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The influence of geography, technology and money on refugee migration

The influence of geography, technology and money on refugee migration

The recent contributions on the 1951 Refugee Convention from Khalid Koser and Jane McAdam are heartening. It is good to read rational and reasoned discussion by two experts on the international refugee regime and the challenges it faces.

If timing is anything to go by, Khalid Koser has hit the mark in publishing his paper now, when boat arrivals to Australia are largely in abeyance and Europe faces an emerging crisis. Right now, there is an opportunity for policymakers, experts and commentators in Australia to step back, catch their breath and reflect on the implementation of the Refugee Convention and its intersection with people smuggling.

Questioning prevailing assumptions in order to enhance the protection of migrants and manage borders in the interests of both refugees and states remains a global priority. In this vein, it is worth examining asylum-seeker and refugee migration from three particular perspectives: geography, technology and money.


Geography in migration has been a key consideration as far back as the first forays into migration theory. It continues to be central to the movement of people, which is why the majority of irregular migrants and asylum seekers to the US are from the Americas and why those to Europe are predominantly from adjacent regions. Khalid Koser, with an academic background in geography, acknowledges this when he writes on the differences between flows to Europe and Australia: 'there is not a civil war brewing 200km from Australian territory, and neither is the worst refugee crisis in the last half century being unleashed within striking distance'. [fold]

This makes Jane McAdam's point on the low numbers of asylum seekers to Australia compared to Germany and Turkey seem ill-considered. Australia is unlikely to ever see similar numbers to those Turkey is experiencing from Syria because Australia does not share a border with Syria.

Yet Australia did see a substantial increase in asylum seekers by boat in 2012 and 2013. It differed vastly in scale and composition to the past and posed considerable challenges, including for the asylum seekers. The number of migrant deaths as a direct result of smuggling to Australia and elsewhere is tragic and is just the tip of the iceberg. Exploitation, extreme violence and kidnapping by smugglers has been documented in irregular migration routes commonly used by asylum seekers. To gloss over the many downsides of migrant smuggling may be convenient but is not productive when attempting to formulate sustainable solutions. Khalid Koser is clearly conscious of the importance of this aspect and confronts the spectre of smuggling in his analysis.

Figure 1: Irregular maritime arrivals to Australia 1976 to 2013.


Technology, and particularly advances in telecommunications, has seen the feasibility of smuggling increase in the last decade as never before. Potential migrants, asylum seekers, agents, people smugglers and diaspora communities have greater access to technology to facilitate movement as well as stabilise populations (such as through remittances). There is nothing controversial in this – it is a mere fact – but it has to be factored into the development of sustainable responses at every level.

Figure 2: Global internet and mobile phone access.


Money is underpinning movement in ways not seen before. Greater access to income by populations in developing countries has been shown to increase international migration. People with assets in and near war zones are more able to engage smugglers than those without money. Given their relative wealth and the prolonged nature and severity of the conflict, it is not surprising that Syrians now outstrip other groups being smuggled through Mediterranean Sea routes.

Conflict and insecurity, people with profound protection needs, migrants with access to money, disembarkation points that are insecure (such as Libya) and smugglers who are able to exploit the situation for profit: this is a combination resulting in a form of migration that is recklessly indifferent to human life, as the situation on the Mediterranean Sea brings into sharp focus. More than one thousand people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.

Lastly, it is worth reflecting on Jane McAdam's view that the 'large protection gap can be boiled down to one thing: political will – or rather, the lack thereof.' This is a central point in her analysis, and I can't help wondering about its acuity in the context of broader migration dynamics. Would Turkey's geographic limitation to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention — meaning that only those fleeing to Turkey as a consequence of events occurring in Europe can be given refugee status there — be viewed as a lack of political will, or does it merely reflect a more harsh migration reality? What can be made of UNHCR's decision of May 2013 to suspend new registrations and processing of Afghan asylum seeker applications in Turkey? Does it show a lack of political will or resources, or could it also be related to UNHCR's need to be pragmatic in the face of migration dynamics and the scale of movement in the region?

It is unwise to reduce the many reasons for the large protection gap to just 'political will'. Instead, we should acknowledge the weaknesses of the system while also asking why it appears that political will is in fact working – but predominantly to deter unauthorised migration not collectively support asylum seeker flows. The halcyon days of international cooperation in support of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese refugees appear to be long gone but there are likely to be hints as to why this is the case in the different pace, scale, nature, diversity and mixed motivations underpinning current flows. Migration dynamics have changed. Perhaps it is the overall increase in international movement and the potential for much larger migration flows that make policymakers all over the world nervous and force them to contemplate future scenarios as well as immediate matters at hand.

Khalid Koser and Jane McAdam make welcome contributions to a discussion that is sometimes characterised by emotion rather than critical thinking. A more nuanced understanding of international asylum seeker and refugee migration taking into account geography, technology and money can only assist in an ongoing constructive discussion. Let us hope that policymakers in Australia and elsewhere are listening.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user lcars.

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