Exploring the principle of the freedom of movement for refugees and migrants

Forced Displacement and Migration, News

I participated in the 9th Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS), held in Winnipeg May 11–14. The conference explored the principle of freedom of movement, also examining the root causes of forced displacement, development challenges, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, human rights, and methods of knowledge production. It brought together more than 200 participants from different academic disciplines, nongovernmental organizations, international humanitarian organizations, refugee settlement agencies, faith associations, private businesses, and government, as well as former refugees.

The focus on freedom of movement reflected the current “migration crisis” occurring in different parts of the world, where some are displaced by political conflict and others by extreme poverty. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual Global Trends Report, the number of displaced people now exceeds 60 million—the  highest since the Second World War.

Article 13 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement within the borders of each state and that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his/her own, and to return to his/her country. Those fleeing and seeking a better life are being denied this fundamental freedom by increasingly restrictive and punitive migration policies, which include systematic detention and refused entry at destination and transit countries.

The right to free movement has also been impacted by the attempts of receiving countries to rapidly categorize those arriving as “refugees” or “economic migrants,” overlooking the deep insecurity shared by vulnerable individuals who attempt risky migratory journeys in search of safety. The conference was a strong reminder that, irrespective of the legal status of a person, first responses must be humane and ensure the safety and dignity of the individual.

At the conference, participants reflected on Canada’s response to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. There was positive recognition of the government’s efforts to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees and its promise to bring in another 10,000 by the end of 2016, in addition to private refugees. Experts on refugee policy discussed Canada’s unique refugee policy, which is based on a public-private partnership between government and private sponsors. This model adds more resettlement options and allows civil society to take some responsibility for Canada’s obligations in settling refugees. The UN has praised the Canadian model and encouraged other countries to adopt a similar approach.

At the conference, I was a co-presenter of two papers on interdiction—extraterritorial state practices used primarily by Western countries to prevent and deter the arrival of irregular migrants. These migrants seek to enter the host state without proper documentation or prior permission from the state to access refugee determination systems that provide international protection from the perils at home. Interdiction measures include imposing visa requirements, training pre-inspection staff at foreign airports on fraudulent documentation and identifying ‘suspicious’ foreign travelers, imposing financial sanctions on flight carriers that carry improperly documented passengers, and intercepting and turning back boats with migrants.

One paper focused on why the impact of interdiction must be assessed and innovative methods of assessment. The second examined the negative health impacts faced by those interdicted and detained.

The CARFMS conference brought together a critical mass of people to learn about the escalating global crisis triggered by forced migration. We discussed innovative and sustainable solutions, some of which could be developed through partnerships and collaboration among the conference participants. To gain further traction and improve refugee protection, such efforts will ultimately require the support, cooperation, and political will of government actors, at home and abroad.

A few steps have been taken, but there is a long road ahead and there is no time to waste. Allons-y!

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