A la Carte Refugee Labeling

Is classifying Venezuelan migrants as "refugees" for aid purposes a slippery slope?

By Nayla Rush on May 13, 2019

In a recent post, Oxford's Alexander Betts, argued that Venezuelan migrants should be classified as refugees. Betts deplored the absence of development-based support of Venezuelans who are fleeing, in his words, "economic and political collapse" rather than persecution. Because they are being labelled "migrants" and not "refugees", the help they are receiving is mostly limited to basic humanitarian aid since access to efficient development assistance that works towards the socio-economic inclusion of displaced populations can only come through the global refugee regime nowadays. Betts recommends that Venezuelans who emigrate be given refugee status so that they and the countries that host them are provided with the support they need.

Betts draws a parallel between the Venezuelan crisis and the Zimbabwean one of the early 2000s. Zimbabweans who were also emigrating because of economic need and not persecution were not regarded as refugees:

Like Venezuelans, most were fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Basic services were no longer available; poor governance and hyperinflation had ravaged the economy. Most were not recognised as refugees; they were "survival migrants", fleeing fragile and failed states but not recognised as refugees. [Emphasis added.]

Currently, of the 3.4 million Venezuelans who fled their country, 1.1 million are in Colombia, with others in neighboring countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Chile, etc. The Colombian government, praised by Betts, is trying to adapt its public employment service and follow a socio-economic integration policy rather than encampment. But middle-income countries like Colombia and its neighbors can only do so much. Beyond the limited resources of hosting countries, the absence of development-based support for Venezuelans, according to Betts, is a direct result of the way they are labelled. He explains:

Describing them as "refugees" would draw in a governance apparatus that today includes development actors. But the Venezuelans are being labelled as "migrants" and that is shaping the governance response and the degree of engagement by UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and others.

On the global front, United Nations agencies and donors are focusing on providing humanitarian aid at the borders instead of prioritizing a development approach to displaced populations. In Betts' words, this contrasts with "the global zeitgeist, and the Global Compact on Refugees' focus on development-based approaches to displacement."

The Global Compact on Refugees was set in motion following unanimous adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, that called for greater support to refugees and their hosting countries by UN member states (including the United States under the Obama administration) in September 2016. The Trump administration chose not to endorse the UN refugee compact, which it deemed, in the words of a U.S. official, "inconsistent with U.S. immigration policy" and "simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty."

Betts argues that not including Venezuelan migrants in the global refugee governance system means not providing them – or the countries that are hosting them – with the appropriate support and guidance. Betts refers to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) – a comprehensive response to large movements of refugees laid out in the New York Declaration – as an adequate platform to be applied to Colombia and other hosting countries, as it "offers a mechanism for engaging development actors and the private sector in supporting opportunities for Venezuelans and citizens [of hosting countries] alike."

Betts believes most Venezuelans fit the Cartagena Declaration's definition of a refugee. The declaration allows a broader category of persons in Latin America in need of international protection to be considered as refugees. The UN refugee agency viewed the Cartagena Declaration "as one of the greatest accomplishments in the development of the refugee protection regime in Latin America. It is most frequently invoked as the source of a broad definition of who should be considered a refugee." (Emphasis added.)

The Cartagena Declaration expands on the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol definition of refugees to include persons who flee their countries "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 Betts' opinion, Venezuelans are clearly fleeing "massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."

According to UNHCR, "[a]lthough the Declaration is not a legally binding instrument, most Central and South American countries apply its definition and many have incorporated it into their legislation." This is similar to the Global Compact on Refugee's misleading nature of its so-called non-legally-binding character. The fact is, the Global Compact (like the Cartagena Declaration previously) creates a new model for international lawmaking, one that shapes state behavior and imposes new norms as bases for a self-enforcing international human rights law.

While Betts' push for a development-approach to refugee crises is commendable, stretching the definition of a refugee to fit the needs of people on the move is a slippery slope. Such far-reaching efforts could very well end up negating the intrinsic specificity of refugees fleeing persecution. The intention to help everyone could result in helping no one. As the French would say, l'ami de tout le monde n'est l'ami de personne (the friend of everyone is no one's friend).

Topics: Refugees