We’ve Been Here Before

We’ve failed our global refugee population before. But we’ve also seen the kind of bold leadership that was sorely lacking at this week’s UN high-level meeting.

By Peter Gatrell

Tagged Barack ObamarefugeesUnited Nations

The “refugee crisis” still reverberating across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa is perhaps best understood as a deep-rooted failure of international cooperation. Monday’s high-level UN meeting on refugees was meant to rectify this glaring lack of concerted global action. Indeed, world leaders promptly announced the approval of a declaration that would provide a more “humane and coordinated approach,” with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailing the plan a “breakthrough.”

Unfortunately, to those looking more closely, what Monday’s meeting did was actually provide abundant evidence that government leaders have nothing of any real substance to offer in terms of protecting the world’s refugees. For example, the plan does not put forth any substantive pledges and is not legally binding. In order to gain approval, it was substantially watered down from its original form. And although President Obama’s speech on Tuesday may have provided a more concrete strategy (he agreed to admit 110,000 refugees to the United States in 2017), it’s unlikely that in our current political climate this proposal could ever come to fruition.

This is perhaps of little wonder, though, since, after all, these steps were taken against a backdrop of diminishing public trust in political institutions, and in the face of public opinion that has been consistently drip-fed stories of “bogus” asylum seekers who harbor a substantial “threat” to public security. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for its part, has been unable to influence policy to date in any important way, further reinforcing perceptions of government intransigence and absent political vision.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that we have been here before. To the extent that the current refugee crisis is the outcome of “regime change” in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, it is useful to look back at other such cases that have come at critical junctions in history. Such historical examples illustrate the real potential (but also the limitations) for renewed cooperation.

One of the first such episodes resulted from the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and the murderous conflict in Anatolia. These upheavals drove several million Russians and Armenians into exile in continental Europe, as well as parts of the Middle East (including Syria), and China. Member states of the then newly established League of Nations offered only limited protection, enough to prevent the forced return of asylum seekers to their country of origin against their will. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, devised a document (the “Nansen passport”) enabling refugees to travel abroad to look for work. However, Nansen’s office lacked a mandate (or the capacity) to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states, and, in practice, much of his day-to-day support came from non-governmental organizations. In this particular case, Russian refugees were often lucky enough to be able to trade on their opposition to Bolshevism, while Armenian refugees could present themselves as “Christian victims of Muslim oppression,” giving them a minimum of political clout; their situation was not hopeless.

Regime change in Germany in 1933 likewise affronted Western democracies, but their response to the Nazi persecution of German Jews was far less purposeful or effective. This was partly due to prolonged economic depression, but also to a catastrophic failure to anticipate Hitler’s murderous intent. The most glaring illustration of this was a conference in Evian in 1938 that failed to deliver any real support to Jews who were trying to secure safe passage out of Germany. Nevertheless, a (false) mythology has grown up around the so-called “generosity” of Western states during this period.

The aftermath of World War II brought about another burst of mass population displacement. In addition to the upheavals in Europe—the repatriation of forced laborers from defeated Nazi Germany, organized population expulsions (mainly of ethnic Germans from east-central Europe)—this can be attributed to the partition of India, the creation of the state of Israel, and the communist victory in China. As European colonial possessions gained their independence, the world’s refugee population multiplied still further.

Partly because they had begun to realize the full scale of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, but mainly as a result of the rapidly escalating Cold War, democratic states agreed on a Refugee Convention in 1951 that committed its signatories not to deport refugees against their will (the doctrine of non-refoulement). According to the Convention, a refugee was an individual who could establish a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group.” But it applied only to refugees who could demonstrate that their persecution was caused by events occurring in Europe before January 1951, a device whose purpose was to target past and present victims of totalitarian rule, not to write a “blank cheque”; the Convention was far from universal.

Progressively minded international lawyers and astute NGO workers acknowledged from the outset that the UN Refugee Convention, although a significant diplomatic achievement that re-introduced travel documents for recognized refugees, fell far short of their ideals. Most of them favored not only giving refugees the right to claim asylum, but also affording them the same rights as the citizens of the country to which they had fled. Unfortunately, this utopian moment quickly foundered on the rock of state obstinacy.

Neither was there, at this point, any expectation that UNHCR would involve itself in future refugee crises. Nevertheless, it managed to extend its mandate informally by means of its “good offices” formula, as well as formally through the 1967 Protocol. UNHCR continued to be backed by Western governments that found it useful to support victims of communist persecution. Where refugees had political capital, as they did in Hungary in 1956 and later on in Vietnam, it was relatively easy to be granted asylum—with the emphasis on relatively.

Although today many of the world’s refugees are formally protected under the terms agreed to in 1951 and 1967, millions of displaced people fall outside this regime. It is difficult to see how this situation can be rectified, given that states cannot even agree on how to “share the burden” of those who are currently recognized as “refugees” under international law. And for those lucky enough to be afforded this status, there is a constant struggle to remain in the spotlight; the attention of the world’s media (and of public opinion) in more conflict-free societies usually zeroes in on only one part of the world at a time, leaving the plight of refugees in Sudan, in the Western Sahara, in Myanmar, and elsewhere (including Palestinian refugees) off the international radar.

For these reasons, it is worth recalling how the predicament of refugees caught the public imagination in the aftermath of the two world wars. Despite its limitations, and evidently because of the Cold War context, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention signalled the kind of creative thinking and bold leadership that is sorely lacking today. But the impetus provided by Cold War rivalries vanished after 1989, and the global crisis of capitalism has helped foster a beggar-thy-neighbor attitude toward refugees in the ensuing years.

Countries that repeatedly, and misleadingly, make claims of historic “generosity” are simply encouraging politicians and members of the public to proclaim that it is now someone else’s turn. It is therefore worth asking: Who—in these divisive circumstances—will stand up for displaced people and make the political case for providing not only legal recognition, but also the kind of social protection that will enable refugees to live the secure, decent, and fulfilling lives to which they should, by simple virtue of their shared humanity, be entitled? After this week, and despite President Obama’s call for a “course correction,” we are still no closer to finding an answer to this question.

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Peter Gatrell teaches history at the University of Manchester where he is affiliated to the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. He is the author most recently of The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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