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'Largest Majority' Of Migrants Recently Coming To Europe Are Refugees


What happens next to the people detained in Hungary or embraced in Germany depends on the circumstances they left behind in their home countries. Under international law, the label refugee applies to those who can prove they're escaping war or persecution. And refugees are entitled to certain protections. First and foremost, they can't just be sent back. That distinction is key as European nations pledge to accept more asylum-seekers. Here to talk more about this is Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute. Welcome to the program.

DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU: It is my pleasure to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So even in our own coverage of this crisis, this label - refugee versus migrant - is a question. And that's why we often use the word migrants because it's the one thing we sort of can confirm that these people are on the move. Is there a sense of how many of these hundreds of thousands of people coming to Europe are actually, by definition, refugees?

PAPADEMETRIOU: The largest majority of the people who have come to Europe in the last six months would qualify as refugees. They are likely to be Syrians. Almost two-third of the people who are coming through Greece to get to the rest of Europe are Syrians. Afghans - about 25 percent of the people who are coming through Greece to make it to the rest of Europe. Most of those people would qualify for refugee status.

And if you think of the Central Mediterenean, which is the other major flow via Italy, the top two groups are Eritreans and Nigerians. Most Eritreans, in the past, have qualified for refugee status or a subsidiary protection status.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what's going on there and kind of where those migrants would fall on the spectrum?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Eritrea's a very difficult case because fundamentally, it's a small country of about 6 million or so people, and they are leaving an authoritarian regime that is unyielding when it comes to the requirements that people have toward their own countries. So there's conscription, and there are sort of no circumstances under which you can actually escape. So people are leaving the country despite the fact that it is a crime to leave the country.

But once these people make it to Europe - until now, the presumption of the European authorities and the adjudicators is that they should not be sent back. I am not clear whether this is going to continue now that Europe is taking hundreds of thousands of people who are absolutely refugees like Syrians or Afghans.

CORNISH: So let's go back to that issue. These words - migrant versus refugee - they've become politicized - right? - as this debate has gone on. How come?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Because fundamentally, people who are in favor of being more generous toward people who make it to Europe will want to use an all-inclusive term like refugees to describe everyone - someone is fleeing for some circumstances, for some reasons, including economic betterment or taking advantage of opportunity differentials.

And those people who are basically saying, if we're going to continue to offer this extraordinary grant, kindnesses, as it were, and legal responsibility as protect the people - we're going to have to separate those people who fit this definition for protection and separate out the ones that don't.

CORNISH: In the end, do you think that this model still makes sense, this kind of model that was born out of World War II? And now there are all kinds of reasons that people might flee their countries, whether it's state collapse or kind of isolated areas of persecution. You mentioned Nigeria. Is this definition in question going to be more challenging as time goes on?

PAPADEMETRIOU: In will certainly be more challenging, but no one is really focusing on what it is that, you know - how we might refine it. One thing is clear. Regardless of how rich a country is or regardless of how openhearted a people is, not everybody will be able to move to another country. You will offer protection and permanent status to people who are fleeing circumstances like the one in Syria, but you're not going to be able to accommodate everybody who is coming. Otherwise, there is almost no reason to have borders.

CORNISH: Demetrios Papademetriou is of the Migration Policy Institute. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PAPADEMETRIOU: Thank you very much, Audie. It has been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.