Forced decisions? How a better understanding of displacement’s multiple push-factors may help to reform the global refugee regime
By Andreas Hackl
Refugee status implies that people were forcibly displaced from their home country, while migrants in search of work are often perceived to move primarily for economic reasons. Interviews conducted with Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan refugees in Austria reveal how refugees are not merely forced out by persecution and armed conflict: they are often forced to make informed decisions to flee for a combination of social, economic and political reasons (Hackl 2017). Focusing on these decisions and their diverse motivating factors can help us understand forced displacement as a more complex social process than the often-invoked binary opposition between political refugees and economic migrants.
This adds another element to recent calls for reforming the global refugee regime on the grounds that it tends to prevent the forcibly displaced from working, denies them a sense of autonomy, and bases humanitarian protection on an idea of direct “persecution” that was born out of the Second World War (The Guardian, March 22, 2017). Amid highly complex violent conflicts, mostly in failed states characterized by war economies and recurring instability, appeals for an adapted approach are gaining ground. What can we learn from refugees recollecting memories of their own “forced decisions”?
One lesson is that violence, state “dysfunctionality” and socio-economic problems often coincide. Not only guns and threats, but also sectarian clientelism, the deaths of family members, the inability to carry out one’s profession, or the refusal to comply with militias can lead to forced decisions. A lack of financial resources caused by war may drive women into situations where their only choice is to marry a Taliban affiliate, or they run the risk of falling into the hands of smugglers and into modern forms of slavery.
In the strict legal sense a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This means that those who decide to leave a country because they can no longer maintain themselves without, for example, joining or supporting an armed militia, do not directly fall under this definition; neither do those who have simply lost all their property, belongings and family members. Recent cases have shown that there is flexibility in the refugee protection regime. As Syria has reached a general level of lethal violence, individuals receive general protection and refugee status quickly, or at the very least they cannot be returned home. At the same time, Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers have much higher rejection rates and are frequently sent back.
While certain cases conform to the pure concept of forced displacement, there are many other refugees who face insecurity because of economic problems and persecution. The book chapter this post is based on (Hackl 2017) covers stories of persons in Iraq, who simply were no longer able to do their job or remain where they had previously lived. Moving to other areas within Iraq often brought about new dangers. And especially for young men, the question was often: join militias, or flee? There was no alternative.
Some of the accounts also indicate that a simple sectarian explanation of persecution, e.g. Shia against Sunni Muslims, does not always make sense. Many members of the same group may be forced to leave because they do not want to put their skills at the disposal of related militias, who need engineers, doctors, or journalists.
The interviews with refugees in Austria also indicated that generalized violence often leads to specific vulnerabilities, which are different for women and men. What is more, violence and economic problems reinforce each other:
A Kurdish man from Tikrit in Iraq related how war and violence gradually made daily life impossible. He used to work for an Egyptian company in another Iraqi city, often welcoming visiting delegations and taking them across the border in and out of Erbil, Kurdish Iraq’s capital. He said, “With the rise of ISIS it became difficult for us. On the one hand, the bombings, on the other, ISIS demanding that young men fight for them.” He added that he tried to live with his family in Kirkuk, but one day the company he had worked for withdrew from Iraq. “So we sat there in Kirkuk, four young people without work, without anything.” They sold their cars to get by, but one day, he decided to move to Europe, citing the ongoing explosions and the lack of jobs.
Often it is not only the potential of persecution that matters, but the fact that running a normal business can become dangerous. Economic life becomes impossible. A 50 year-old Yezidi woman witnessed the gradual implosion of all aspects of her everyday life before she left Iraq. She had run her own business as a professional cosmetician in the centre of Baghdad for over ten years. She said: “I had a house. I had a car. My life situation was excellent. But recently our life began to worsen.” Militias in Baghdad threatened and persecuted her, and the arrival of ISIS made things even more difficult. At the time when ISIS-followers began to threaten her because of the cosmetic salon, she discovered that she had cancer and moved to Lebanon for medical treatment. Remembering the last years of her time in Iraq, she summarised the carnage:
“We didn’t really live. We were like machines. We fought for our life every day (…) so that we could continue somehow. I went to work and something blew up close by, there were attacks and explosions. It meant that I might have died any moment. (…) When I arrived at my cosmetic studio, I had to reckon that militias might attack and kill me any moment. At home, I locked the door and prayed to the prophets of all religions that they protect me and help me to survive until the next day. Psychologically, we reached the breaking point. We were already destroyed.”
Against this backdrop, what can one learn from the many intertwined layers of displacement explored throughout this analysis?
The first insight is that the reasons for displacement and seeking refuge are rarely one-dimensional. Second, economic and political reasons cannot be sufficiently isolated from other factors in many cases. In some instances, political violence makes work and public life impossible. In other cases, the nature of one’s work triggers violence, and in yet other situations, one’s profession is in demand by violent actors who put pressure on individuals to comply. Third, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is important; but it is equally important to acknowledge that sometimes people take forced decisions based on multiple intersecting push-factors.
Gaining a better understanding of how these different dimensions of displacement intersect will underpin future efforts to reform the global refugee regime. Here, the focus should not solely be on the support of refugees after their arrival in Europe or elsewhere. The points of departure are equally important. We should not only ask how refugees can get access to work, but also how exactly they lost access to work, security and a meaningful life in their home countries, as a consequence of pervasive violence, or of one of its side-effects.
Hackl, Andreas. 2017. “The Many Faces of Displacement. Pervasive Violence and the Dissolution of a Liveable Life in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” in Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.), From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian And Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (ISR-Forschungsberichte, Heft 47). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
The Guardian. March 22, 2017. Available at [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/22/why-denying-refugees-the-right-to-work-is-a-catastrophic-error]