee. Employment is crucial for newly arriving refugees to integrate into their new communities.

Finally, educate others on who refugees are and why it is important to maintain this program. Refugees are not a traditional population that social work or social workers tend to focus on and this should change. Supporting refugees is an issue of social justice—refugee resettlement saves lives. In no other case is this more apparent than of those fleeing Syria, as the war continues to rage with no end in sight. Yet the United States has been slow to accept these refugees and is now proposing effectively ending resettlement of Syrians. In stark contrast to this are the Canadians who met their goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees last year.

We need to mobilize to defend the integrity of this program and affirm that this is a key social justice issue for social workers to focus their efforts on.

Shifting Social Constructs: The Rising Villianization of Refugees

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© AP Photo/ Juergen Schwarz

Headlines detailing the fallout of refugee migration throughout Europe appear in major news sources almost daily. While discussion around countries and organizations being overwhelmed by sheer numbers remains the same, the sentiment toward refugees appears to be shifting from benevolence to something entirely different.

As a nation, Germany serves as a case study for this hypothesis. In 2015, Germany accepted over a million refugees, larger than the amount the United States has in a decade, as well as the highest number accepted by any European country for the calendar year. The open-door policy authored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel toward refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq last fall sanctioned the influx.

During the initial months of the policy being in effect German citizens actually came to train stations where refugees were arriving and applauded them as they arrived. However, this widespread welcoming attitude has since been abandoned. Events like mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, alleged high crime rates within refugee camps, and infiltration of terrorists amongst refugees contributes to the recasting of refugees within Germany as deviants.

CNN reporters recounted how in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 there were ninety criminal incidents recorded reported with a smaller number of such instances in Hamburg. Of those incidents, twenty-five percent were reported as being sexual assaults including one instance of rape. All victims described the individuals as “gangs of Arab or North African men”. At that point in time, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas “warned against linking the assaults to the immigration issue” but with the description of the perpetrators broadcast, connections were drawn and the public outraged.

Additionally, German authorities announced on May 11 that there were 40 open investigations regarding believed Islamic militants who immigrated to Germany with the refugees. The announcement confirmed and built upon already present fears regarding terrorist attacks. Instances like the July 19 axe attack, one of three violent acts by refugees this month, aboard a German passenger train by an individual identified as “teenage Afghan refugee”  continue to fuel fear and provide further evidence to solidify the relegation of refugees’ social construct, within Germany’s perceived popular opinion, to the deviant category.

Aljazeera went as far as to label this the emerging image of “the rapist refugee as Germany’s boogeyman”. It is an image which will inform future immigration policy and popular opinion. It is already noted in the decreasing support for two term German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she continues to support immigration and is experiencing a drop in polls with almost two-thirds surveyed saying she should not run again in 2017.

The focus on the miscreant minority casts a shadow over the refugee majority’s potential. It is a potential that economists assert could be the answer to Germany and Europe’s aging workforce. The labor market needs an influx of young workers to make up for the millions reaching retirement age. It is a need which roughly one third of the refugees within Germany’s borders can fill. Yet, the success of refugee integration into the German labor market hinges on more than just age. It encompasses language, education and skill levels, qualification recognition, legal right to work, and employer openness.

Successful integration into the labor market does not operate in a vacuum where only the listed criteria apply. Instead it will be steered by society which begs the question: will a criminal minority shift the perception of the refugee population at large? The fallout politically, socially, and economically for refugees in Germany and in other receiving countries is yet to be determined. However, the swinging social construct will impact millions of lives globally.

Co-opting Fear to Influence Policy Making and Political Discourse

White_only_-_Detroit_1943

The challenge in American race relations is both historically complex and steeped in a flawed rhetoric. However, there is also another element–a segment of the population called White Nationalists asserting they are the victims of reverse discrimination and racism. Many Americans may share or empathize with their concerns for the “real America” and the intentions of the founding fathers being dismantled and threatened.

This co-opting of fear changes white supremacy to white nationalism, and it negates the typical responses to prejudice and discrimination. It no longer works to identify the “racist” and silence them rather than solicit empathy on their behalf. Denying a voice to anyone is proving the point that they are being censored no matter the danger of their rhetoric. Intervening requires that we educate ourselves on basic definitions of prejudices, racism, religious persecution and fear-based reactions in order combat the white nationalist assertion of the mythical reverse discrimination.

I first heard about Evan Osnos’ article in the New Yorker from his appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The article reminded me of my years teaching a course entitled Christian Perspectives on Ethics and Diversity. In the course, I decided to challenge and inform the student’s understanding of the deeper motivations behind prejudice. Along the way, I learned that prejudices are not one, but they are plural. What struck me as I went back to read Young-Bruehl again in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the Osnos article is that we must fundamentally change in our approach to addressing prejudices. I knew it back when I was teaching the course, but I didn’t have the social events with which to explain the change.

Beyond Discrimination, Defining Ethnocentricism & Orecticism
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her 1996 work Anatomy of Prejudices, presents a number of findings that inform our discussion of discrimination. First, prejudices is not “prejudice” but “prejudices” in the plural. They are characteristic mechanisms of defense–attempts by individuals to protect themselves from “the other” and the unknown.  Second, four main prejudices exist: sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Third, these prejudices are motivated by a constructed character trait either hysterical, narcissistic, or obsessional.

Ethnocentrism is a term used to describe how people may view others only through their own lens and experiences. Every event is viewed in relation to its impact on the ethnocentrist or his/her group. Every achievement is judged in relation to the achievements of the ethnocentrist. Every statistic is evaluated with the ethnocentrist group as the reference point, the baseline, and/or the norm. What better way to maintain self-concept and personal safety than to consider yourself the standard by which others are judged?

Orecticism is another term you may or may not have heard before. According to Young-Bruehl, orecticism is the projection of set of characteristics a person believes he/she “sees” exhibited by a person or group. It doesn’t matter whether people are observed exhibiting characteristics that contradict the orecticist view, the orecticist still “sees” what he/she desires to see. To view people in this way maintains the self-concept and personal safety of the orecticist. They maintain safety by compartmentalizing individuals and groups into behaviors the orecticist believe individuals or groups will display.

Analysis
An orecticist-homophobe maybe different from an ethnocentric-homophobe which may require a different approach when dealing with each. You care about the difference because, as a social worker, you don’t have the luxury of summarily dismissing uninformed views. You have the professional skill, informed by your ethics, to intentionally address the lack of knowledge and identify the roots of the issues to assist with behavior modification. Consider also for the orecticist, you are assessing for the reason behind the fearfulness. Identifying the fear is your key to promoting new choice behavior.

The orecticist-homophobe would view homosexuals as sexual deviants that are an abomination. He/she would want to separate society from these deviants. He/she would probably express physical sickness or emphatic disgust when the topic of homosexuality is introduced. This reaction is based on an unreasonable fear, but it is founded on a reasoned approach to self-protection. It is an attempt to be safe.

The ethnocentric-homophobe would view homosexuals as having some difference in their makeup than normal heterosexuals. He/she would probably agree that more research needs to be done to determine if there are any brain abnormalities in homosexuals or is it the way they were raised. He/she would probably say that he/she can be unbiased when evaluating a homosexual for a job. However, they are unaware their own bias rests in their view of themselves as the standard as opposed to creating an objective standard.

If you were to ask both whether they agree with adoption by homosexual couples, they both would say NO. If your intention was to work to convince them that adoption by homosexual couples is a community good, you would have to persuade them each in a different way. You would need to address the mechanism that is operant within their logic. You would need to see their behavior choice as reasonable.

The Requirements of an Intervention 

In order to counteract prejudices as characteristic mechanisms of defense, you would need to map the mechanisms similar to the analysis above. However, once the mechanism is mapped, we have another challenge. The ethnocentric person may be able to see that he or she is not the center of the universe. Social interaction, family relations, or critical events may shake the individual out of their isolated experience. With enough evidence the ethnocentrist, even though using him or herself as the standard, may allow for the failings of others because “we are all human” and “nobody’s perfect.”

The orecticist does not have as simple a path to inclusiveness. The orecticist is fearful, and unreasonable so, that the “other” is attempting to subvert, supersede, or otherwise diminish him or her by any means necessary. The other, in the mind of the orecticist, will resort to trickery, lies, and all manner of deceit in order to reach his sinister goals. Evidence provided to the orecticist only confirms his/her views. Those attempting to convince them are part of the problem, confused, brainwashed, or complicit in the deception. The orecticist will never see groups of others or institutions as safe. They can only connect with close individuals, even those who represent the group, because they have proven safe, “different from others,” or “for a [other], you are okay.”

Now, add these dynamics to the co-opting of fear. The co-opting of fear is the by-product of fear-based rhetoric that motivates people to do things because they fear some negatively reinforcing outcome. For example, we lock our doors fearing that someone may come into our houses uninvited. Though no one came in the time we left our keys in the door, we are convinced of “better safe than sorry,” and lock our doors as a precaution. Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to lock your doors. Some have applied this same logic to a number of social issues such as immigration. Orecticism co-opting of fear explains why Donald Trump can call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, yet lead in most national polls. Calling him “racist” or other names will not change his support base thereby nurturing an environment where it is reasonable to fear immigrants.

The solution will have to be local and include person-to-person engagement in order to challenge personal ideology and beliefs. However, for some, any institutionally-based intervention will only be seen as a subversive attempt at deception.

To combat this, Social activist must organize more individual-based interactions such as story sharing and project-based civic work to help with personalizing vulnerable individuals and groups to change behaviors and increase compassion. Even then, understand that orecticist co-opted fear will only say, “Okay, Ahmed is okay. But, I’m still worried about those Muslims.” The orecticist will always fear groups, government, institutions, religious organizations, etc. We must be careful in not isolating and dismissing these types instead of identifying way to engage their point-of-view.  However, this should be one strategy in a multi-faceted approach to combat oppression and discrimination of vulnerable individuals and groups.

Cognitive Dissonance: How We Dismiss the Refugee Crisis

Hungarian Camerawoman trips refugee child to prevent them from eluding police.
Hungarian Camerawoman trips refugee child to prevent them from eluding police.

Whilst politicians appear concerned about the monetary deficit invoked by refugees, many people are currently concerned with what appears to be a deficit in compassion.

This is particularly with regard to the current humanitarian crisis of refugees, for reasons ranging from their numbers, their religion, and their reasons. What we are seeing is dehumanisation, which arguably has two facets – the first being mechanistic dehumanisation, where we believe others are lacking basic human traits such as warmth, emotionality, and depth. The second form of dehumanisation is animalistic dehumanisation where we see others as lacking human uniqueness – elements such as rationality, maturity and moral sensibility that separate humans from other species.

But, how does this happen? There are many theories about how dehumanisation can occur on both a personal and societal level. Here we are going to consider the theory of cognitive dissonance, alongside ideas about how our social environment can have an impact.

Cognitive dissonance theory stipulates that we feel uncomfortable when we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. We also experience cognitive dissonance if we act in conflict with a belief or value. For example, my health is important, but I binge on pizza every night.

How much dissonance we experience depends on how important our personal values conflict with our beliefs. If I need to get up early, but I’m staying up late watching a film, I might feel a tad conflicted. However, if I have a very important interview tomorrow, I will feel more conflicted about staying up late. If the interview is for a job I don’t particularly want, suddenly it’s easier to stay up.

The level of dissonance is also affected by how much information we have supporting each belief. Usually it’s harder to hold on to beliefs which have a mountain of evidence against them. However, linked to the above paragraph about values, conflicting evidence is most likely to change beliefs we don’t value very much. If our belief is very dear and important to us, conflicting evidence can actually make us strengthen the belief and hold onto it tighter in order to erase the conflicted/dissonant feeling.

If we are in ‘dissonance’, we somehow need to make these two conflicting beliefs balance out again – essentially so we don’t feel like a hypocrite.

There are several ways we can do this. In the example ‘refugees need our help’ we could:

  • add extra cognitions to justify ourselves (‘help at home first’)
  • ignore conflicting information (e.g. avoiding the news)
  • change the cognition which causes conflict (‘they are not victims, they’re economic migrants not refugees’), and finally…
  • change our behaviour to make it in line with the original belief (i.e. doing something to help).

Another example might be that I believe I’m a ‘good person’, but I do things which do not fit with ‘good person’ labeling. For example, ignoring a petition about a humanitarian crisis. To resolve this conflict, I could choose to act congruently with my values and sign or take alternative action such as making a donation. I could, however, seek out people who support my lack of action, people who think online petitions don’t have any impact, to make myself feel better. I could also seek out information which confirms my altered cognitions consisting of news stories about refugees being terrorists or liars. As another alternative, I could alter my beliefs about what a ‘humanitarian crisis’ is to make it something that is not my problem or not a real humanitarian crisis.

I believe many of these things are happening en-masse at the moment with the current refugee crisis. Here are some of the ways people are resolving cognitive dissonance to make ourselves more comfortable and less compassionate.

Firstly, we can reduce the human element of the crisis. This includes likening refugees to animals or insects, and using anonymous numbers without corresponding personal touches. Refugees have been called a swarm by the UK Prime Minister in addition to other using references  such as cockroaches and towns being ‘swamped’.

Large numbers of refugees without individual cases to humanise them can lead to facelessness and a lack of true understanding or empathy toward their plight. Perhaps that’s why it took a photo of a single child, Alan Kurdi, alongside the numbers, for people to remember these numbers are not abstract. Each refugee represents a life, and nearly half of Syrian refugees are children. On top of this, Britain has only taken in a trainful of Syrian refugees – the apparent swarm is currently missing in action.

We can also create an us-and-them situation.

“The decision to cooperate and expend resources for another’s benefit is a dilemma of trust since the ultimate benefits depend on everyone else’s willingness to do the same”. – M. Brewer (1999)

The dynamics of this are complex and contingent on multiple levels of belief systems and environmental safety. However, lack of trust helps us dehumanise and conflict with ‘outgroups’, alongside feelings of superiority, assuming the moral absoluteness of the ingroup, and feelings of fear/threat over resources.

At the moment, people in Britain are fearful of their job security, worrying about paying rent, food prices are rising, and the media is playing up to stereotypes of people who are trying to swindle the taxpayer in order ‘get something for nothing’. This is in light of a long list of Britain’s elites squandering taxpayer money on moats, chauffeurs, and second houses. It isn’t difficult, therefore, to foster a lack of trust in others to create a threat from the outgroup ‘stealing’ jobs or money, and add extra cognitions which justify lack of action with a sense of “help at home first, what has anyone ever done for me, we don’t have the resources”.

People generally find it hard to dehumanise others without a corresponding dehumanising environment. To start with, we have people feeling under threat as explained above which leads to Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Study documenting ways to foster dehumansing environments. This includes living in an unpredictable environment and the UK arguably had one of its most unpredictable elections ever in 2015.

Beginning with smaller abusive acts such as fake stories about misuse of the Human Rights Act, anti-immigration rhetoric being framed as economically sound in spite of contrary evidence), and minimising individual social responsibility to do anything. This plays with the fact that the British public are disillusioned about politics, and presumably their ability to make any meaningful broad-scale change in light of this.

Additionally, Zimbardo notes the role of providing people with a solid ideology or rhetoric for unpleasant actions. Perfect case examples include, but are not limited to, Donald Trump in America and UKIP in the United Kingdom. In both, it allows them to perform dehumanising acts against certain groups whilst feeling ‘justified’ in doing so. For example, a parent may beat their child ‘for their own good’, or a politician might argue that ‘real’ help does not come from accepting refugees – it is ‘for their own good’ to find a bigger solution that does not involve accepting refugees.

This also involves lack of adequate information about what is happening to refugees – shelters have been torched, refugees have been ‘tattooed’ with permanent-marker numbers in the Czech Republic, refugees including babies and children have been pepper-sprayed by police and by the public. Additionally, there are ongoing deaths in Calais and 2,200 refugees have died at since since July this year. The Still Human Still Here campaign raises awareness of the horrific destitution facing refused asylum seekers in the UK alone. This atrocities are not hidden, and it can be found on any search engine. But why would you seek this information out only to increase your sense of discomfort when it can be avoided?

Again, it goes back to threat – economic migrants want to steal our jobs and money, refugees are economic migrants, therefore refugees are a threat. Therefore, the refugee humanitarian crisis is also linked to misinformation about migrants more generally.

People of the UK overestimate numbers of immigrants nearly doubling the true number, alongside overestimating other social issues such as unemployment and teenage pregnancy.  A University College London study found that immigrants who have arrived in the UK since 2000 have made a net contribution of £25bn and were less likely to receive ‘benefits’, tax credits, or live in social housing.

The NHS owes a huge amount to people who were not born in the UK and tight immigration rules are negatively impacting the NHS due to lack of nurses. One can ignore this information or add cognitions which allow the facts to be dismissed such as assuming the study was mis-conducted or done on incomplete data, suggesting we’d have fewer foreign-born nurses if there was more ‘space’ for people born in Britain, or that we wouldn’t need as many nurses if we had fewer immigrants.

Unfortunately, this ‘economic migrant’ and utterly false ‘welfare benefit’ rhetoric has placed the British public nicely in a position to alter their belief about the intentions of refugees, reducing cognitive dissonance because one can believe that ‘their’ home countries are safe; ‘they’ are here only for ‘our’ money and jobs; ‘they’ have no legitimate reason to be here. If the other’s intentions can be considered illegitimate, manipulative, or meaningfully harmful, it makes it easier to dismiss their beliefs, actions or values.

This dissonance has very real and deadly consequences. 67% of the British public would support sending troops in to France to stop what have been termed ‘immigrants’from entering the country. Refugees are being treated like criminals. Although there are petitions to allow more refugees into the UK, news outlets showing how individual people can contribute, crowdfunders, websites helping people to share a room in their house, viral videos of Germans cheering arriving refugees, and grassroots campaigns. However, there is still a widespread sense that refugees are a horde to be rid of rather than fellow humans to be welcomed with open arms and kept safe.

The discomfort of the humanitarian crisis is apparent for anyone who has had even remote contact with news of the situation. However, the way to resolve this discomfort is not for us to alter and add beliefs until we feel safe in our inaction. It’s someone else’s problem, we need to tackle things in home countries alone, we will ‘open the door’ to anyone if we let in refugees, and that’s bad, we have enough on our plate, there’s no room, im(migrant)refugees take up our resources and they’re only here to steal our jobs but also to not-work and they take all our benefits anyway.

Enough is enough. We have to stop using a lack of compassion to resolve our own discomfort and face up to the hard truth. Otherwise, history will not look kindly upon this period of time.

 

Without Papers But Not Without Rights: The Basic Social Rights of Irregular Migrants

Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake
Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake

Those who think that irregular migrants have no rights because they have no papers are wrong. Everyone is a holder of human rights regardless of their status. It is easy to understand that the prohibition of torture protects all people but we should also be aware of the fact that basic social rights are also universal, because their enjoyment constitutes a prerequisite for human dignity. Therefore, member states of the Council of Europe should stand by their obligations to protect the basic social rights of everyone under their jurisdiction, and this includes irregular migrants.

Migrants can be in an irregular situation because they have entered a country, or stayed in a country, in an unauthorised way. Their situation may become irregular because they overstay an authorised period which can last several years. Due to the very nature of irregular migration, it is difficult to estimate the number of irregular migrants currently living in Europe, though the figure undoubtedly runs into the millions.

Barriers placed by states to the exercise of basic social rights

In my work, I have been confronted with too many situations where the social rights of irregular migrants have been deliberately denied by authorities, in contradiction with international and European law. In other countries where these rights are recognised in national legislation, practical obstacles to their exercise have unfortunately proved to be numerous.

The criminalisation of migration and repressive policies of detention and expulsions of foreigners seriously affect the protection of the basic social rights of irregular migrants, not least because they create a general climate of suspicion and rejection against irregular migrants among those who are supposed to provide social services.

Migrants in an irregular situation are too often seen as cheats, liars, social benefits abusers or persons stealing the jobs of nationals. In such a context, law enforcement officials in charge of countering “illegal immigration” often have difficulties in recognising an irregular migrant as a victim of human rights violations and in need of protection.

In some instances, the police are placed under official pressure to attain quantified targets of “repatriations” – I noted this to be the case until 2012 in France. This policy can be particularly harmful to irregular migrants’ access to social rights, because it forces them to live clandestinely and avoid contact with social assistance providers for fear of being arrested, detained or deported. According to a June 2015 study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the main reason for victims of exploitation not reporting their cases to the police is the fear of having to leave the country.

The criminalisation of migration through establishing an “offence of solidarity” against those who try to assist migrants by providing minimum access to shelter, food and healthcare is another unacceptable measure taken by some states in recent years. To guarantee access to basic social rights for irregular migrants, basic service providers such as medical staff should never be placed under an obligation to report irregular migrants to law enforcement authorities.

Access to basic social rights can also be impeded by protracted situations of legal limbo such as that experienced by rejected asylum seekers who cannot be expelled in Denmark. I consider that in situations where return is impossible or particularly difficult, states should find solutions to authorise the relevant person to stay in the country under conditions which meet their basic social needs and respect their dignity.

As indicated in a recent study on the impact of the crisis on access to fundamental rights in the EU, undocumented migrants are among the groups disproportionately affected by austerity measures imposed in the field of healthcare. In Spain, access to healthcare for irregular migrants in most regions was significantly reduced in 2012, until the government recently decided to restore primary health care access, mainly because of the disastrous impact the restrictions had on the national healthcare system. It remains to be seen if the right to access to healthcare of irregular migrants will also improve in practice.

Right to basic social assistance, shelter and food

In some countries, restrictions on access to social rights rest, more or less explicitly, on immigration policies aimed at sending back irregular migrants, including by forcing them into destitution, in order to deter other would-be migrants from coming. States may be tempted to link access to some basic social rights to the residence status of the migrant. In the Netherlands, while the law grants irregular migrants access to emergency healthcare and education, the government has attempted to deny access to shelter, food and water. As noted in my report on the Netherlands, I could witness some of the difficulties experienced by irregular migrants due to this policy during a visit carried out to a disused church in The Hague in 2014, where some 65 irregular immigrants had taken shelter.

As unrestrictedly recognised in many international legal instruments, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and shelter. Under the European Social Charter, as emphasised by the European Committee of Social Rights, the minimum guarantees for the right to housing and emergency shelter apply to irregular migrants too.

Shelter must be provided even when immigrants have been requested to leave the country and even though they may not require long-term accommodation. The Committee has pointed out that the right to shelter is closely connected to the human dignity of every person, regardless of their residence status. It has also stated that foreign nationals, whether residing lawfully or not in the country, are entitled to urgent medical assistance and such basic social assistance as is necessary to cope with an immediate state of need (accommodation, food, emergency care and clothing).

Protection from exploitation and human trafficking

Everyone, including irregular immigrants, should be protected from labour exploitation and trafficking in human beings in full compliance with Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting slavery, forced labour and by extension human trafficking, and with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

While in many European countries a residence permit can be granted to victims of trafficking or severe forms of exploitative work staying irregularly on the territory, too often, this applies only under the condition of co-operating with the police. In 20 country evaluation reports, the Group of Experts on action against trafficking in human beings (GRETA) has urged the authorities to ensure that in practice access to assistance for victims of trafficking is not made conditional on their co-operation in the investigation and criminal proceedings: Article 14 of the anti-trafficking Convention allows parties to make the issuing of a temporary residence permit conditional on co-operation and it seems that in some cases this blocks unconditional access to assistance for foreign victims.

States have an obligation to sanction employers exploiting the vulnerability of irregular migrants. From a human rights point of view, what matters most is not that a state fights against “illegal work”, but that irregular migrants are protected and compensated for the human rights violations they have suffered as a result of their exploitation. Foreign domestic workers, because of their isolation, are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse.

Right to education of children in an irregular situation

Many international and European human rights standards, including the European Social Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, require that access to education be ensured for children regardless of their immigration status. However, too often, schools or other administrative authorities place barriers to irregular migrant children’s right to education by unlawfully asking for documents such as birth certificates as a condition to enrol the child.

Measures to be taken by states

To create an environment favourable to ensuring irregular migrants’ access to inalienable basic social rights, states should not only refrain from criminalising migration but should go further:

  • Consider policies, including regularisation programmes and increased possibilities for legal channels to immigrate for work, so as to avoid or resolve situations whereby migrants are in, or are at risk of falling into, an irregular situation.
  • Ratify and implement international and European treaties relevant for the protection of the rights of irregular migrants, including the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and the Revised European Social Charter and its collective complaints mechanism.
  • Train police officers, labour and immigration officials and basic service providers on the human rights of irregular migrants and victims of trafficking in human beings and exploitative work.
  • Inform irregular migrants about their rights and ensure full and equal access to justice for irregular migrants who are victims of exploitation and other human rights abuses by encouraging them to report this without resulting in their prosecution or expulsion.
  • Enable NGOs and trade unions to defend the basic social rights of irregular migrants, including before courts with the victims’ consent.
  • Ensure irregular migrants’ equal access to victim support and assistance mechanisms adapted to the needs of each individual and that are confidential and free of charge.
  • Never call migrants in an irregular situation “illegal migrants” as this would be inaccurate and harmful as stressed by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) in its campaign “Words Matter!”, promoting alternative words to this expression in several European languages.

Background documents

  • European Committee of Social Rights, Collective Complaints Decisions on the merits:
    • Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 90/2013
    • European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 86/2012
    • Defence for Children International (DCI) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 47/2008
    • International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) v. France, Complaint No. 14/2003
  • Press Unit, Registry of the European Court of Human Rights: Factsheet on Trafficking in Human Beings
  • Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Website
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Resolution 1509 (2006) on human rights of irregular migrants, 27 June 2006
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Recommendation 1985 (2011) Undocumented migrant children in an irregular situation: a real cause for concern, 7 October 2011

Refugee Aid: A Global Effort

As social workers, we are dedicated to helping those in need of becoming empowered to emancipate themselves from their situation, disposition, or oppression.  There are as many forms of social justice callings as there are forms of clients, collectives, and societies. As a macro-based social worker, the calling to facilitate global change for refugees has a particularly strong gravitational pull. There are 45.2 million displaced individuals in the world, in dire need of the most basic human needs. The majority of these collectives receive no attention in our national media circuit and are often left desperate and without hope.

refugeOne of the few situations gaining media attention is in Uganda, where South Sudanese refugees are debating never going back to their homes because of how harsh the current living conditions are.  Ethiopia is also getting many South Sudanese refugees (roughly 93,000) that are finding a small sense of peace in the Gambella Regional State.  All of these refugees are in immediate need of help and support from the international agencies and governing bodies.

The most prominent refugee situation that has captured global attention has been the Central African Republic crisis.  Masses of people are in need of basic resources to survive.  Roughly 70,000 have been contained in airport grounds in substandard conditions. Disease and lack of food run rampant as these people struggle to escape the violence and oppression in their homeland. Despite UN efforts to deploy thousands of troops and police, the basic needs of these refugees still are not being met.

These individuals deserve to begin the healing process and gain a sense of security. When we hear about these events, we may cringe with a hopeless feeling of being unavailable to create tangible change for these people. Thankfully, there are ways to get meaningfully involved to help stabilize refugees’ situations and environments.

One can contribute to the Immigrant Solidarity Network, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHRC). One can also donate their time through volunteerism and activism through these organizations, as well as going onto the UN Volunteers website and seeing what agency can most utilize your skill sets. Societal change, especially for international situations, requires a global effort and social workers can be leaders in implementing that change.

Photo Courtesy of the Guardian

Who is Worthy of Rescue at Sea?

The recent tragedy of the MH370 flight has triggered an unprecedented international search. The world’s thoughts are with the passengers and their relatives at such a dreadful time made harder by lack of answers. It is not my intention to take away from the legitimacy of the response to this tragedy, but it does raise questions about which humans are worthy of rescue. Certainly in Australia, it is not everyone.

rescuePeople who seek asylum in Australia have committed no crime, yet they are locked up in what can only be described as concentration camps, a step worse than prison, which includes men, women and children. Mind you. we detain Aboriginal people with disabilities without convictions in prison. People seeking asylum have no hope and with indefinite detention no future.

These are the same people who are desperate and fearful enough to risk their lives and that of their families to arrive by boat, and no one does this lightly. Privileged Australians, like our politicians, have little chance of understanding this kind of desperation. At least some people did arrive.

According to ABC Australia,

A spokesman for the Indonesian government has confirmed it is investigating reports Australia has begun turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters. Asylum seekers from two boats that washed up on islands on Indonesia’s far-east coast told the ABC earlier this month they were forced back by the Australian Navy. One boat was allegedly left without sufficient fuel and drifted for days. Read Full Article

We have let adults and children drown and have claimed we don’t have the resources to retrieve the bodies. The current government feels validated because we now tow back the boats or leave people on leaky ones. Yet, we routinely rescue sailors at sea and put a lot of resources into rescuing millionaires who find themselves in trouble. It is pretty clear to me who we deem worthy of rescue. Despite claims to the contrary, Australia does not take many refugees.

Rather than approaches that don’t work, alternatives such as facilitating rather than preventing relative reunions, increasing intake and creating improved, fair and transparent processing would respect human rights. Australia’s population is built on convicts, immigrants and displaced people. Many like the Vietnamese in the 1970s have arrived by boat and contributed economically, intellectually, and culturally. There is no reason why today’s refugees would not do the same provided we treat them with dignity and focused on inclusion.

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