UN grapples with updating definitions of 'migrant' and 'refugee'

• Read more about this issue in our special GSR "Seeking Refuge" series here.

Rohingya refugees play football at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, March 27. (CNS / Reuters / Clodagh Kilcoyne)

New York, N.Y. — As the United Nations marks World Refugee Day today, the world body is grappling with crafting two new frameworks for its members in responding to the record numbers of refugees and migrants across the globe.

In the wake of 68.5 million people being displaced, 25.4 million of them refugees, according to UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, one agreement would update the decades-old definition of migrants. The other agreement would update the one for refugees.

Particularly contentious issues include whether or how to include people displaced by climate change, and how to deal with flows of migrants — or "irregular migration" in U.N. parlance — outside normal immigration channels.

Daily news recounts the struggles of those fleeing their homes, including when countries rebuff them to protect borders. The plight of 600 rescued migrants aboard three ships recently turned away from Italy and Malta before being accepted by Spain made headlines in Europe and the United States. Some Italian leaders argued that they struggle with an undue burden as a "frontline" country where migrants first land when coming to Europe. And at the U.S.-Mexico border, the policy of separating families is bringing harsh criticism, even from supporters of the Trump administration.

While countries zealously guard right to enforce their borders, the U.N. "compacts" — based on the United Nation's 2016 New York Declaration that lead up to this year's negotiations — would set general guidelines that signatory countries would follow.

Several rounds of negotiations have been underway for months, and the last set on migration begins next month in New York. The next session for the refugee discussions is also in July, in Geneva. The U.N. hopes to have the two compacts ready for signing by the end of the year.

The United States is absent from the talks; it withdrew in December, citing violations to its border control and immigration policies. Among those criticizing the move was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of 1,300 congregational leaders representing some 38,800 women religious in the United States, who called it "yet another example of the president's attempts to wall off this nation and subvert its values."

Difficult definitions

The talks have been challenging, observers say, in part because many countries are reluctant to change or expand established definitions about refugees or migrants. Those definitions need to change, argue advocates that include Catholic sisters and the Vatican.

Refugees, according to the U.N.'s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), leave their country "owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions." This definition follows the 1951 Refugee Convention. A migrant, meanwhile, is any person who "is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of, among other factors, the person's legal status and whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary. …"

In his 2018 World Peace Day message focusing on migration and refugees, Pope Francis said, "As shared agreements at a global level, these compacts will provide a framework for policy proposals and practical measures. For this reason, they need to be inspired by compassion, foresight and courage, so as to take advantage of every opportunity to advance the peace-building process."

Put another way, said Vatican official Yuriy Tykhovlis, the Holy See is bringing to the U.N. debate a moral perspective based on the belief that the definitions between refugees and migrants are collapsing. "For us Catholics, migrants and refugees are human beings who deserve care," Tykhovlis told GSR. "The church cares about each human being, and it doesn't depend on whether the persons are migrants or refugees."

A briefing at the United Nations in February about consultations and negotiations related to the U.N.'s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (United Nations)

What makes an official migrant

Even with a moral voice present in the debate, global political realities are never far away. One sticking point is that some countries do not want to formally recognize "irregular migration," said Indian Sr. Elsa Muttathu, who represents the International Presentation Association at the U.N.

In its definition of migration-related terms, the IOM  notes that there is "no clear or universally accepted definition of irregular migration." For "destination" countries, irregular migration "is entry, stay or work in a country without the necessary authorization or documents required under immigration regulations," the IOM said.

Countries of migrants' origin, meanwhile, see "irregularity" as cases "in which a person crosses an international boundary without a valid passport or travel document or does not fulfill the administrative requirements for leaving the country."

Migrant advocates, including Catholic sisters, recognize "that nobody wants to be an irregular migrant. But it's the circumstances of their countries that force them to leave," Muttathu told GSR in a recent interview. These include wars, civil unrest, climate-induced changes or the desire to escape from poverty.

"National sovereignty is always an issue for the U.N.-member states," Muttathu said, with many nations reluctant to embrace guidelines requiring them grant the same protections for "irregular" migrants as refugees.

Some countries are afraid that recognizing irregular migrants as "right holders" will provide incentives for irregular migration, which they argue should stop, said Muttathu, a member of the NGO Committee on Migration, an advocacy coalition of non-governmental organizations at the United Nations that includes religious congregations.

Anti-immigrant policies are being embraced in a number of countries, including the United States, often with the claim that those entering the country, particularly in "irregular" fashion, are a social burden and taking away jobs from citizens.

Left, Yuriy Tykhovlis, the Vatican representative for Eastern Europe and Central Asia working on advocacy efforts in Rome; right, Flaminia Vola, the Vatican representative for Western Europe working on advocacy efforts in Rome (GSR photos / Chris Herlinger)

Members of such coalitions as the NGO migration committee argue that the proposed U.N. compacts are trying to establish a more orderly process for migration that respects the human rights of those migrating.

Human rights must be considered in the current debate, said Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sr. Odile Coirier of France, another committee member. "Countries are only interested in migration when it benefits their countries," she said. "The mindset is 'my country first.' We are not yet there with a 'solidarity mindset.' The U.N. is still not there. We need a wider vision."

Muttathu added, "Migrants' rights should be respected, no matter what their status."

The sisters have influential allies. The Holy See's "20 Action Points" have been introduced as part of the ongoing U.N debate. These points affirm the dignity and human rights of "all migrants, asylum seekers and refugees" entering territories and, among other things, encourage states "to expand the number and range of alternative legal pathways for safe and voluntary migration and resettlement."

In Rome, two of the representatives of the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican's Integral Human Development office are Tykhovlis, regional coordinator for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Flaminia Vola, regional coordinator for Western Europe.

Vola said new "conditions and challenges" are forcing the world to realize that international conventions need to change. At the same time, it is up to the church to act as a moral example. The main point of the church's "action points" is the recognition "of the vulnerability of the human being," she said in an interview.

"The exercise of Christianity should mean accepting the most vulnerable, to welcome them and integrate them [into our countries]," she said.

Even with the United States out of the talks, some topics have proven particularly challenging, including negotiations over protections for those displaced by climate-related issues and intense weather events, said Sr. Margaret O'Dwyer, one of two representatives of the Company of the Daughters of Charity at the United Nations and a member of an NGO Committee on Migration subgroup on climate-induced displacement.

Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sr. Odile Coirier, left, and Sr. Elsa Muttathu, who represents the International Presentation Association at the U.N. The two sisters are members of the NGO Committee on Migration at the United Nations. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

Climate change and its effects were not key issues in 1951, when the U.N. approved the convention related to refugees, she noted. But among advocates like sisters, the Vatican and non-governmental organizations, there is a general sense of the need for revising the 67-year-old convention because of changing realities.

But countries currently negotiating the two new global compacts are still reluctant to expand categories of refugees and migrants to include those affected by climate-induced displacement, which would legally, and financially, bind them to provide specific, stronger protection, O'Dwyer told GSR. That is in part because it has been difficult agreeing on a precise definition of what "climate-induced" migration — or a climate refugee — is, she said.

Also tricky are numbers. "There are no reliable estimates of climate change induced migration," IOM said. "Future forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate."

Complicating the situation is that there can be overlap between those fleeing their countries from war and conflict, economic hardship and climate changes, O'Dwyer said.

Another factor in the debate is the difference between "slow onset climate processes" such as sea-level rise and desertification, she said, and rapid onset disasters such as floods and hurricanes, which can cause people to relocate within their own countries as well as seeking refuge in other nations.

"There has been some progress" on the issue of climate change in the current debates, she said. Yet, even with some welcome changes, O'Dwyer said she fears that "the failure to provide specific new categories for people displaced by [climate change] will leave people behind and impact their human rights. More people will be displaced by droughts, rising sea levels and storms. Sooner or later, we will have to address it much more robustly."

Another remaining sticking point on migration talks, Muttathu said, is that "receiving" countries could not send a person back to their country of origin against their will if they faced a threat to their human rights there, she said.

Some U.N.-member states are reluctant to accept this human rights provision as part of the compact on migration because it would be legally binding and fall within the sphere of the refugee convention, she added.

06.19.2018 People in El Paso, Texas, protest the Trump administration June 19 for separating immigrant families suspected of illegally entering the U.S. (CNS / Reuters / Mike Blake)

Non-governmental groups believe "that there is always a vulnerable group that may fall between the cracks of the two compacts who need to be protected," Muttathu said. Relating that provision to the refugee compact rather than the one dealing with migrants "may adversely affect a lot of people who are currently forced to move due to various factors including poverty and climate change."

Muttathu is encouraged by some of the protections under discussion, including language about the rights of children and women she said "are much stronger" than what she and other NGO representatives expected.

Still, the agreements are not likely to deal explicitly, she said, with some of the root causes for migration and flows of refugees, such as conflicts within states fueled by the arms trade and mining and extraction industries uprooting indigenous peoples from their land for maximum profits, she said.

"Are we addressing these root causes of migration?" she said. "If the compacts don't address these issues, we're only addressing symptoms."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

Read more about this issue in our special GSR "Seeking Refuge" series here.