Case for Overcoming the Ostrich Syndrome
Jun 20 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) – The final week of May 2016 was a grisly one. More than 700 asylum seekers and migrants died as three boats attempting to carry them to Italy sunk in the Mediterranean, and the death toll for the year crossed 2000. A week ago, Unicef reported a doubling of the number of unaccompanied children arriving as asylum seekers this year. The report also highlighted that these children are subjected to sexual violence, forced prostitution and other forms of abuse.
UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, informs that, of the 157,574 arrivals in Europe in 2016, 90 percent were from the top 10 refugee producing countries of the world — fleeing war, violence and persecution in their countries of origin, and were in need of international protection. A breakdown of the total reveals almost 90 percent of the cases were from three countries: Syria (49 percent), Afghanistan (25 percent) and Iraq (14 percent). These figures debunk the myth that most are economic migrants, who have left their own countries by choice in search of economic opportunities.
The magnitude and nature of the global refugee situation has changed considerably over the last few decades. It has become increasingly ‘protracted, politicised and complex’. This has made the task of finding a durable solution further challenging.
Evidence is replete that states are not only reluctant to uphold ethical standards of refugee protection, but also that they are actively contributing to the erosion of the principle and practice of asylum. Refugees are increasingly been seen as subjects of charity. There is little acknowledgement that the principle of non-refoulement, the cornerstone of international refugee protection, is now a provision of customary international law, binding even on states that are not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Over time, many Western states, particularly those of Europe, have introduced measures to reduce the number of individuals seeking asylum in their territory through non-arrival policies, diversion policies, an increasingly restrictive application of the 1951 Convention and a range of deterrent policies, such as detention of asylum seekers and the denial of social assistance; on the other hand, some states, like the UK, have openly advocated for dismantling of the 1951 Refugee Convention and instituting of a new international refugee regime, premised on containing of refugees within their region of origin.
This two-facedness of the western states has placed significant burden on asylum countries of the South, especially of Africa and Asia. This, in turn, has led some of the Southern countries to close off their borders to prevent arrivals, push for early and unsustainable return of asylum seekers to the country of origin and, in a few instances, forcibly expel entire refugee populations.
There is little recognition that protracted refugee situations do not remain confined to the host states of the South and have major regional and international implications. A UNHCR commissioned survey on Somali refugees has indicated that the absence of durable solutions and effective international protection in the first country of asylum is a major motive for secondary migratory movements to Europe and elsewhere.
There is a propensity in most quarters to view the refugee problem as a humanitarian problem. However, protracted refugee situations require more than humanitarian engagement. They entail meaningful and sustained engagement of peace, security and development actors. A comprehensive and holistic approach is perhaps the only way forward.
Thus while there is an urgent need to work out creative solutions to the global refugee problems, the international community appears to be hanging on to the old approach, premised on the concept of national security. This has been evident in Europe’s pursuit of Operation Sophia in dealing with the current refugee inflow. The next part of this essay will explicate how ill-conceived the strategy was.
In October 2014, Italy abandoned its ‘search and rescue’ Mare Nostrum operation that prevented mass drowning of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. This resulted in an increase in the number of deaths of migrants trying to seek asylum in the continent. The demand for re-launching of the operation was met with stiff opposition and, on April 23, 2015, the European Council adopted a British-drafted resolution vowing to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy (refugee) vessels”. This was a palpable shift from humanitarian commitments to a military solution. It is worthwhile to note that British fascist Nick Griffin made the proposal five years earlier.
The European border agency Frontex reported that since its adoption 14 vessels have been destroyed and 69 ‘suspected smugglers’ were apprehended. The strategy was modelled to impede the human smuggling syndicates and limit the opportunities for would be refugees to flee to Europe. There is a little evidence that the new strategy worked at all. In the period from September 2015 to January 2016, the marginal drop of 9 percent in the Mediterranean flow was supplemented by the opening up of the ‘Balkans route’ to Europe. In order to minimise ‘significant financial loss’, the human smugglers amended their business model and replaced expensive wooden or fibre-glass boats by cheap mass produced Chinese inflatable rubber dinghies that have less carrying capacity and are more limited by sea conditions. In addition, as the borders became more challenging to navigate, migrants turned to more sophisticated smugglers to facilitate their crossing.
All these led the UK House of Lords EU Committee to observe, “The Mission (Sophia) does not… in any meaningful way deter the flow of migrants, disrupt the smugglers’ networks, or impede the business of people smuggling on the Mediterranean route”. The House of Lords report quotes Amnesty International’s Steve Symonds that the EU’s reinforcement of external borders policing had brought about “the movement of ever larger number of people around different routes by different journeys, usually at greater danger and cost to them, and so of greater profit to smugglers”. The opening sentence of the report quoted Peter Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute, “migrants in the boat are symptoms, not causes, of the problem”.
The challenge, therefore, for the international community is to acknowledge that refugees constitute an overwhelming bulk of the flow and they are fleeing protracted conflict conditions that needs urgent political solution. Pursuing unworkable policies would only be acting like an ostrich.
Recently displaying a life jacket used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos to a group of youngsters, Pope Francis explained, “Migrants are not a danger – they are in danger”. It’s time the policy makers of Western nations paid heed to the pontiff.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He writes and researches on rights and migration issues.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh