Georgette Mulheir has been working to protect refugees and children’s rights around the globe for over 30 years. Recently, she spoke out on a troubling number of government policies put in place to restrict and punish refugees, particularly in the west.
Western countries such as the USA and UK are in a better position than other nations to offer assistance and protection to refugees, yet far-right policies have led to a crack-down on the world’s most vulnerable, even punishing those who attempt to offer them aid.
In the midst of the worst global refugee crisis since the Second World War, Georgette Mulheir urges nations to reject far-right populist policies that incarcerate refugees and separate families for more modern and compassionate solutions. Her proposed solutions would greatly reduce abuse, incarceration and relocation of refugees. They would also cost nations less to implement than current policies.
Georgette Mulheir: “A Disturbing Pattern among Governments”
Georgette Mulheir has drawn attention to a pattern among policymakers in Europe and the USA aimed at influencing the people’s opinion of refugees, making asylum more difficult to achieve and even punishing those who offer life-saving assistance and basic needs to refugees.
Mulheir has identified four stages in this pattern.
Stage One: Deceptive Language
Georgette Mulheir noticed how lawmakers often call refugees by other names in order to reduce public opinion of asylum-seekers. She explains that western populations are sympathetic to refugees when they are referred to as such, but by redefining them as “economic migrants,” populations can become much less receptive.
Policymakers purposefully use this rhetoric to fit their narrative of immigrants coming to steal jobs from citizens. This rhetoric has done considerable damage over the last decade, as economic woes have increased due to global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stage Two: Regulations and Red Tape
It’s easy to demonize refugees as criminals or to reject their status because they haven’t taken the proper steps to seek asylum. For this reason, lawmakers have dramatically increased the regulatory hoops that refugees must jump through to properly apply. Most migrants are unaware of these regulations and have no way of knowing what they are. As a result, many are arrested upon entry to a nation for laws that they don’t know they’ve broken.
Others are presented with little to no assistance in understanding the path to asylum as they are confined to camps or detention centres.
In the USA, the Trump administration introduced the most draconian immigration measures for refugees in years and then required that refugees pay for the excessive red tape that the administration had put in place.
In the UK, the Home Office’s current “overhaul” of immigration will increase red tape, making it harder for refugees to gain asylum. Those who do will face longer wait times before they can begin work or go to school.
Stage Three: Lock Them Up
Georgette Mulheir has long worked to expose the dangers of incarceration, especially for children. Unfortunately, rates of refugee incarceration are on the rise.
The Australian government has chosen to spend over 1 billion dollars on immigrant detention centres while cutting resettlement programs.
The USA’s detention centres under President Trump were described as “black boxes with no way out.” Over 40 new immigrant detention facilities have opened since 2017 (all of which are privately owned, for-profit facilities), and conditions within are reported to be inhumane, according to Human Rights Watch.
The risks of abuse, suicide and psychological distress to detained migrants is immense. This is exacerbated when families are separated. Georgette Mulheir spearheaded a programme to help reunite families separated by the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Her team succeeded in reuniting hundreds of families, but she noted that long-term trauma was likely. Separation and detention of children for just a few months can result in long-term behavioural issues, making life for these families even more difficult.
Stage Four: Criminalizing Aid
A particularly cruel trend is the criminalization of providing aid to refugees in need. Governments are equating the most basic forms of aid, such as providing first aid, food and water to refugees, with complicity in illegal border crossings.
“??The US, UK and other European governments are going to extraordinary lengths to discourage people from welcoming and supporting those fleeing war and persecution,” Georgette Mulheir comments. “Even as far as prosecuting them.”
Under the Trump Administration in the USA, American citizens have been charged with people smuggling and face 20 years in prison for providing migrants with water. In Italy, Italians faced similar charges for rescuing refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean.
Georgette Mulheir explains that this stage represents anti-refugee policies coming full circle. Once the population views refugees as criminals, it’s easy to accuse humanitarian groups and compassionate citizens of aiding and abetting criminal behaviour.
Georgette Mulheir: “We Must Rethink the Way We Respond”
The global refugee crisis is not going away. Georgette Mulheir urges governments of developed nations to lead the way in compassionate and productive solutions.
“As a world, we must begin to understand the desperation that leads people to make perilous journeys seeking refuge,” Mulheir says. “We must also radically rethink the way we respond.”
Families seeking refuge have often encountered terrible violence, abuse, warfare and poverty in their home countries. Attempts to deter immigrants with punitive policies will only decrease their chances of finding safety and stability. These policies are also far more expensive than alternatives, such as foster care for children and community-based solutions proposed by Mulheir.
Georgette Mulheir led a programme in Ethiopia that placed refugee children in foster families. She successfully demonstrated that this system is not only cheaper to implement but far more beneficial for children than keeping them in harmful detention centres.
To governments, Mulheir recommends treating refugee crises with the same predictive methods and funding as disaster preparedness. “Predict, prevent and protect,” she says. If we know the size and shape of the phenomenon, we can develop appropriate responses.”