Each year, the 20th of June is the United Nations World Refugee Day. We are currently in the grip of a global refugee crisis, and its causes and the responses to it are complex, involving a myriad of national governments, international treaty organisations, charities, NGO’s, non-state actors and criminal groups. This makes it a fascinating subject for a politics or international relations student.
Over the past couple of years, refugees have featured heavily in the news, especially in Europe. Many of these have been driven to attempt to cross over into EU countries by sea, giving people traffickers all their savings to crowd into inflatable rafts and dilapidated boats with hardly any safety equipment. Tragically, many of these capsize and sink, and in 2016 it was estimated that at least 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
According to a UNHCR report in 2016, there are now more displaced people in the world than at any time in history, including after World War 2. By the end of 2015, 65.3 million people – one out of every 113 humans alive today – were displaced; meaning either “an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.”
A refugee is defined specifically as someone who has been forced to flee their own country, and is unable to return due to the risk of violence or severe human rights violations. Many of these refugees have been driven from their homes during conflicts which have ravaged the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of the 21st century, from Afghanistan to South Sudan. The recent uptick in refugees can be attributed at least partly to wars and instability following the Arab Spring in 2011, with major conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Mali. Just three countries account for 54% of the world’s refugees: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The war in Syria has had a particularly devastating impact upon the country’s social fabric. Out of a population of 22 million, five million have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, while 1.2 million people have fled to Europe. Another 6.3 million people are internally displaced within Syria’s borders. This means half of all Syria’s people have been forced to abandon their homes.
This has put considerable strain upon Syria’s neighbours. Tiny Lebanon, smaller than the English county of Yorkshire, with a pre-war population of 4.5 million, is now home to over a million Syrian refugees, making up 1 in 5 of the country’s current population. Turkey hosts up to three million, many of whom live in camps near the border.
Many countries have been roundly criticised for not doing enough to help refugees. Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the region, pledged $200m in aid for Syria for 2016 but only committed to $27.9m. Ireland actually paid the same amount, despite pledging less. China, the world’s second largest economy, promised just $35m, but only actually paid $3m, less than the contribution of Estonia, which has an economy 0.21% the size of China’s. The UK, by contrast, gave $741m. By September of 2015, the UNHCR announced it had received just 37% of its funding requirements for that year, demonstrating that the world is consistently failing to provide the financial support vulnerable Syrians need, with the US, UK, Canada and a few other western countries paying the largest share.
The response in terms of giving refugees a safe haven has also varied immensely. Millions of refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and hundreds of thousands have applied for asylum in Europe, especially in Germany, with over 100,000 asylum applications since the crisis began. However, the wealthy Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have not accepted a single Syrian refugee. Kuwait also hasn’t taken in any Syrians, but has contributed by far the biggest share of its GDP in aid. Despite their considerable financial contributions, the US and UK have also declined to take many refugees, as have many other European countries, despite pressure from the EU to share numbers out more evenly. Between 2011 and 2015, the UK granted asylum to just 4,200 Syrians.
This is just one of the world’s refugee crises, and despite its heavy news coverage, people fleeing the conflict have been consistently failed by the international community. This is far from a new phenomenon, and it usually falls on the world’s poorest countries to bear the burden of hundreds of thousands of displaced people within their borders; many of which also have poor human rights records and an unstable government.
It would of course be very helpful for many countries to contribute much more towards resettling refugees and giving aid. However, aid money to support refugees doesn’t address the root causes of the problems.
Armed conflict, famine, extreme poverty and natural disasters all drive people to flee their countries. Most of these problems could be at least partly addressed with increased, targeted development aid. Corruption must also be held partly accountable for the problems in many developing countries, with the benefits of economic growth and foreign aid siphoned off into the bank accounts of local officials and government ministers instead of helping improve the services and infrastructure that people need for economic development and self-sufficiency. Economic stagnation, high population growth, a major famine, lack of social and economic opportunity and corruption, combined with an authoritarian political system unresponsive to demands for reform, were all triggers for the war in Syria.
Armed conflict is an even trickier problem to solve than famine or economic crisis. Liberal internationalists argue that capable countries should intervene militarily to uphold human rights and prevent war crimes. They believe that conflicts where there were persistent and large-scale rights violations like the Darfur conflict, the Rwandan genocide and the Syrian civil war could, and should, have been stopped by decisive foreign intervention. By bringing conflicts to a swift end or protecting civilians, less people would be driven to flee their country.
This would preferably happen via the United Nations, with either a Security Council resolution authorising armed force, or a fully fledged UN mission. In practise, this ‘liberal interventionism’ had its heyday in the 1990s, with NATO’s intervention in Bosnia and their 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia (without a UN resolution) during the Kosovo war. Another ostensibly similar Western intervention took place in 2011 during the Libyan revolution, when NATO airplanes intervened to protect Benghazi from advancing regime forces; however, they in effect became the rebel’s air force and helped to depose Colonel Gaddafi.
The Libyan case clearly demonstrates the limits of air power as a foreign policy tool, as without a ground force provided by NATO or the UN to stabilise the country, it has degenerated into a violent, unstable failed state. Libya is now a key transit point for refugees and economic migrants towards Europe, and has also become a haven for extremist groups. Furthermore, many have argued that intervening in Libya for humanitarian reasons was nothing but a fig-leaf for military action taken out of self-interest. Some argue this is and has always been the case. This argument is essentially what is known in international relations theory as the ‘realist’ position; that governments act out of rational self interest, and will only act if it is in their interest to do so, whatever motivations they claim. This realist position is the dominant theory of international relations.
If this theory is correct, its little wonder many states are reluctant to do more to solve conflicts overseas or help refugees. Only once the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of taking action will states feel compelled to do so. Viewed through this prism, it’s easy to see why, for example, some Asian countries, so remote from the wars in the Middle East, feel no need to contribute more than token sums for Syrian refugees.
While some politicians once clamoured for the United States to intervene in the Syrian civil war to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, particularly following the use of chemical weapons in 2012, it can be argued that, along with little public appetite for participating in more Middle Eastern conflicts following the Iraq war, it simply wasn’t in their interest to do so: Syria has few significant natural resources and isn’t strategically important enough to the USA to justify the billions of dollars and thousands of American casualties that would be required to occupy the country. The US has instead taken more limited action against ISIS, and struck a Syrian government airbase in April 2017 as a reprisal for an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians.
While realism has arguably always been the prime driver of state foreign policy throughout the 20th and early 21st century, there was nonetheless a liberal consensus after the Second World War which created the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite being hampered by a lack of unity in the Security Council, and at times the hostility of many countries including the US, UN institutions have consistently served as a voice in favour of human rights and the protection of vulnerable people, with UN peacekeepers deployed on numerous missions around the world.
But is this consensus coming to an end? There can be little doubt that the global balance of power is shifting. Will the major powers of the future be interested in protecting human rights and refugees? Perhaps the responsibility falls on the public to pressure governments take more action to help solve humanitarian crises. The internet and social media have given citizens around the world powerful ways to network across borders and take collective action, but today, there seems to be relatively little appetite for this. Will this change?
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