August 07, 2016

Failure to adequately address mass refugee migrations is the real crisis, immigration experts say

As Europe struggles with the crisis related to the surge of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and the United States considers the extent to which it will take some in, the U.S. is confronted with a refugee crisis on its own southern border where more than 120,000 Central American children and parents have fled the violence in their home countries.

An expert panel leads the discussion during the Annual Meeting session “Refugee Crisis: Challenges in Europe and at the U.S. Border.”


There is a lack of leadership in the efforts to handle the mass refugee migrations to Europe and the U.S.,, said immigration experts during the American Bar Association 2016 Annual Meeting panel discussion: “Refugee Crisis:  Challenges in Europe and at the U.S. Border,” sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

“The crisis I believe we are facing on this issue right now is not the crisis about the refugees,” said Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First. “It is the crisis about the way governments are failing to live up to their obligations and do what they committed to do on the intervention and status of refugees and protect people who can no longer count on their own governments to protect them that is the real crisis.”

The panelists, who compared the European and U.S. approaches on mass migration of refugees, agreed that neither was adequate for the unique circumstances faced by the refugees and their vulnerabilities under the law.

“The word refugee gets thrown around a lot, and it is really a legal term, in our law and under international law,” said Massimino. “Not everyone fleeing a difficult situation or looking for a better life has the same call under international law as a refugee does. A refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership to a particular group.”

Refugees have special privileges under international law compared to some other immigrants, added Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff, visiting professor of law at Columbia Law School and former United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Geneva. However, countries fail to fulfill their obligations under those international agreements, he said.

Aleinikoff noted that Syria’s neighboring countries––Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq––have provided refuge to those seeking protection from violence, and have not subjected them to the scrutiny that they have faced in Europe and the U.S.

In the U.S., the government has adopted policies of deterrence, and refugees are detained in prison-like facilities, said Holly Cooper, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California at Davis School of Law. In Europe, according to Cooper, refugees experience a “more humanitarian” approach, living in open campsites on the Greek coast while awaiting admission.

In both cases, the lack of leadership and policies from local authorities to deal with the refugee crisis prevent refugees from securing adequate legal counsel and representation.

This is a global crisis that “can’t be solved by any one country,” Massimino said. “But there is one country with the resources, standing and leadership to put forth such a plan, and that country is ours.”

A fundamental right to seek protection at the border is not an illegal act, said Katharina Obser, a migrant rights and justice program officer with the Women’s Refugee Commission.

“One thing that has been said a lot, in the U.S. context in particular, is this implication that people who are arriving at the southern border and seeking asylum are crossing illegally,” said Obser. “When in fact it is someone’s right to seek protection at the border, and the country whose protection they are seeking to respond with a fair, humane and just process. This applies for Europe and all countries in the world.”