A boatload of Syrian and Iraqi refugees nears the Greek Island of Lesbos. The Syrian civil war highlights the global crisis involving refugees and migrants, a crisis the author believes requires a new international migration system that recognizes all types of population movement between countries. Photo: Ggia/Wikipedia Commons
A boatload of Syrian and Iraqi refugees nears the Greek Island of Lesbos. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If unaddressed, the current flow of refugees and migrants from Africa and Asia headed toward Europe might well turn into a major uncontrolled population movement for which Western governments will only have themselves to blame. And the consequences in Europe where immigration has become a domestic political issue are liable to be far reaching.

Historically refugee movements were essentially regional and
did not overflow their borders. Within this perspective, the West moved to establish an asylum regime tailored to its needs. This took the form of the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Conceived at the height of the Cold War the Convention defined a refugee as a person who had to flee his home to escape persecution for political, ethnic or religious reasons. Thus, migrants were explicitly excluded from the Convention.

During the Cold War and building on the principals of the Convention, the Western industrialized democracies set up national asylum laws focusing on individual refugee determination. But this was rarely implemented. With refugees moving from East to West and with the harsh penalties for illegal departure imposed by Communist countries, it became the practice for all Western countries to implicitly grant refugee status to anyone fleeing a Communist country. No Soviet bloc country adhered to the Convention.

Western countries control refugee policies

Over the decades the number of Convention signatories increased to reach 148 today. This number, however, does not reflect reality. Except for a handful of Western industrialized countries most of the signatories, which include practically all the African sub-Saharan countries, have neither the legal instruments nor the economic means to implement the Convention. Thus, for them, adherence is a matter of cosmetics.

The same applies to the handful of Asian signatories. Currently, these include Afghanistan, Cambodia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Yemen and the Philippines, none of which is in any position to manage a refugee influx. And as for the two major Asian signatories, China and Japan, both have their own interpretation of the Convention.

In Japan, the rejection rate for asylum seekers is 99% and in 2016 the country granted asylum to a total of 28 refugees. And while China granted asylum to some 280,000 refugees from North Vietnam in 1979 it has no asylum legislation and has delegated to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the task of assessing the occasional asylum claim made by African asylum seekers with the provision that even if the claim is valid China will not take them.

Ultimately the Convention remained a Western instrument, tailored to the political needs of the West within the framework of the Cold War.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, compounded by the revolution in communication, ease of global transportation and the enduring crises that bedevil the Third World created a global environment in which the Convention proved increasingly irrelevant.

Syrian civil war highlights refugee policy failures

The Syrian civil war is today’s dominant crisis for refugee resettlement.
In the first phase of the conflict, refugees fled to neighboring countries staying in a familiar environment. In a second phase, a sizable number spilled into Europe. Notably, none of the refugees, prior to coming to Europe, was in immediate danger. Most were in Turkey, and while their situation might have been difficult, none could claim they were either refused asylum or threatened with forcible return to Syria.

So, from the perspective of the 1951 Convention, movement to Europe was not a quest for asylum but an emigration creating a new phenomenon — namely the migrating refugee.

So, from the perspective of the 1951 Convention, movement to Europe was not a quest for asylum but an emigration creating a new phenomenon — namely the migrating refugee. Ultimately, every refugee was a migrant and every migrant had the potential of being a refugee.

Coincidentally, a second avenue for population movement to Europe has developed through Libya which essentially draws in sub-Saharan Africans but also includes an increasing number of Egyptians and North Africans for an annual total of some 180,000 at present.
Both inflows are a complex mix of refugees seeking asylum, refugees who already benefit from asylum but seek to migrate, migrants in search of better economic opportunities and finally people who, while not falling within the purview of the Refugee Convention, can claim imperative reasons for flight.

Within this perspective, the Refugee Convention, with its relatively narrow definition of “persecution” is not a realistic guideline and even less so when numbers exceed manageable proportions.
The UN estimates there are some 64.5 million displaced persons throughout the world. That only 22.5 million qualify as refugees, while 10 million are said to be stateless and 35 million are defined as “internally displaced” is only semantics. Ultimately all are uprooted.

Likewise, the potential for future movement is real but difficult to assess. The destabilization of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has created a migration corridor towards Europe that could include far more than the current 10 million Syrians displaced by the current conflict. Indeed, projected over the next 25 years, the populations of the three Middle Eastern countries that fuel the exodus is expected to increase to 147 million from a total of 93 million.

The population of sub-Saharan countries fuelling the Mediterranean route is projected to increase to two billion from one billion in the same period. Even in a best-case scenario, it is unrealistic to believe that in 25 years the countries from which the exodus originates will significantly close the gap with Europe with regards to standard of living, education, employment, rule of law and good governance and the respect of basic human rights. Thus the gap is liable to endure and with it the current push-and-pull factors, whatever the risks.

Europe’s population faces significant decline

Granted, during the same period the population of Europe is expected to decrease by some 20 million. While this reduction will be partly offset by automation in the workplace, immigration policy must be closely focused, particularly in the fields of healthcare, hospitality industry and science and technology. But its growth will not absorb the population increase occurring outside Europe.

Determining whether the inflow will be made up of migrants, asylum seekers, asylum cases who seek to migrate, or simply victims of enduring inhumanity or a combination of all of the above is increasingly becoming irrelevant. What is relevant is that the potential for movement is increasing while the absorption capacity of destination countries is not. So, it is imperative that a new formula is found, based not so much on the order that prevailed 66 years ago but on the one that will prevail 25 years from now.

From a Western perspective, a new international migration order is predicated on several realities. First, the current influx, for many Western countries, will be difficult to sustain. Not only does it not correspond to well-focused economic needs of the countries of destination but also the social costs to the destination countries are becoming excessive. Migration’s effect on the West’s identity can be debated. But uncontrolled migration is increasingly perceived as a threat to the values rooted in European societies. This carries domestic political consequences.

Second, demographic trends throughout the Third World clearly indicate that migratory pressure towards Western industrialized democracies will increase. But demographic trends are not the only explanation. The failure of the US and its allies to stabilize Afghanistan has created an ongoing crisis that forces people to leave. The same can be said about Iraq and Syria and Libya. So, by bringing down fragile states the West has, to a considerable extent, created a migration time bomb about to land on its doorstep.

Third, Western economies need migrants but not just any migrant. A system has to match migrants with the needs of those who require migrants.

Making a new displaced-population order work

Implementing a new international population displacement order will require the following:
1. Population movement should be regionalized and based on new regional regimes. This would mean that regions such as Africa, the Middle East or Latin America set up internal visa-free regimes for their citizens and, in parallel, develop an infrastructure that would facilitate inter-regional movement. Asylum and migration would occur within the framework of interlocking agreements.
2. Western countries would suspend asylum or migration requests from within their national borders. Such requests would be considered only if made from outside their borders.
3. Movement from one region to another would be an ongoing proposition but it would occur within a legal framework. Countries seeking migrants from outside their regions or willing to grant asylum to specific groups or individuals for humanitarian reasons would be free to do so. Centers where people could request asylum or the possibility to migrate would be set up in the countries of origin.
4. A mandatory return policy would be implemented, but with the necessary facilities to ensure that minimal standards would be applied.
This would entail consolidation of the four International bodies currently dealing with migrants and refugees — UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program and the Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Together these four organizations, with often overlapping functions, and which employ some 39,000 civil servants would be replaced by one UN agency for emergency population movements.

Such a reform would not necessarily require a re-thinking of the Refugee Convention, which would be left as is, but rather could be presented as a project that moves beyond the Convention. Ultimately it would supersede the current artificial distinction between “migrants” and “refugees” to focus instead on what could be termed “people on the move.”

Setting up a new international migration order would require a major diplomatic effort involving the countries of origin, of transit and of destination as well as far greater efforts to stabilize asylum/migration crisis situations before they get out of control. The initiative can only be taken by UN member states. That this has not occurred indicates that governments are essentially reactive rather than pro-active and generally fail to recognize global structural changes. As for international organizations, reflecting on the future is not their mandate nor mindset.

Based on current projections the problem can only get worse. This leaves the field open to political movements that capitalize on chaotic migration policies and present themselves as an alternative to mainstream political solutions. Within this political void, it might be time for governments to start looking at the current population displacement crisis with a focus on the future before public opinion will force them to do so.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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