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Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World

Think of the forces that have led nearly 1% of the globe’s population, primarily Syrians and Libyans to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

Mass Violence Sparks a Worldwide Crisis

The past decade has seen unprecedented levels of upheaval and with it, the worst episode of mass displacement since World War II. Chronic chaos in such states as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia has driven much of the displacement. Crises have also erupted in South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Burundi, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Myanmar and Eritrea.

All told, some 65.3 million individuals, meaning one in every 113 people on the planet have found themselves forced from their homes by war, civil unrest or natural disasters. More than 21 million of them have journeyed across a national border in search of safety; which makes them refugees. 

Overall, humanity has grown healthier and wealthier in recent decades. Yet, with nearly 1% of the world’s population on the run from violence or disaster, the globe is a more unsettled place than ever and the international community is ill-prepared to deal with that fact.

In 2015, when large numbers of refugees began arriving in Europe after death-defying journeys across the Mediterranean, the international community panicked. With the notable exception of Germany, which opened its borders to asylum seekers, most European governments accepted only limited numbers of refugees or, simply, rejected them outright.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identifies protecting refugees and providing ways for them to rebuild their lives as its two main missions. With the latest wave of refugees, the UNHCR has accomplished neither goal. Just as the international monetary system was forced to reform its untenable system in 1971, today, the world must revise its response to refugee crises.


To Flee or Not to Flee

No society is perfect.

In the United States, African-American men are at greater risk of police violence. In Russia, dissidents who denounce Vladimir Putin may find themselves jailed, or worse. But regardless of their flaws, these societies don’t suffer the problem of mass displacement. 

The reason?

Their social institutions are fundamentally strong. When a hurricane hits the United States, Americans don’t flee their homeland. But in fragile societies like Haiti, when a natural disaster strikes, citizens rush to leave because they know the state lacks the power to provide for their most basic needs.

“Global modernity has not only produced technological miracles like the iPhone, and more than 1,800 billionaires; it has broken all records for the human tragedies that constitute displacement.”

Fundamental Rights Ignored

Modern thought about the treatment of refugees crystallized in 1951, when the world’s powers set norms for dealing with people in exile. A UNHCR convention created the non-negotiable idea that those fleeing war or some equally great risk should not be compelled to go back home. What’s more, refugees deserve fundamental freedoms and rights. 

Unfortunately, today, nations that signed the 1951 convention often ignore these noble concepts. And, counter-intuitively, a handful of nations that never signed the convention including Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, Thailand and Turkey have proven the most welcoming to refugees.

This circumstance underscores the paradox of existing refugee policies: The strongest nations have the most capacity to absorb exiles, but not much incentive to do so. Meanwhile, weaker nations have little choice but to accept refugees, who often arrive from neighboring countries. As a result, fewer than 1% of global refugees are accepted into nations beyond their immediate regions. 

The lukewarm international response to asylum seekers flies in the face of both common decency and common sense. Harboring refugees should be viewed as “a global public good.” Just as street lights make a neighborhood safer, taking in exiles helps make the world a more stable place.

The essential legal and moral question surrounding refugee status is this: At what point would a reasonable person feel compelled to leave out of fear for his or her safety? If someone is forced from home because of a credible fear of physical harm, then that person should be considered a refugee.

However, many nations use a more fraught test: persecution. When two million people fled Zimbabwe from 2003 to 2009, South Africa declined to recognize most of them as refugees, even if they faced starvation at home, on the grounds that those displaced weren’t suffering persecution. Somalia offers another example of how the persecution test often doesn’t make sense: People fleeing are doing so because the state lacks power. Violence abounds because the government cannot preserve order.


The Headless Heart and the Heartless Head

For two decades, the world ignored the inadequacies of the UN’s camp system. The international community was forced to confront the issue, however, as Syrians, Libyans and others began to arrive on European shores. News footage of immigrants arriving in tiny craft after a treacherous sea crossing spurred the Italian navy to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean.

The unintended consequence was that smugglers simply had to tow a dinghy near the Italian coast and flee; the Italian government did the rest. During 2014, Italy rescued 100,000 refugees on the high seas. Because the Schengen Agreement abolished internal border checks, once refugees entered Italy they could gain access to all of Europe. 

The influx of refugees into a nation still reeling from the economic crisis didn’t play well in Italy. Per capita incomes had fallen 11% from 2007 to 2015, and Italy was in no position to accommodate an influx of new workers. Young Italians were leaving their home country for stronger job prospects in the north, and the new arrivals meant Italy was trading native Italians for North Africans.

Thus, in late 2014, Italy quickly moved from its old “headless heart” to new “heartless head” policies: turning away nearly anyone seeking safety. Unlike in the United States, where a strong federal state patrols the external borders, European states are free to set their own rules on refugees. 

In one dramatic example, in Portugal, anyone who invests 500,000 euros in Portuguese property can gain permission to live in the European Union. In 2015, this slew of incoherent refugee policies and their unintended consequences provoked waves of panicked backlash. Many nations which had initially accepted refugees, abruptly shifted positions. 

Sweden, for instance, offered an open door, then, after a sharp political shift to the right, slashed its aid budget and stopped admitting refugees. Poland also turned a cold shoulder to Syrian refugees, both out of fear of an influx of Muslims and also from a reflexive suspicion of German leadership.

“Unlike migration, which is usually about an upside, refuge is needed when horrible things have happened to you and your family.”

The disconnect between the refugee policies implemented by Germany – which, decades on, is still trying to make amends for the atrocities of World War II – and Hungary and Austria – which see themselves as “Europe’s bulwark against Islamic conquest” – was particularly acute. While Hungary refused to take in any Syrian refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed them. As she said in one speech, “Germany is a strong country – we will manage.”

An unanticipated effect of this generosity was that Germany encouraged foolhardy journeys across the Mediterranean. Families everywhere started sending their unaccompanied children abroad. Some 73,000 children arrived in Germany, many of them 16- and 17-year-old boys. Clearly, these boys’ parents hoped their offspring could benefit from Germany’s strong labor market and begin earning wages to send back home. Unfortunately many of the boys were poorly educated and otherwise ill-equipped to fend for themselves.


The Response of Neighboring Nations

When Europe and North America turned their backs on Syrian refugees, much of the obligation fell on neighboring nations. Iraq accepted 200,000 Syrian refugees, while Jordan and other middle-income countries also took on thousands of exiles they couldn’t necessarily afford. Uganda, likewise, embraced a generous approach to refugees. In recent years, the nation has welcomed half a million exiles from Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and elsewhere. Rather than set up camps, Uganda takes pains to integrate refugees into society. The exiles are allowed to work and to move about freely. Encouraging refugees to support themselves, Uganda gives the new arrivals small plots of land to farm. 

“The international architecture of refugee policy has remained unaltered, not because it works, but because its repeated failures have never sufficiently exploded into the headlines.”

Not all neighboring nations have embraced refugees, however. Like the United States and Europe, the wealthy Gulf states of the Arab world have largely failed to shoulder their share of the burden. Given their vast wealth and their cultural similarities to Syria, these nations are the best-positioned to accept Syrian refugees. Yet the Gulf states have shown little willingness to extend generosity to Sunni Arabs in need.

A Change is Needed

The UN’s current refugee policy offers a classic example of “fighting the last war.” Modern notions of accommodating refugees date back to Europe in the late 1940s, when the displaced masses needed only temporary help. In today’s climate, however, a refugee might linger in exile for a period of decades rather than months.

This harsh reality raises all sorts of challenges. While UNHCR camps can meet basic needs for food and shelter, they offer few opportunities for gainful employment or education. Moreover, the world economy lacks the financial capacity to support millions of refugees. Paying the rock-bottom sum of $1,000 a year to support refugees means that, over a decade, taking in a population of four million exiles would create a bill of $40 billion. 

“Globalization can be a menacing and disruptive force, but it can also be a powerful one for good.”

On an ethical level, for the international community to ignore refugees is akin to able-bodied adults declining to save a drowning child because they don’t want to get their clothes wet.

But what does providing refuge for the world’s exiles look like, practically?

Simply opening borders in Europe and the United States won’t help the poorest of the poor, who lack the resources to travel far from home. Rather, rescuing the world’s refugees calls for a multifaceted approach. First, the West must offer more resources to nations which border crisis locales. This will enable those countries to serve and protect refugees more effectively. The international community should also work to nurture and develop refugee populations’ educational and economic opportunities. This encourages self-reliance, and contribution to host nations, rather than dependency – making refugees assets, rather than burdens. 

“Our challenge has been to identify an approach that can offer rescue, autonomy and a pathway out of limbo to all refugees, while working within the constraints of the contemporary world.”

Governmental and private investment can also help post-conflict nations recover more quickly, thereby encouraging refugees to return home once peace is restored. Additionally, institutions like the UNHCR must change their methods to reflect the realities of 21st century refugee life. Through a series of regional agreements, business and governmental partnerships, and similar burden-sharing pacts, the international community has the potential create an effective approach to the problem of refuge. 

“The alternative to the politics of the ostrich is to embrace change.”


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