I've already posted the definition of a refugee from the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
, but let me do it again. It is a person who:
owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or is unable or, is unwilling to return to it.
Now let's have a little gander at The Sunday Times
which yesterday, amid its other coverage of the events on Wednesday, has a piece entitled: "If you lived like us in Kurdistan, you might risk it all to reach Britain".
This, as indicated by the title, explains why some people from the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan are so keen to come to the UK, and it begins with this passage:
Every summer, in their small town in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Dana Mohammed, 20, and his brother, Arav, would meet local people who had left years before and made the journey to the UK. They would come back to Ranya on holiday, wearing nice clothes, and talk about how good life was in Britain compared with home, where corruption, repression and poverty make life hard and work very difficult to find.
Frustratingly, the piece doesn't specify how these "local people who had left years before and made the journey to the UK" had got to the UK, and under what terms, but given UK immigration rules, it is safe to assume that they presented themselves as asylum seekers, gained refugee status and then successfully applied for and were granted leave to remain.
With that, let us paraphrase some the key elements of the refugee definition, specifically, that there has to be a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", and that the people are unable or, owing to such fear, are unwilling to unwilling to return to the country of their nationality.
On that basis, people who have come to the UK, made a new life there, and then felt able to return to their country of origin for holidays, are not by definition refugees. If they entered the UK on those grounds, then they must have lied to the UK immigration authorities, in order conceal their true status.
That true status begins to come clearer from the next part of the ST
piece, which moves on to tell us that:
For young people with ambition, the brothers believed, there was little prospect of a future there. When Dana asked a local smuggler about going to the UK himself, he was told that it was easy, so he set off. It was not easy, it turned out. But this month he made it across the Channel on a small boat. Now he is in the UK. If he is granted leave to stay in the country, he will start to work and send money back to his family.
Here, though, is an interesting comment: "When Dana asked a local smuggler about going to the UK himself, he was told that it was easy, so he set off". As it turns out, the "smuggler" was not telling the truth, but it was enough for Dana to launch his expedition.
In the next part, we see an intervention from the piece author, Louise Callaghan, the paper's Middle East Correspondent. She suggests that "when we think of people coming to Europe, we might picture refugees fleeing bombs raining down on their homes". Or, she writes: "we might think of economic migrants, who leave their country solely to find a better job elsewhere".
Mirroring Parris's observation from his column, though, she asserts that: "Often, reality lies somewhere in the middle, where need and opportunity meet". Repression, corruption and poverty, she says, "drive people to look to Europe for a better life: a smuggler provides the service". Understandable though this might be, it seems to be a long way from people being driven from their country by so great a fear that they dare not return.
If there is any doubt as to the motivation, this is dispelled by a quotation from Arav, brother of Dana, the pair having finished secondary school, only to find that there were no prospects for them. "People don't have an income here, they have no opportunities", he is cited as saying: "We're young and can't find any opportunities, so we try to go to a country that gives us an opportunity to be independent and take care of ourselves and make a living", adding, "If we stay here well never become anything".
Note that there is no reference to be being driven out of the country by a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". The motivation is entirely economic.
Callaghan acknowledges that there is "no active conflict in most parts of the region, and people are not starving to death". But, she says, "for those without connections to the ruling class, many young people say, the nepotism means that it is very difficult to advance in life". Just because you are not going to die, as one university graduate told her, does not mean that you do not want to live.
She then refers to unspecified "rights groups" who claim that, in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area, there is no free local press and little freedom of expression. In Sulaymaniyah, an eastern city, thousands took to the streets last week to protest against what they say is rampant corruption. They were met with violence from the authorities.
Unemployment, we are told, is endemic. Many poor families survive on remittances sent home by relatives in Europe. One cousin with a steady job in Birmingham can keep many heads above the water.
However, Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the KRG, described as a "multibillionaire" does get a word in edgeways. He dismisses the claim that his people were desperate to leave. "Many want to go to Europe in search of a different opportunity", he is quoted as saying. "It's not a flight of desperation. I hope the world knows that these people went there like every other immigrant wants to travel and go in search of different parts of the world. But if they want to return, they can always return here".
That last statement is, in fact, supported by the piece, which returns us to the motivation for travel. Like people around the world, Callaghan writes, young Kurds in Iraq have mobile phones that allow them to access the internet and see how people in other countries live. They can see that life is better elsewhere.
Concluding her piece with a further reference to brother Arav, Callaghan has him say: "If I had the money for it I'd leave tomorrow in any way. I believe if you came from the UK and experienced living here like a local, you'd hate it and try to leave, too".
However, only a few days ago, Radio Free Europe was reporting
that 600 Iraqis stranded for weeks on the Belarus-Poland border have returned home on repatriation flights organised by the Iraqi government (one family pictured).
Most of these are Kurds, misled by Belarus propaganda and the lies of the smugglers. And, as Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahaf says that these citizens were being "voluntarily repatriated", with more flights planned, we can assume that none of them are unable or unwilling to return to their home country.
None of these Kurds, it would seem, have applied for asylum in Belarus and they are returning home because the Polish government would not let them cross their border into the EU.
And there are multiple lessons for the French and British governments. Any people who identify as Iraqi Kurds possibly with some very rare exceptions - are not refugees. They are economic migrants.
By stamping down on smugglers, the French government could reduce the attractiveness of the Channel route, and those migrants who are intercepted can be legally repatriated to Iraq. For the British, any that arrive here should be put on an aircraft to Iraq with minimum delay.
What one must ask, therefore, is why at least in respect of Iraqi Kurds this migration is happening at all. In a matter of weeks, the Polish government stopped it dead. Yet the governments of two powerful, mature nations, seem powerless in the face of a flotilla of rubber boats, procured by criminal gangs.
I think we are entitled to know what is going on.
Also published on Turbulent Times