The European migration crisis is about to get worse. The Taliban is back, now controlling about a fifth of Afghanistan and having spread through more of the country than at any point since 2001. As the Taliban advances, increasing numbers of Afghans will surely flee on the well-worn path to Europe, believing that they will receive asylum there. But many will risk their lives on "death boats" in vain, as few Afghans actually do receive asylum in Europe. To avoid more humanitarian tragedy -- for Afghans and all other migrants -- Europe and the U.N. must make asylum criteria clear to enable informed choices by those seeking to flee.
The terminology used by the media, politicians and even the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has created dangerous confusion as to who a refugee is -- and is not. The terms "migrant" and "refugee" are often used interchangeably, but have very different legal meanings. Under international law and EU asylum laws, a refugee is one who flees across an international border due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The term "migrant" has no meaning in international law.
To avoid false claims, most countries require asylum-seekers to provide evidence of a specific fear of persecution -- a high burden of proof. People fleeing war alone are not refugees under international or EU law. Those fleeing the Taliban's advances would therefore not qualify for asylum absent concrete evidence of a well-founded fear of persecution.
Calling those fleeing to Europe all "migrants" or all "refugees" is perilous. By characterizing everyone fleeing persecution, violence and poverty as "migrants," politicians seek to dodge their legal obligations toward refugees. UNHCR defines "refugees" as "persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution," a definition that could encompass nearly everyone fleeing to Europe. UNHCR's policy has noble aims -- a broader definition of "refugee" allows UNHCR to assist more vulnerable people and to cajole countries to take them in.
Confusion over the definition of 'refugee' may cause many people to believe they will receive asylum when they will not -- thereby inducing more people to flee than otherwise would.
But such a broad definition also tragically gives people false hope. In a country constantly at war, like Afghanistan, nearly anyone fleeing could be considered a refugee by UNHCR. UNHCR may consider people fleeing generalized violence to be refugees, but they are unlikely to receive asylum anywhere. Confusion over the definition of "refugee" may cause many people to believe they will receive asylum when they will not -- thereby inducing more people to flee than otherwise would. Many risk their lives to get to Europe, only to be turned away if they survive.
Afghans are statistically unlikely to receive asylum in Europe. Since 2001, Afghans have been among the top five groups of asylum-seekers in Europe, along with Syrians, Iraqis, Serbians and Eritreans. Fewer than 28 percent of the 41,370 Afghans who sought refuge in Europe in 2014 qualified for asylum. Thousands of others were granted temporary protection in Europe. Standards for receiving temporary protection, and the length of time it permits one to stay, vary by country. European countries may legally deport Afghans who do not qualify for asylum.
Before more people jump on a death boat or put their lives in the dubious hands of a smuggler, people should understand the high risk that they will not be allowed to stay in Europe. The EU and UNHCR must make their messaging consistent and educate the media on international and domestic refugee laws. Afghans and others should understand that their chance of receiving refugee status is low, and why. The EU and UNHCR should launch information campaigns in places where smugglers are known to gather their cargo. The EU should also spread information among Afghans already in Europe, which will reach Afghans at home through social networks.
Vulnerable people must be empowered to make informed decisions to avoid interrupting their livelihoods and their children's educations, decimating their savings and at worst, losing their lives.
Providing such information would enable Afghans to make informed decisions about escaping danger. They may be best off seeking refuge outside of Europe, or fleeing somewhere within Afghanistan that is more securely held by the Afghan government. They might press Afghan and international governments to do more to help them, such as creating safe zones for those displaced within Afghanistan. For the long term, UNHCR should also press for new international legal tools to help displaced people who are not refugees, rather than sowing a definition that could do harm.
Given few good options, vulnerable people must be empowered to make informed decisions to avoid interrupting their livelihoods and their children's educations, decimating their savings and at worst, losing their lives. Wealthier nations seeking to avoid expensive border clashes, security controls, asylum processing and political costs have every incentive to help them do so.