World

A blurred distinction between refugees and migrants is a recipe for chaos

30 December 2021

6:00 PM

30 December 2021

6:00 PM

Among the most evocative and distressing press images of the year were those of Maryam Nuri Hama Amin. The 24-year-old Kurd from Soran, in northeastern Iraq, drowned along with 26 others in the Channel last month. In photographs published after her death, she is seen at her engagement party smiling at the camera in a park, by a lake, amid fallen leaves. She looks beautiful, bright, confident and full of hope.

If you read reports and trawl through Twitter, you’ll find that many believe Maryam was a victim of a heartless international order, of European xenophobia, of the British government’s inability to manage its own affairs properly. But how did she come to end up in a dinghy that would sink in the cold waters of the Channel? And how can we prevent others like Maryam from undertaking such a perilous journey?

GettyImages-1236844285.jpgMaryam Nuri Hama Amin, who drowned at sea, pictured with her fiance (Getty images)

Separating out the legal, jurisdictional and political elements underlying the migration crisis is a difficult task, but any durable solution demands that we at least try to do so. And this isn’t just about the 1951 Refugee Convention or the role played by the European Court of Justice or the European Convention on Human Rights. We also need to think about why so many people who end up on Dover beach or who travelled to the Polish/Belarusian border want to flee their homelands in the first place. And we must think about what both this – and the nature of the countries through which they transit – tell us about the true drivers of migration.

After all, it is very odd on the face of it that Belarus should have become a migration hub. No one really wants to live in Minsk under the ruthless rule of a man like Alexander Lukashenko if they can help it, perhaps not even most Belarusians. Instead, Belarus becoming a centre of migration is a gigantic political scam, designed to embarrass and destabilise Poland and the wider EU. But what is even more curious is that many of those whom Lukashenko has tried to use in this way are Iraqi Kurds.

Many of those who end up on board floating death-traps in the Channel are also Iraqi Kurds. But why? You can probably understand why someone from Aleppo or Homs who fears for their family’s future in a war-torn, warlord-haunted and deeply sectarian Syria dominated by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia might want to get the hell out. You can understand why some Afghans or Iranians might reasonably fear persecution too. But Iraqi Kurds?

Think back to 1991. Saddam Hussein had been allowed by the US-led coalition to survive his humiliation in Kuwait. He savagely suppressed a Shia revolt in the south. He then went after the Kurds in the north. The Kurdish desire for an ethno-national state, across parts of Iraq, Turkey and what is now Iran, goes back at least as far as the First World War. They tried to set one up in Mahabad in Iranian Azerbaijan during the post-war chaos of 1945, only for it to be destroyed by Tehran when the Soviets withdrew.


Then, in 1991, the Iraqi Kurds secured the protection of the US, the UK and France in what became known as Operation Provide Comfort. This resulted in what ended up to all intents and purposes an autonomous Kurdish region stretching across the entire north east of Iraq. The Turks were suspicious and the Iranians wary. But neither they nor Baghdad could do much about it.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam, this area became the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). This was essentially a power-sharing agreement between Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each suspicious of the other but prepared to cooperate in the nationalist cause.

The KRG had its own political parties, its own elections, its own administration, its own language – with Kurdish replacing Arabic for most internal purposes. It produced, marketed and exported its own oil. There were disputes about budgets, borders and revenue sharing with Baghdad. But, with pipeline access out through Turkey, the KRG had an independent economic base. There was – and is – corruption and nepotism. Dissenters have a hard time. But it remains by far the safest and most stable part of Iraq.

It has also become a place of refuge itself: for victims of Baghdad’s often sectarian politics, for Sunni Arabs persecuted by Shia militias, for Christians driven out of the Nineveh plains and then for everyone, Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Yezidis, fleeing the Islamic state. This has imposed a massive burden on the regional government in Erbil. But they manage. And they pride themselves on being the sort of place to which those in trouble or in fear of their lives could find refuge.

The KRG is not perfect. Where is? But it is better than virtually anywhere else in the region. Even if it were not, there are numerous other countries between Erbil and Dover where people can find safety. Maryam’s family say she was simply trying to join her fiancé, who had already reached the UK. But there are legal channels for family reunification. They take time and not all applications succeed. Yet they exist for a purpose. And that purpose is to help Britain, like other states, control its own borders.

This is the story of migration in today’s world in a nutshell. People want to leave their homes for many reasons: because they fear persecution, because they aspire to a different future, because they want employment, because they want personal freedom, because they dream of streets paved with gold, because they want to escape some other problem in their life. I do not underestimate the despair or desire that drives individuals to leave home. But none of that on its own makes them refugees. Nor does it make it incumbent on governments to let them in.

Some people may say that Europe’s migration crisis is the result of western wars – in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan: we have a moral responsibility to take in everyone. But the successful establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq was the result of a sustained western-led effort to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, who had himself launched two bloody wars in the space of ten years. Those fleeing Syria are not fleeing US bombs: they are fleeing the brutal sectarianism of the Assads and their allies. Those fleeing Lebanon want to get away from disasters wrought by Iran and Hezbollah. Eritreans or Sudanese are trying to escape entirely home-grown conflicts. The Nato intervention in Libya did not produce a new state: but it is delusional to think that Qaddafi’s Libya was a paradise, any more than Saddam’s Iraq or the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Thinking everything is the fault of the West is the new narcissism. It deprives others of political and moral agency. After all, history is full of people who screw things up all on their own. As it happens, I think we have an obligation to help those Iraqis or Afghans who worked for us. And I think legitimate refugees need to be given refuge in an orderly fashion. But there are two ways to do this: legal and illegal. It used to be the job of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help decide which was which. What happened to that?

Above all, governments must retain the right to decide whom they admit. Where people are obviously at risk and they have no other option, we should take them in. Where they are not and they do, we should not. But people fleeing their homes in the Middle East and North Africa for whatever reason have multiple choices before they reach Calais. If they are paying thousands of dollars for transit, poverty is not an issue. And people from places where they were safe in the first place have no claim at all. There is a distinction between refugees and migrants. Saying they should all have the same status is a recipe for chaos – as we are seeing.

Maryam’s death was deeply distressing. But she did not die because we or the French are heartless.

After all, Europe has taken in millions of people from across the world in the past 80 years, including in the last decade huge numbers from the Middle East. In the UK alone, the deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home, Health, Business and Education Secretaries are all the children of immigrants. You can see a similar phenomenon in France or Denmark. Perhaps ten per cent of the French population is of North African origin.

But this is not a blank cheque, not in the UK, not in France nor in utopian Sweden. There are legal ways to immigrate into Europe. You may not like the process. Try Russian, Turkish, Saudi or Qatari bureaucracy if you prefer. If you pay a criminal gang to transport you illegally across borders, you are engaging in a commercial transaction. If you want to leave your country simply because you think life is better elsewhere, you are not a refugee.

Governments across Europe have not handled the migration crisis well. But they have a right to be concerned about the unsustainable pressure all this is putting on their governmental systems and the damage to the social and political fabric in their countries. They should be braver in making this clearer. And above all, if where you live is safe, it would be much better simply to stay put.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange


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