Human Rights Act: Explained

What does this Human Rights Act entitle me to?

Right now your human rights in the UK are protected by the Human Rights Act, passed in 1998.

The act reinforces your right to life, meaning the state is required to investigate suspicious deaths and deaths in custody. It also protects against torture, slavery, unlawful detention and discrimination. It gives you a right to privacy, freedom of speech and a family life, plus a bunch of other stuff.  

It means no worries, for the rest of your days.

But it’s no problem free philosophy, because the Conservative government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

Scenes of Reason made the boring not boring for you. We also spotted something the poster campaigns missed.

How does the Human Rights Act work?

Theresa May

Theresa May really REALLY doesn’t like the Human Rights Act – we’ll tell you why in a bit. Source: Telegraph

The Human Rights Act was passed to bring Britain into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Let’s be clear – this has nothing to do with the European Union. This is an agreement of the basic rights that all European citizens should have. It was created, with Britain leading the way, after WWII  to make sure atrocities such as the Holocaust did not happen again.  It’s the job of the European Court of Human Rights to make sure that participating countries like Britain toe the line. This is the bit that the government doesn’t like – we’ll get to that in a minute.

If your human rights have been violated, the Human Rights Act means your case can be heard in the UK courts, rather than having to go straight to the European Court of Human Rights.

Under the Human Rights Act, it is illegal for any UK public authority – including police officers, local authorities, government departments, prisons and social care providers – to ignore your human rights. You can take your case to court if they do so. With one catch, these guys can ignore your human rights if Parliament has passed a law saying that they can.

UK courts can decide that UK legislation is not in line with the human rights contained in the European Convention, but Parliament does not legally have to do anything about it. It’s up to Parliament whether or not to amend that legislation. Similarly, when deciding how UK law fits with the European Convention, the UK courts are not required to follow what the European Court of Human Rights thinks. Instead UK courts just have to “take into account” any decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights.

There is wiggle room in this act.

Why does the government want rid of the Human Rights Act?

Right Hon Chris Grayling

Former Justice Minister Chris Grayling MP wrote up a report on scrapping the act

According to the Conservative party, the wiggle room currently allowed by the Human Rights Act is not enough.

Basically the current UK government doesn’t like being told what to do, or being stopped from doing what it wants to do. The argument is that the European Court of Human Rights has too much power, and tends to interpret human rights law much more loosely than the UK likes.

The previous government was especially annoyed by how long it took to deport Abu Qatada to face terror charges in Jordan, because the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he risked torture and inhumane treatment.

Here are four reasons the Conservatives have put forward for scrapping the act, translated into plain English.

The European Court of Human Rights has developed ‘mission creep’: The Strasbourg Court has gone human rights loco, interpreting the European Convention beyond what the original authors of the Convention ever had in mind. For example, a 2007 ruling required the UK to allow many more prisoners the right to go through artificial insemination with their partners, in order to uphold their rights to a family life under Article 8. According to the Conservative party, “this is not what the originators of the Convention had in mind when they framed that article.”

The Human Rights Act undermines the UK courts. In a nutshell, the government doesn’t like that UK courts have to “take into account” the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights, as it means that “problematic Strasbourg jurisprudence is often being applied in UK law.”

In practice, the Human Rights Act undermines the authority of Parliament. The Conservative argument is that UK courts have sometimes preferred to follow the lead of the European Court of Human Rights when deciding whether UK law complies with human rights or not. This has sometimes meant that the court’s decision went against what Parliament intended when they were writing the law in the first place, and Parliament is supposed to be sovereign.

The Human Rights Act goes beyond the UK’s obligations under the Convention. Decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights are supposed to be binding, meaning that the court can tell the UK to change its laws if they don’t properly fit with the European Convention. There was nothing in the original European Convention that allowed for this. The UK’s authority to control its own law should not be undermined by a European court, it is argued.

This last point is up for debate though. The European Court of Human Rights ruled a decade ago that Britain should allow its prisoners to vote, in order to fit with Article 3 allowing free and fair elections. The UK has seriously contested this ruling and so far no changes have been made to the law. So it’s not true to say that the European Court of Human Rights has the all-out power to force the UK to change its law, because so far it hasn’t been successful in changing Britain’s law on prisoners’ voting rights.

What’s in this proposed British Bill of Rights?

Justice Minister Michael Gove

Justice Minister Michael Gove is one doing the drafting

The Conservative party manifesto promised to scrap the Human Rights Act and bring in a British Bill of Rights.

Nobody knows yet what exactly this will involve. We’re expecting a draft this Autumn.

Here’s what the manifesto promised to do:

“The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights. It will protect basic rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to life, which are an essential part of a modern democratic society. But it will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society. Among other things the Bill will stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.”

I Skipped the Rest: Who is this going to affect?

I needed the human rights act poster campaign

Not enough time to read these on the escalators?

If you live in London, Manchester or drive around major motorways, you’ve maybe seen the “I Needed the Human Rights Act” poster campaign.

If you’re like us, you don’t have time to read everything on the posters because the escalators go too fast. So here’s the campaign in full.

The gist is that anyone can need human rights law, and the Human Rights Act was intended to make that more secure for people.

But the poster campaign has missed those who will be most affected. Most affected by the bill will likely be terror suspects and foreign criminals. Like it says in the Conservative manifesto, the plan is to make it harder for these people to appeal to the right not to be tortured or inhumanely treated, or to the right to a family life as grounds not to be deported from the UK.

Put plainly, the British Bill of Rights is likely to make it a lot easier to deport people to places the European Court has judged dangerous or likely to treat their criminals inhumanely.

Even though terror suspects, foreign national prisoners and migrants will see the biggest changes once the Human Rights Act is scrapped, they are not very often included in otherwise very good campaigns like the posters or like this one.

This is understandable: they are what we call the Unpopular Humans. Very few people in society are willing to stand up for the rights of terror suspects or foreign criminals. They don’t make very good poster boys. Some would argue they don’t deserve this kind of fair treatment, or that they are abusing human rights to get around the system.

But for some, it’s how we treat terror suspects or foreign criminals which is a marker of our commitment to humanity. Are these people less deserving of their human rights?

For others, the opportunities these people have had to appeal to their human rights has been an obstruction to Britain’s national security and Britain’s authority to make its own decisions.

Here’s a letter you can sign if you are concerned about this. If you reckon the government is doing the right thing, sit back and relax.

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Everything you need to know about the EU Referendum in under 5 minutes

Yeah, you lost me: what’s the EU referendum?

Referendum; a vote on a single political decision which has been put to the public.
Example; Scotland had a referendum in 2014 to decide if they wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. (They did. Just.)

Right now; it’s about whether the UK wants to leave the European Union.

 

What’s the EU?

EU referendum - the flags of the European Union member states

Time to flag up our issues with the EU?

The EU is a political and economic partnership of 28 European countries.

It is run by the European Parliament. Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are voted in every five years by the public. MEPs set laws which cover transport and business rules in Europe among many other things.

The European Commission proposes laws to the Parliament and enforces EU law. It upholds treaties and looks out for the interests of the European Union – not individual countries.

The EU operates a Common Market.

Sometimes called a single market this means goods, services, money and currency; but most importantly people can move freely between EU states. The idea is free movement of goods and services, which means good news for business and everyone profits. No, it doesn’t mean you get stuff for free. 

In 1973 the UK signed up to the common market (called the European Economic Community or EEC) to trade with other countries and develop international relationships. Jump to 1993; the EEC became the European Union and the European Parliament arrived. Some say 75% of UK laws are influenced by the EU parliament; others say as little as 7%.

 

Is the UK better off “in” or “out”?

That’s the million dollar question. We’ll be wrapping up the main arguments for and against the EU in a way even an 11-year-old can get their head around. Stay tuned for the full video coming soon.

 

What you need to know

 

Save the Date

The EU referendum will take place on Thursday 23rd June 2016.

Cameron has negotiated a set of changes to the UK’s EU membership. He wants to:

 

– Protect the single market for non-Euro countries like Britain

The UK is one of nine EU countries which doesn’t use the Euro as it’s currency. Cameron wants to ensure that the Euro-using countries can’t gang up and force through measures on non-Euro countries. He also wants to ensure there is no discrimination or no disadvantage for non-Euro countries.

 

– Change immigration rules

Current EU immigration rules mean that people from EU countries can travel to Britain to work without needing a visa or a work permit.

This also means that they can claim state benefits. Cameron wants to reduce the number of economic migrants coming into Britain. To do this he plans to restrict migrants from claiming benefits until they’ve worked in the UK for four years. Everyone seems to think this is unlikely to happen.

 

– Get Britain out of the “ever closer union”

One of the founding EU principles which the UK signed up to was the ever closer union. This means European citizens driving to integrate more closely.

EU skeptics dislike this idea as it erodes our national identity and could lead to an EU superstate. Cameron wants a legally binding “get out of jail free” card for Britain. He also wants national parliaments to have more power to block resolutions from the EU parliament.

 

– Make Europe business friendly

The EU parliament sets certain regulations for businesses in Europe. E.g. the standards new products have to meet when tested. Cameron wants to cut the “red tape” which he believes is holding businesses back.

Cameron’s plan is to get the “best deal” for Britain, before we vote. For more details see his letter to the EU council and a speech he made explaining his demands.

Not everyone is satisfied with these demands. One Tory MP asked “is that it? Is that the sum total of the government’s position in the renegotiation?”

Another asked “how is he going to be able to sell this pig in a poke?” This is a reference to the allegations that David Cameron did something very naughty with a pig’s head whilst at university.

The latest reports suggest that the prime minister wants to push on with the EU referendum sooner rather than later, perhaps even before the end of 2016. We’ll be updating when we know more.

 

The Question

The question which will be put to the UK is ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The choice of answers will be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union’.

 

Only 18+ get to vote

You’ll have to be 18+ to vote in the EU referendum – this is different to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, where 16 and 17 year olds got to vote.

 

The “In” Campaign

Britain Stronger in Europe (BSIE) is a major campaign to stay in the EU. Headed up by former Marks and Spencer boss Lord Rose the campaign has the backing of former Labour Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as well as Caroline Lucas from the Green Party and Conservative Damian Green.

In Campaign Decoded: The campaign video concentrates on the business argument for staying “in”. The EU is our main trading partner – if we leave the free market we start paying import and export taxes which would hurt business. Without the EU the UK risks being isolated in the international community.

Though there are other pro-EU campaigns, it’s likely BSIE will be chosen as the official “in” campaign by the Electoral Commission.

 

The “Out” Campaign

The Vote Leave group is the official “out” campaign. The two main faces of Vote Leave are soon to be ex Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Conservative MP Michael Gove. .

Out Campaign Decoded: The campaign video focuses on the cost of EU membership. As the UK is one of the richest EU countries it (along with Germany and France) pays more for our membership. Some estimates put the total cost as high as £118 billion a year. Ouch.

Both Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave are cross-party campaigns – made up of MPs from various political parties.

 

Join the conversation



 

EU learnings; you didn’t sign up for it, and you may not get a say in what happens next. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care.

Are you “in” or “out”? Let us know in the comments below.

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4 Things The Media Gets Wrong About Migrant Smugglers

What are Migrant Smugglers?

Migrant smuggling – or people smuggling – means helping someone to enter a country without authorisation. A migrant smuggler will generally help people to get around border controls or get them false or fake travel or identity documents.

Migrant smugglers have been in the news a lot in the last months. Many say they are the guys we need to deal with if we want to solve Europe’s ongoing migrant and refugee crisis. Earlier in the year there was even talk of bombing their boats to get rid of them.

We found 4 things the media is getting totally wrong about migrant smugglers.

#1 Migrant smugglers can be stopped with better border controls.

 

Nope!

European states are sending warships to confront people smugglers in the Mediterranean.

Wrong move! All the evidence tells us that increased border controls only encourage smugglers and make people more dependent on them.

People struggling through a razor wire border fence

Smugglers only exist because border controls exist

As leading migration professor Hein de Haas explains, smuggling people in boats across the Mediterranean only began when Spain and Italy introduced visas and blocked free entry in the early 1990s. This started out as a small-scale operation run by local fishermen. However, the more border controls Spain introduced, the more professionalised and profitable the smuggling became. The hit-back against migrant smugglers that has been ongoing throughout the 2000s only encouraged them to try out different routes.

Border controls do not put smugglers off. The opposite is true: Migrant smugglers exist because border controls exist.

Border controls create market demand for smugglers who provide a service to people escaping conflict, persecution and economic stagnation.

#2 All migrant smugglers do is exploit people for profit.

We often read news stories about abusive people smugglers who charge vulnerable people extortionate amounts of money, only to abandon them in death-trap boats in the middle of the Mediterranean.

This stereotype is true of some but not all migrant smugglers. People smugglers provide a professional service. Just as with any other service, they need to keep up a good reputation as reliable, trustworthy and cheap. Some smugglers, like Michael who works between Sudan and Libya, have to conduct their business alongside other smugglers who give their trade a bad name: “They sell our people like beasts. Eritreans are my people, my family. I take responsibility for them.”

Also just like the full-time providers of any other professional service, people smugglers need to make money to keep their business going.

Not all smugglers turn a profit, let alone a massive one. Some have been known to operate on a pay-what-you-can basis – providing free service for those who cannot pay.

Amir Heidari a well known human smuggler

Amir Heidari worked on a pay-what-you-can basis

Refugee turned anthropologist Shahram Khosravi of Stockholm University interviewed one of the best-known human smugglers among Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds – Amir Heidari – in prison in Sweden. He tells how his philosophy was to “take more from one who had money and send one who had no money for free.”

However – since increased border controls have made smuggling people a much riskier business – prices have been pushed up and up in the last decades.

Some would describe the work of people smugglers as more than simply a service. In the words of one Eritrean refugee speaking to Al Jazeera: “Smugglers could be compared to those individuals who helped black people during slavery moving from the South to the North in the US and today are considered heroes. Maybe one day smugglers will be considered heroes too because they helped people find freedom.”  

Some people smugglers are undoubtedly exploiting the market that has been created by restrictive border controls. What is really important is that not all smugglers make a significant profit. The reason why this is so important is that treating all smugglers like criminals makes things a hell of a lot worse.

#3 All migrant smugglers are criminals who don’t care about people’s safety.

Accepting payment to smuggle someone across a state border without authorisation is a criminal offence across most European countries, punishable with imprisonment or deportation.

This means that in official terms all smugglers are criminals, because smuggling is against the law.

However, not all smugglers fit the stereotype of reckless gangsters who don’t mind putting people in danger.

Much more worryingly, it is treating smugglers as criminals and threatening them with arrest which encourages them to take more risks and put more people in danger.

Border authorities in boat

Migrant smugglers will do anything to avoid getting arrested by border patrols

It is often thought that making people smuggling a crime is what will keep people safe from exploitation. In reality, making smuggling a crime is often what pushes smugglers towards criminal gangs and encourages them to exploit people.

As migration researcher Mollie Gerver explains for London School of Economics, the fear of arrest means smugglers require extensive intelligence information to evade border officials, which they can only get by teaming up with those involved in arms trading and trafficking sex workers.

This means the trade is being taken over by professional criminal gangs, pushing out more amateur smugglers who have closer personal ties to refugee communities and so are less likely to demand large profit margins.

The fear of arrest also encourages smugglers to commit terrible acts of violence against the people they are transporting. As Gerver writes: ” In June, smugglers wished to avoid reaching an EU port to prevent being arrested, so they threw pregnant women and children overboard and then turned their ship back to sea. These were repugnant actions, but they were also a response to legal incentives: they threw individuals overboard precisely to avoid imprisonment.”

Let’s be clear; some migrant smugglers do commit awful acts of negligence and violence. However, treating them as if they are all alike only gives them more incentive to operate underground and take risks. Anything to avoid being caught.

#4 Stopping people smugglers will put an end to migrant deaths. 

Believing in this myth, as many do, has grave consequences. Attempts to crack down on people smuggling will likely lead to more deaths. This is because criminalising smuggling and closing off established routes will only encourage smugglers to seek out other, often much more dangerous, routes.

Experience has shown us that no disincentive is great enough to stop people trying to leave if they want to leave – and Europe’s current strategy of targeting people smugglers only contributes to migrant deaths. 

This graphic from Research Professor Jørgen Carling says it all.

Migrant Smugglers Explained: Sure, smugglers are part of the process which leads to people drowning in the Mediterranean. However, they are operating within a market that has been created by border restrictions, some of the people they help would call them ‘heroes’ and ‘freedom facilitators’ and yet they are increasingly encouraged to take risks in order to avoid arrest.

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Battle of Britain and the Blitz; the UK’s toughest fight?

The UK remembers those who died during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, both major events during World War II. Yet, should we do more to remember those killed from other countries?

 

What was the Battle of Britain?

A battle formation of airplanes in the Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain; actually Battle of British skies

The Battle of Britain is the name given to the World War II air campaign ran from July 1940 – October 1940.

By summer of 1940 Germany had pushed British troops out of France. The Germans were preparing to invade Britain. There was just the small matter of taking out Britain’s defences.

First the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) attempted to destroy British shipping centres. Then they targeted airfields used by the British Royal Air Force (RAF). German bomber aircraft were protected by smaller fighter planes.

Things did not look good for the British. At the beginning of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe could call upon 2,600 aircraft, whereas the RAF only deployed 640 planes. Not good odds.

 

So, how did the British win?

Supermarine Spitfire Mark I was a British advantage in the Battle of Britain

Best of British; the Supermarine Spitfire Mark XVI

Clear communication, good organisation and newly designed planes gave Britain an advantage.

The speed and maneuverability of a British aircraft called the Spitfire made it superior to German fighter planes. Throughout the Battle of Britain more planes would be constructed and by the end the RAF outnumbered the German force. Tally ho, chaps!

By the end of the Battle of Britain, over 2,000 German airmen were killed, compared to 544 Brits.

Speaking of the Battle of Britain then prime minister Winston Churchill said “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Germany had failed to achieve air superiority and German leader Adolf Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain was postponed. However, Britain’s troubles were just beginning…

 

What started the Blitz?

The Blitz was an eight month German bombing campaign against major British cities. It lasted from September 1940 to May 1941. Blitzkrieg means “lightning war” in German.

During the Battle of Britain Adolf Hitler had given strict instructions that central London was not to be targeted by bombers. However, on August 24th 1940 German aircraft drifted from their intended military target on the outskirts of the city. Their bombs hit central London. Even if this was accidental, the British quickly responded by bombing the German capital Berlin in retaliation.

Did the British bombing of Berlin provoke the Blitz, or would it have happened anyway? The damage to Berlin was slight, but Adolf Hitler stated “when the British Air Force … increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground.”

Frustrated by the attacks on Berlin and a failure to destroy the RAF, the Germans started targeting urban areas as well as military targets. On 7th September 1940 nearly 1,000 German planes targeted London in a daytime raid lasting nine hours.

The Blitz had begun.

 

“Lightning War”

This continued bombing of civilians in urban areas was a new type of warfare. London was bombed for 57 nights in a row. Other cities targeted included Coventry, Manchester and Birmingham.

A "spotter" watched the skies of London during the Blitz

The Blitz; On the lookout

As well as explosives, the German bombers dropped “firebombs”. These were especially dangerous, spreading fire quickly from building to building.

An attack on Coventry on 14 November 1940 left 75% of buildings destroyed.

For protection millions of children, mothers and hospital patients were moved out of cities to the safety of the countryside. For those in the cities a strict “blackout” policy was quickly enforced.

Windows and doors had to be covered with special material. Car headlights also had to be partly covered, reducing the amount of light exposed. This prevented the light providing German bombers with a target during the night.

In 1941, the number of attacks by the Luftwaffe decreased as Germany turned its focus to Russia. Britain had managed to survive the Blitz, but at a cost. Over the eight months around 43,000 British civilians were killed.

 

How does this compare to German losses in World War II?

Bomb damage from Hamburg's "blitz week" where American and British planes bombed it day and night

Bomb damage in Hamburg, which suffered it’s own “Blitz”

It’s natural that each country focuses on the deaths of its own citizens. But should we do more to educate ourselves on the losses sustained by other countries, especially if they were part of the same war?

The loss of British civilian life during the Blitz is undeniably tragic. Between 380 and 554 people died in the Coventry bombing, remembered as one of the worst attacks during the Blitz. Total casualties in London across the whole eight month period are estimated at around 28,556 people.

However bombings by Allied forces against Germany killed many more civilians.

British historian Professor Richard Overy mentions “the myth in Britain has been that we bombed military targets and Germans bombed civilian populations, but it is almost exactly the reverse”.

 

Bomb damage in the city of Dresden which was destroyed by firebombs

Firebombed; the wreckage in Dresden

Take the British attack on the German city of Hamburg in 1943. Around 42,600 Germans were killed in just one week.

To put that into context, that’s almost the same as the total number of British civilians killed during the entirety of the Blitz. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Similarly, around 25,000 people were killed in two days when the British bombed the city of Dresden.

10,000 people in the city of Kassal were killed in one night on October 22 1943.

 

In total it’s estimated 600,000 German civilians lost their lives as a result of bombings by allied forces.

 

Did the UK commit War Crimes?

The cenotaph in Whitehall, London which honours those who died during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz

We will remember them; the cenotaph in Whitehall, London

German historian Jörg Friedrich believes that the British bombings of towns during the end of World War II should be considered war crimes.

The controversial historian argues that these bombings served no military purpose as Germany was nearing surrender. Speaking to the Guardian Friedrich said “the bombing [of Kassal] left an entire generation traumatised. But it was never discussed.”

Speaking about the Blitz Winston Churchill called the bombings on the UK “cruel, wanton, indiscriminate”.

Can the same be said about Britain’s bombing of Germany later in the war?

Historian AC Grayling notes that among the bombs dropped on Germany “were time-delay devices, set to explode at intervals in the hours and days after a raid to disrupt ambulance, firefighting and rescue services.”

 

It is quite right that we commemorate the sacrifice of those who gave their lives during World War II. Yet this doesn’t mean we should forget those killed in other countries, and recognise our own actions in the conflict.

 

Blitz Learnings; fighters in the Battle of Britain and civilians during the Blitz showed great courage. However, we could do more to explore the impact of the war on other countries.

Did the British bombing of Berlin provoke the bombings known as the Blitz? Were the later bombings of German towns justified?

 

Note on accuracy; we do our utmost to ensure our articles are accurate. This is difficult in this instance when various dates and numbers of those killed differ from source to source. Where we have quoted numbers we have linked to the relevant pages. If you wish to report any errors then please email sor@scenesofreason.com

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What should a refugee look like?

Not what you expected?

In the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Europe seeking asylum. Most of them are coming from Syria, although the majority of people fleeing the civil conflict there have remained in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

A number of countries, including Britain, followed Germany’s example of pledging to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Other states, like Hungary, have been doing all they can to put people off coming.

The reaction from the European public has varied from thousands offering refugees their homes to arson attacks on asylum shelters.

Some people have been confused though. How do we know all these people are really refugees?

A group of young men take a selfie having landed on Lesbos

Is this what a refugee should look like?

To many people, this group of men taking a selfie having landed on Lesbos don’t look like typical refugees. Pictured in the Daily Mail, They look too well-fed, too well-dressed. Their iPads are way too charged.

Meme depicting large muscled men with text over-laid saying refugees?

This meme showing refugees as body-builders is making the rounds

A torrent of images and memes like this have flooded the web showing these men to be hulking body-builders. The problem with this meme, Vice tell us, is that these images are not actually of Syrian refugees and were not actually taken in Europe, but we’ll let that one slide.

Quite a few UK public figures have been asking the same question. In his column for the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens asked “You really think these crowds of tough young men chanting ‘Germany!’ in the heart of Budapest are ‘asylum-seekers’ or refugees’?

Boris Johnson commented in the Telegraph that the crowds of people trying to enter Germany “seem to be composed overwhelmingly of young, able-bodied men.”

The suggestion these two columnists are making is that these tough young men are not in fact refugees at all: They are economic migrants, attempting to slip illegally into Europe among the genuine refugees. They are not, the argument goes, fleeing war and persecution but simply looking for a more prosperous future. Basically – young strapping lads who want better jobs, not  refugees with rights to asylum,

That’s quite a big conclusion to draw from just looking at people. But looks can be deceiving.

How do we know a refugee when we see one? If these guys aren’t real refugees, then who is?

What does a refugee look like?

A refugee is a specific legal category, defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Type ‘refugee’ into Google images and you won’t be too surprised by what comes up. The people in the pictures are mostly women and children, shabbily dressed, and often quite dusty. These are the kinds of images we are used to seeing when we hear about refugees.

Refugees leaving Kosovo

Refugees from Kosovo.

This is why it is, to be fair, quite confusing when we see pictures like the well-built well-dressed young men taking a selfie with an iPad. They don’t seem too badly off…

However, young men are in very specific kinds of danger in a war zone. Military service of up to three years is mandatory for Syrians men aged 18.

Whether those who receive the draft do not support the regime or fear what will happen to them if captured by rebels, many have chosen to flee rather than stay and kill or be killed.

Four years into the civil war, these defections have left the Assad regime facing a manpower shortage, which only leads to further mandatory conscription, where the newly drafted can expect to be shipped to the front lines with little training.

Sanjayan Srikanthan, director of humanitarian policy at the International Rescue Committee told Buzzfeed : “There’s a common fear of being conscripted into fighting, regardless of which side that’s driving people to flee.”

Of course it’s not just about conscription. This all comes on top of the barrel-bombing and airstrikes which Syrian civilians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, have found themselves in the middle of, and which have left many Syrian towns and cities completely destroyed.

Strapping young lads, or fighting-age men as they are sometimes referred to, might not look like stereotypical helpless refugees. But it is precisely because they are young, fit and male that they face conscription. This, on top of barrel-bombing or fear of the police, is why they choose to leave.

We cannot know who is a real refugee and who isn’t just by looking at them. You do not have to look helpless in order to be in need of help.

But should we be focusing so hard on who is and isn’t a refugee in the first place?

High profile players like Al Jazeera and UNHCR have led the way in insisting that the thousands of people arriving in Europe are refugees and not migrants.

UNHCR poster "Refugee or Migrant (C) Andrew McConnell

The UNHCR was among the leading organisations against using the word migrant

The argument behind this was that the word migrant had become a dehumanising label that allowed governments to keep people out rather than let them in.

The groundswell that followed of European citizens insisting their leaders take their fair share of refugees was proof of how powerful a difference the word refugee made.

However, insisting that we call them refugees did not solve the primary problem of migrants being dehumanised.

On the contrary, it has given politicians and the media a licence to distinguish between crowds of people to pinpoint who was worthy of Europe’s help (the refugees) and who was not (tough young male migrants who were supposedly only posing as refugees).

Is this what happens when we start talking about two different kinds of people? In practice, the difference between a migrant and a refugee is often barely recognisable: Both are leaving intolerable situations.

What does a refugee look like? Explained: Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they have to seek asylum from war or persecution. We are used to picturing refugees as poor and desperate women and children, but war puts young able-bodied men in specific kinds of danger, like being drafted into the army of a regime they no longer support. However – this exercise of sorting between who is and isn’t a refugee can be dangerous. This is because it suggests that refugees’ lives are worth more than those of migrants.  

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