Many refugee advocates and policy experts have shown support for Canada, the UK, and the USA’s use of temporary visas for Ukrainians, calling for these forms of temporary status to be extended to other groups, including Afghans, who face long waits for refugee resettlement. The narrative has become that temporary status is better and faster. But is it?
Faster, but Not Better
The truth is that temporary statuses threaten the global refugee law system by replacing the right to refugee status with an arbitrary, short term visa waiver that brings almost no rights. We accept, and even promote, temporary statuses that are arbitrary, founded on the principle of charity, not rights, and almost perfectly calibrated to capture every possible bias and unfairness imaginable, including every whim of politics. Why is this happening? In part, Ukrainians are being given, and are accepting, this temporary status is that many people think the war in Ukraine will be over in the next few months. This narrative around the imminent end of the war has given governments a golden opportunity to replace refugee status with temporary status, setting a dangerous precedent that refugee advocates ignore at their peril. What happens when a temporary status expires? No one seems to be asking this question.
Yet the worrying decline in support for refugee status as the gold standard is much deeper than the Ukraine crisis. Governments seem to have sold almost everyone on rapid, temporary visas being much faster than traditional forms of refugee protection. This is a sad comment on how broken down refugee advocacy has become. Their is no good reason why refugee resettlement should take such a long time or be limited to such small numbers, yet governments have been stretching processing times and capping quotas for so long, none of us remember a time when the system functioned as it should. There is the very, real feeling that any status, even a temporary status with few rights, is better than the long wait for resettlement. Yet governments could simply declare all Ukrainians to be refugees, prima facie, tomorrow. The fact that refugee advocates aren’t even asking for this, have not even raised it in a concerted or organization way, shows just how broken our spirits and imaginations have become.
Even more disturbingly, governments have also done a good job convincing everyone that most Ukrainians cannot be refugees because they have not been individually persecuted. Refugee law has become so specialized and confusing that even many refugee lawyers feel hesitant about pushing back on this narrative, despite some experts calling Russia’s military campaign a genocide. Yet it is worth asking, if even people fleeing a genocide aren’t refugees, than who is?
The Future is Charity, Not Rights
Never forget that only refugee status is guaranteed by an international Convention that has been ratified by an impressive number of countries, only it has a long history and huge amount of legitimacy, a special cachet with the public, and a massive, international organization, UNHCR, to watch over it. It is the gold standard. Yet, rather than continuing to push for refugee status to be available to everyone, as it should be, it feels like we are giving up.