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Migrants and refugees flooding into Europe have presented European leaders and policymakers with their greatest challenge since the debt crisis. The International Organization for Migration calls Europe the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, and the Mediterranean the world’s most dangerous border crossing.
Distinguishing migrants from asylum seekers and refugees is not always a clear-cut process, yet it is a crucial designation because these groups are entitled to different levels of assistance and protection under international law.
An asylum seeker is defined as a person fleeing persecution or conflict, and therefore seeking international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees; a refugee is an asylum seeker whose claim has been approved. However, the UN considers migrants fleeing war or persecution to be refugees, even before they officially receive asylum. (Syrian and Eritrean nationals, for example, enjoy prima facie refugee status.) An economic migrant, by contrast, is person whose primary motivation for leaving his or her home country is economic gain. The term migrant is seen as an umbrella term for all three groups. Said another way: all refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees.
“BOTH THE BURDEN AND THE SHARING ARE IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. I DON’T KNOW IF ANY EU COUNTRY WILL EVER FIND THE EQUITY THAT IS BEING SOUGHT”
Migrant detention centers across the continent, including in France, Greece, and Italy have all invited charges of abuse and neglect over the years. Many rights groups contend that a number of these detention centers violate Article III (PDF) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment.
In contrast, migrants in the richer north and west find comparatively well-run asylum centers and generous resettlement policies. But these harder-to-reach countries often cater to migrants who have the wherewithal to navigate entry-point states with safe air passage with the assistance of smugglers.
These countries still remain inaccessible to many migrants seeking international protection. As with the sovereign debt crisis, national interests have consistently trumped a common European response to this migrant influx.
Some experts say the bloc’s increasingly polarized political climate, in which many nationalist, anti-immigrant parties are gaining traction, is partially to blame for the muted humanitarian response from some states. France and Denmark have also cited security concerns as justification for their reluctance in accepting migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the wake of the Paris and Copenhagen terrorist shootings.