Monday, February 5, 2018

“Are you going to work?”: Irony and Injustice for Refugees

Photo Credit: Rigugiato: Fotografie di Elena Marioni.
Caritas Diocesana di Roma. Peliti Associati: 2007
“Are you going to work?” 

Irony and Injustice for Refugees
by Sonja E. Schappert, MNA

The Academic Global Immersion to Italy was truly an immersive experience. Days were filled with data, presentations, personal stories, sights, experiences, questions and the ever-present food coma. Addressing topics surrounding Refugee Service Management in such a concentrated context often felt drinking from a fire hydrant.

So, what do I remember after all those sessions, a wicked case of jet lag, weeks of being back to work, and a new semester that has already started? I remember the simple question described by Bianca with Medici Senza Frontiere (Doctors Without Borders). During the intake process at migration hotspots within Italy, the question is asked, “Are you going to work?”

Stop for a moment and think about how you would answer that question. Maybe you’ve just stepped off a boat on the shores of the Mediterranean, having left your war-torn city. Maybe you’ve walked for countless miles looking for peace from religious persecution. Maybe you’ve fled an unsafe home and constantly looking back over your shoulder. Regardless of what you left, you look ahead to the future. You are looking for a new forever. A new place to belong. A new life. And the question is posed, “Are you going to work?”

So how would YOU answer that question?

If you say yes, that you intend to work, you are classified as an economic migrant. This distinction is important and very different from that of a refugee. Economic migrants are defined as voluntary migrants seeking an improved standard of living. They are not a protected class under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention of Refugees. In Italy, economic migrants have 7 days to leave the country and have no access to reception centers and social services. Economic migrants cannot seek asylum protection.

I remember hearing Bianca describe this process and I did a mental double-take. What strikes me the most about the “Are you going to work?” scenario is its sense of irony and injustice. There is a direct correlation between this question and the assumption that refugees are an economic drain to a host community. Many argue that refugees take away jobs and government resources. Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, author of Cast Away: True Stories of Survival From Europe’s Refugee Crisis chronicles the economic migrant tug-of-war and observes the following:

This pattern was repeated with each wave of prosperity: people from far afield were invited in to do the jobs locals didn’t want when times were good, only for populations and politicians to turn on them in hard times (Chapter 15, loc 3018).

The irony and injustice of the economic factor grows in consideration of the many studies which demonstrate economic growth in host communities. Furthermore, Father Michael Smith, SJ, from Jesuit Refugee Services shared with us that the entrepreneurial spirit thrives among refugees and the many benefits this brings to a local community.

The distinction between economic migrants and refugees has been central to the migration debate and is more complicated than ever. The 1951 Geneva Convention was written from the context of European migration after WWII and does not account for many reasons people are now displaced. Father Thomas Smolich, SJ, from Jesuit Refugee Services shared with us that this is a very grey zone and there are many legitimate reasons for displacement that are left out of the UN convention including war, extreme poverty, environmental factors, and organized crime. Additionally, many migrants face vulnerabilities that develop into legitimate asylum-seeking scenarios. Lizzie Dearden from The Independent writes:

Analysts say the desperate situation is making attempts to separate “economic migrants” from “refugees” increasingly obsolete as those who originally have set out for work become victims of violence and persecution. (November 22, 2016)

Addressing the question of work is central to building an integrated and just refugee policy. Herein lies the tools for economic prosperity and empowerment for both host communities and asylum-seekers. Work should be available to refugees as a part of honoring their journey and a gesture of welcome and integration without the assumption the economic advantage was their reason for displacement in the first place. A person’s willingness and desire to work should not be made a scapegoat for their status.