The UN Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” That definition is from 68 years ago.
Since then, the conditions that have caused people to flee their homelands have changed. Internal conflicts are no longer only a function of repressive regimes. Nonstate groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida threaten millions by committing unspeakable acts of terror, depriving communities of food and forcing people to flee for their lives. More important, the idea of returning home once the danger has passed, built into the notion of refugee rights, is not an option in today’s global reality.
Despite the changing reasons for people fleeing their countries — 70 million people have been forced to flee home because of violence or persecution — diplomats and leaders do not want to reopen the 1951 agreement to embrace the new reality. They fear such attempts would make it harder to be considered a refugee in this era of nationalism and populist leaders who want to close borders rather than open them.
As we commemorate World Refugee Day on Thursday, it’s clear we need solutions that overcome ugly xenophobic rhetoric so that we can help those in harm’s way.
Today, the largest refugee crisis is happening in our own hemisphere in Venezuela. Over the last four years, the UN estimates that about 4 million people have fled the country as the humanitarian crisis grows more dire each day.
In 1984, 10 Latin American countries signed the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which defines refugees as “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”
In Venezuela, tyrannical President Nicolas Maduro uses live ammunition on demonstrators. He weaponizes food and keeps lists of enemies. His secret police arrest political opponents. Between 2014 and 2018, about 414,570 asylum claims have been lodged globally by Venezuelans, more than 255,400 in 2018 alone. While refugee procedures are overwhelmed, only 7,171 have been recognized as refugees thus far.
Even with the broader definition of refugee that was offered for the Americas, if Venezuelans are not considered refugees by receiving countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile, then they are condemned to a legal purgatory that relies on the largesse of receiving states to provide for the refugees. This is happening to Venezuelans.
Unfortunately, today we see walls and fences as the response to guarding borders. This has been the response since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Sadly, these initiatives have neither stopped the flow of migrants nor reduced terrorist attacks.
Every country has the right and the obligation to protect its borders. But a more creative way to think about managing refugees is to think of borders not as barriers but as regional public goods. History has proven that states that view borders as enablers of better economic relations, trade and integration are more likely to be successful in their ability to solve common problems.
The safe passage of refugees across borders could in the long run benefit host countries. Taking another look at borders as enablers of security and refugee support could be a first step toward a more humane approach to managing a crisis that will not end any time soon.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is an adjunct professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington.