We Need A Better Definition Of ‘Refugee’


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and founder of the AHA Foundation.

The global asylum and refugee system is no longer fit for purpose. As a beneficiary of that system, I do not make such a statement lightly. The reality is that it is outdated and can no longer cope with the challenges posed by mass violence and global migration today.

Following the displacement of European Jews during World War II, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was devised not out of idealism but as a practical, Eurocentric Cold War policy. It’s been argued that the convention’s architects intended it to provide a method of escape for those caught on the wrong side of the iron curtain. It defined a refugee as someone outside their country who could not return to it for fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention was a temporary solution to a post-war problem, not a long-term offer. And it certainly wasn’t intended as a way of skipping the line to access a better quality of life.

In 1967, the convention was extended universally. This afforded the West further opportunity to thwart Communism with the mass resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. But this shift also invited broader interpretations of the definition of a refugee to anyone living in a dangerous place, not just those personally persecuted by the state. Millions — potentially hundreds of millions — now hope to qualify, even those who are merely migrating to seek a better quality of life.

Consequently, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee has blurred to such an extent that it is no longer useful. In her analysis of Eurostat data on asylum applications in the European Union between 2010-2017, the French demographer Michèle Tribalat concludes that “the migratory crisis has been converted into an asylum crisis. For an illegal migrant, asylum is the only way to be taken care of legally.”

As Tribalat’s analysis suggests, migrants who did not meet the requirements for asylum in one jurisdiction, and thus are deemed “illegal” in policy terms, have likely tried applying again at a different border. The data shows dramatic spikes in new asylum applications in Germany and Sweden in 2015 and 2016, but while these numbers subsequently fell in those two countries, they continued to rise in France. The Schengen agreement, which eliminated border checks between 26 European countries in 1985, makes such movement easy — as does the reluctance of countries to deport those whose applications have been rejected.

For many migrants, seeking asylum is their best chance to gain residency in the West. Developed economies have less need for low skilled labor than in previous generations and the appetite for welcoming additional newcomers is weak.

The best policy to cope with these issues is to work to repair the causes that make people leave their homelands in such numbers in the first place. Push factors include wars, natural disasters, gang violence, failed or failing states, or economies so broken they cannot sustain their populations. The pull factors in the West include political and economic freedoms, generous welfare systems and rule of law, for example.

The economics of immigration is also a driving force, whether it’s the big business of people smuggling and human trafficking or remittances from successful immigrants, which encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

The challenge of processing these migrants has given rise to an enormous bureaucracy. Many countries are overwhelmed with asylum applications. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported 3.1 million asylum seekers waiting for decisions last year. Meanwhile, national governments must fund numerous programs and services for new arrivals and for the longer-term task of integration. These include housing, health care, social work, security, language training, formal education, jobs skills training, cultural values classes, legal services, and not to mention, foreign aid and development funding.

But resources in even wealthy societies are not infinite, and failed integration programs, as well as the resulting social problems, have turned immigration into a vote-winner for populists in liberal democracies around the world.

If we step back and take a dispassionate long-term view, it is clear that we need a better definition of what a refugee is and how they can best be helped. We must retain the core principle of providing refuge for individuals or groups persecuted by intolerant movements or regimes — for example, the Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, who is still threatened with death despite having been cleared by the courts of blasphemy charges.

We need a better system for admitting those who do not qualify as refugees — one that builds integration considerations into the process from the outset when the person applies for entry. Rather than focusing on where people come from and what their motivations are for leaving, I believe the main criterion for granting residence should be how likely migrants are to abide by the laws and adopt the values of their host society.

Like many migrants, I would have been better off if given an option to prove my ability to adapt, rather than having to shoehorn my life story into the convention’s framework. Priority should be given to those individuals with the highest probability of entering the labor market, not the welfare state, and those who genuinely wish to become American, Dutch, French or British, and live among, rather than just nearby, their fellow citizens.

The world’s population has trebled since 1951 when the refugee convention was ratified in Geneva. And along with it, the number of those fleeing war, persecution and authoritarian ideology. But we must be frank: the refugee convention and its amendments have served their purpose. They belong to the era of the Cold War, not to the era of globalization and clashing civilizations.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.