Monday, June 13, 2016

The Real Refugee Story

Ruben Wissing
Ruben Wissing is a lawyer, who has had experience working with Refugee issues relating to asylum and immigration. His experience shows him that the refugee crisis is more a crisis of solidarity than anything else. Read on to know his story. 

I started with law school, when nothing interested me as much as international law, migration and human rights. I started working about ten to twelve years ago in the field as an intern, and then as an independent lawyer in Antwerp. I was involved in working on asylum cases out of passion, but it was not high paying. I did that for about four or five years, and then switched over to the Belgium Refugee Council, an Ngo, which is partnered with the UNHCR to assist them. Part of what the NGO does is to offer free legal aid and legal support to asylum seekers and family reunification programs. We have a special status as operational partner of the UNHCR, which allows us to interfere directly with the authorities without being the lawyers of the asylum seekers themselves. We can intervene in asylum procedures, and we use it selectively to help complicated cases. We also do a lot of work around policy and advocacy issues. Recently, though, we lost a lot of funding – the point is that now, the focus is centered around the refugee crisis in Europe, and in getting material aid out there, not legal aid.

The refugee issue in Europe is not a crisis in numbers. It is true that the number of people asking for asylum is high, but it is not true that it has never happened before in these proportions. Look at the Second World War or the Yugoslavia War in 1999. The numbers continue to rise now, dramatically, but the point is that the crisis is really one of politics and solidarity. The European Union was a project of integrating countries – but now, that is falling apart. We could deal with this crisis – I mean, look at Germany. They said we can do this together, and now it is one country that is doing it entirely on its own! Instead of building an integrated asylum procedure, we are going against the greatest advantage of the European Union – which is a community of people living without internal borders. Now, there are these very countries that are putting up borders. Now, there is more and more funding going into control, detention and return of refused refugees. In Belgium, we had a good system before, but now, public funding for NGOs has decreased, as has the remuneration for lawyers defending refugees.

The asylum procedure in Belgium is not very rigorous. One has to go to the Alien’s Office at the Immigration Services and apply for asylum. You have a short interview. They register you and have your fingerprints checked for security reason, and then check them against a database to see if you have claimed asylum elsewhere, to be send back to that member state (the so called Dublin Procedure). This is the basis of the current crisis – you have the criteria applied different and a lack of unity. . Then, most applications go to the Commissary General for Refugees and Stateless Persons that have the authority to interview applicants and check their credentials, They then apply the Geneva Convention or the Subsidiary Protection for War Refugees as a general protection. Judicial appeals are allowed as well.

The legal definition of refugees may not cover all situations where people may need protection. But, there is something in the right wing political discourse that suggests that the convention was made for a different time and situation. While I would agree that its articles may be discussed and debated, I don’t think that the definition is too broad. It can be interpreted differently at different times. The thing is, people have not heard asylum seekers tell their personal stories. We assume that they invent political stories to claim asylum. The truth is, in many places they do escape poverty, and isn’t poverty created by politics, after all? The anti refugee and anti migration view is that the Geneva Convention is a migration issue , while it is actually about protection. The truth is that even if you take away this international treaty, there are other international and European laws that protect and offer these very rights.

There are many aspects to the problem as it stands. The public and political debate is still about whether we want migration or not – and that is a pity because people will continue to come in  this globalized world. People will do it the other way if there is no legal route or if we keep them out, risking their lives. We should start investing in integration of newcomers. It is a big problem in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany that we have never truly focused on integrating those who came in two generations ago. We have had North African migrants who came in after World War II, in fact, they were asked for, to help rebuild the war torn land. But, we never integrated them, because we thought they would return. 

Now their children and grandchildren feel discriminated against.  This has indirectly lead to security issues. Thus, integration should be a focal point. Announcing measures against smugglers only creates more of them, new routes. For over a decade, the UNHCR has been asking the EU to handle resettlements. We can do it, but we don’t seem to be doing so. We can manage these things so that people don’t have to lose lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

I am not easily scared, but it is getting to me now. People say things that they never dared to say in public a couple of years ago. We should open our minds to being able to do this together, and to respond to the crisis with solidarity.