Although it no longer dominates headlines, the world is still facing its worst refugee crisis since World War II. According to the United Nations, there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide, including 22.5 million registered refugees, who have fled war, persecution, hunger, and natural disaster in hopes of finding safety and security across international borders.
While countries like Canada — where many families have privately sponsored and supported resettled refugee families — and Germany — which is welcoming asylum-seekers as a way to revitalize run-down towns — have responded to the increasing numbers of refugees arriving at their borders with compassion and humanity, others are less hospitable.
Some governments have done everything they can to close their borders and slow refugee arrivals, giving rise to some shocking policies. These are the five of the most ridiculous refugee policies in place right now.
1. In one French town, it’s illegal to feed refugees.
Calais, in northern France, used to be the the site of the “Jungle” — a makeshift refugee settlement occupied by migrants from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2015 and 2016, thousands of refugees, including many unaccompanied children, set up camp in the Jungle as they attempted night after night to sneak across the English Channel to seek asylum in the United Kingdom.
But in October 2016, citing public health, crime, and terrorism concerns, French authorities dismantled the Jungle, forcing around 9,000 of its residents to move elsewhere. To discourage refugees from forming another settlement in Calais, the city’s mayor enacted decrees effectively banning humanitarian organizations from distributing food to migrants. Since the camp was destroyed, French politicians have also committed to preventing large gatherings of refugees in public spaces.
2. In Saudi Arabia, refugees aren’t refugees
In late 2015, Amnesty International asserted that Saudi Arabia was hosting a grand total of zero resettled Syrian refugees. By late 2016, the Saudi government claimed that it was hosting as many as 2.5 million.
Strange as it may seem, both of these things may have been true.
To be officially considered a refugee, a displaced person has to register for refugee status. That status, and countries’ obligations to protect refugees, are outlined in a 1951 United Nations convention which most UN member states have signed. However, Saudi Arabia, along with other Persian Gulf countries like Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, never signed it.
So, when migrants fleeing violence enter Saudi Arabia, they’re not registered as international refugees, and therefore usually have to go through Saudi visa processes. This might not sound like it would make a big difference, until you consider that the Saudi government can, and often does, deny visas to migrants whom it would otherwise be illegal to deport under international law. This means that some refugees, like Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, have to make tough decisions, like between rotting in a Saudi jail or being deported back to a country where their people are experiencing ethnic cleansing.
3. Immigration officials can seize asylum-seekers’ jewellery in Denmark
Nestled between two of the world’s most desired destinations for asylum-seekers — Germany and Sweden — Denmark has become a bastion of anti-refugee policies over the past few years.
These policies came to a head in early 2016, when the Danish parliament approved a law that would allow officials to seize cash and valuables valued at $1,450 or higher from asylum-seekers entering the country, supposedly to pay for the government services they were going to use during their stay.
Initially, the law was used simply as a way to deter migrants from entering the country, but in June 2016, Danish immigration authorities seized around $11,000 from a group of Iranians who had flown to Denmark to seek asylum.
Some critics of the law have compared it to the Nazi policy of stealing valuables from Jews as they were removed from their homes during the Holocaust.
4. Australia’s military blocks refugees from reaching its shores
They call it “Operation Sovereign Borders.” In Australia, military officials patrol the waters seeking to intercept asylum-seekers traveling to the country by boat in order to send them (or even tow them) back to Indonesia or India.
If refugees’ boats end up making it to Australia’s shores, they’re not allowed to stay in the country while their asylum cases are processed. Instead, they’re sent to processing centers on the tiny island nation of Naura, which Human Rights Watch says is rife with “appalling abuse,” or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which the UN has described as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency.”
If migrants are granted asylum, they’re still not allowed into Australia. Rather, they have to resettle on whatever island nation they were detained.
While the Australian government is starting to close the processing centers on Nauru and Manus Island because of well-documented human rights abuses at the facilities, asylum-seekers being released from those centers still aren’t allowed in Australia. Instead, the Australian government is exporting them to the United States.
5. In the US, asylum-seeking toddlers can represent themselves in court
Since 2014, more than 200,000 unaccompanied children — mostly fleeing violence in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador — have traveled through Central America and Mexico, braving rape, robbery, and death from exposure to seek asylum in the United States.
When they arrive in the US, half of these children don’t have lawyers to represent them as they present their asylum cases in immigration court.
As the saying goes, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” Well, not in this case.
Asylum cases are heard in civil court rather than criminal court, so the government is not required to appoint free lawyers, even if the defendants are children. According to one immigration judge, children as young as three are capable of representing themselves.
“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience,” the judge said during a deposition. “They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.”
According to Kids in Need of Defense, a legal nonprofit that represents immigrant children pro-bono, children without legal representation are five times more likely to be deported back to danger than those who have lawyers.