Refugees, asylum and access to territory: from the Pacific to the Mediterranean

Photo credit: Alexandru Gegiuc

On February 24th at Tiedekulma we heard from Stephen Phillips, doctoral candidate at the Institute for Human Rights at Åbo Akademi. Stephen spoke about how the significant increase in asylum seeker arrivals to Europe in 2015 has placed strain on the reception and processing systems, and how European countries are trying to develop ways to manage the increased numbers. Stephen, originally from Australia, spoke about the Australian approach to unauthorized arrivals, elements of which some European countries are trying to emulate.

After the talk, Stephen agreed to answer some post-talk questions here on our website. For more information about the topic, check out the full video of the talk below.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

 Audience Question:
Does academic research on migrants and refugees into Europe make a distinction between 'economic' migrants, who are not facing persecution at home, and refugees? I get the feeling that these are commonly conflated in a regular person's mind, but have very different legal distinctions.

Good question. You're right, people who migrate for economic reasons and those who are fleeing persecution or other human rights abuses are often placed into the same basket, and it can make it confusing to know who is who when reading articles and accessing other media. There are academics who study migration in all of its forms, including some who consider all types of migration in their work. The key distinction, at least in my area of work, is that between forced migration and other types of migration. My work focuses mostly on those who have fled due to persecution or conflict, but forced migration also includes those who are displaced by natural/environmental disasters, chemical/nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects. People migrate for many other reasons, including work, studies and family ties, but none of these would be considered examples of forced migration.

Audience Question:
Given that both illegal migration via smugglers and human traffickers, and keeping persons at risk in actively dangerous areas are both bad situations, do you suggest (or are there any suggestions in your field) for alternatives to either of these situations? Some might suggest determining refugee status in a country of origin, but what are the problems or issues with this?

Hi, thanks for your question. Yes, the current system mostly only offers choices between dangerous solutions that place people at risk. Various alternatives that would provide more and safer pathways to protection for refugees include improving labor mobility, expanding access to education pathways, and enhancing opportunities for family reunification. Expanding humanitarian visa programs and private sponsorship have also been suggested. You can read more at these links.

As for determining refugee status in the country of origin, there are some hurdles that would need to be overcome for that to be a safe and effective alternative. Firstly, the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside of their country of origin, so a person who has not yet crossed an international frontier does not meet this definition. Secondly, it is often the state (or its agents) in the country of origin that the person needs protection from, so it might be very difficult to set up a safe status determination procedure in such an environment (even with the assistance of foreign governments or international organizations).


Reader Question:
Hi! Thank you for the great presentation last Saturday. I am currently writing my Master's thesis regarding EU's development policy and how it has been affected by the recent rise in the numbers of migrants, and the effects are quite obvious as well as alarming: allocating more development funds in the neighboring countries of EU, using development aid to control migrants and borders as well as increase in development aid conditionality. Would you say this has been the case in Australia? And also, I think in the EU there is a strong discourse of "addressing the root causes of migration" instead of taking in asylum seekers, has this been seen in Australia as well? Thanks!

Hi! Good to hear you enjoyed the presentation, and great thesis topic, it's a very relevant and topical area to be working in. Your question has two parts, so I'll address them one at a time.

Yes, there are many who argue that how Australia allocates aid is linked to its attempts to manage refugee flows. These articles both further elaborate this argument: 'Controlling Irregular Migration in the Asia-Pacific: Is Australia Acting against its Own Interests?' (Emma Larking) (open access) - and 'Aid and strategic interests: Australia's response to the flow of refugees and asylum-seekers' (Nicola Knackstredt) (not open access) -

In Australia, as in Europe, there is a trend towards closing borders and preventing access to territory for asylum seekers, in particular those who arrive without passports or visas. In this context it is important to view forced migration not only as an entity that is made of many complex parts, but also in terms of its place within all global migration. Such a complex set of issues is not likely to be addressed by focusing on one area at the expense of another, nor by attempting to push migrants further away by extending and strengthening borders. It is certainly important to look at why forced migration occurs and act to prevent it, but this does not provide protection for the many millions who are currently displaced, and even the most well-designed attempts to address root causes of migration are unlikely to cover all persons in all situations.