Paul Frijters’ fascinating post analysing Turkey’s successful employment of ruthless realpolitik tactics is fairly depressing. But maybe there’s some qualified good news hidden amongst all the cynical manoeuvres. Reported arrangements between the EU and Turkey for dealing with the massive numbers of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers currently flooding into Europe might form part of a viable and humane new international refugee treaty to replace the current badly broken Refugee Convention 1951.
There is fairly general agreement among human rights experts that the Refugee Convention is a deeply flawed document. The main reason it hasn’t been scrapped is that the general belief until now is that in the realpolitik world of the early 21st century any agreement capable of achieving widespread international acceptance would almost certainly be much weaker and less humane.
The problems inherent in the current Refugee Convention are fairly obvious, if seldom discussed in the mainstream media. It covers only a small proportion of people fleeing their home country in genuine fear of their lives, and creates perverse incentives for both asylum seekers and destination countries to game the system.
The Convention was negotiated in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and therefore was understandably focused strongly on the plight of Jews fleeing from the Nazis (and similar situations). Consequently, only people who have a genuine and well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, ethnicity, religion, political persuasion, or “membership of a particular social group” (which picks up inter alia LGBTI asylum seekers) are “refugees” within the meaning of the Convention. They are the only ones forbidden by the Convention to be “refouled” to their home country by signatory nations. People simply fleeing flood, drought, famine, civil war and a range of other life-threatening situations are not “refugees” under the Convention and have no right to asylum under international law, even though their plight may be just as hopeless and life threatening as those lucky enough to fit within the Convention definition.
As a result, significant numbers of these people “game” the system by fabricating or radically exaggerating stories of political, racial or religious persecution in their home country, stories which will often be impossible to investigate or verify because of the violence, chaos, dysfunction and/or corruption that is endemic in the source countries generating the great bulk of asylum seekers. It is neither surprising nor reprehensible that desperate people, in fear for their own and their children’s lives or basic welfare for whatever reason, will do just about anything to reach a safe, reasonably prosperous country where they can stay and build new lives.
Equally, given that there are at least 50 million displaced people around the world looking for a new home at any given moment, it is hardly surprising that the more desirable destination nations (e.g. Australia) have increasingly resorted to “gaming” the system themselves by employing dubiously legal and manifestly immoral measures to reduce the number of refugees/asylum seekers reaching their shores.
The Convention only obliges signatory nations to do anything to provide protection where an asylum seeker actually reaches their country (by whatever means), and where they haven’t arrived via another country that is a signatory or otherwise offers “durable protection”. As a result, Australia has adopted boat turnback strategies, on-water secrecy measures and redefined its borders for migration purposes to exclude/excise its entire shoreline and offshore islands. As far as we can tell, given on-water secrecy, very few asylum seekers have actually managed to reach shore anyway since these measures were re-enacted by the Rudd and then Abbott governments. The few who do are sent to punitive gulags on Manus Island or Nauru for processing with no right or hope of ever being allowed to settle in Australia.
Australia’s gaming of the Convention system is arguably more extreme than any other advanced country, but by no means unique. The US long had (and possibly still has) a quite ruthless boat turnback/non-rescue policy towards Cuban asylum seekers, and Donald Trump’s Great Wall of Mexico is only a more extreme version of longstanding if dubiously effective measures designed to prevent irregular Mexican migration into Texas, New Mexico and southern California. Italy also had a ruthless boat turnback policy under the Berlusconi government, as well as an agreement with the Libyan government of dictator Muammar Gaddafi to do whatever it took to disrupt and prevent people smuggling across the Mediterranean from that country.
It appears that the emergency provoked by the Syria/Iraq war, with literally millions currently flooding across Europe’s borders, has now resulted in the EU jettisoning (or at least sidestepping) its previous vaguely humane approach under the Dublin and Schengen Agreements in favour of a boat turnback policy every bit as ruthless as that of Australia and the US, together with an offshore warehousing/processing solution brokered with Turkey. Apparently Turkey will co-operate with the EU’s naval blockade/boat turnback policy between Turkey and Greece, by accepting the return of asylum seekers to Turkish territory in return for billions of dollars to allow appropriate refugee camps to be established and operated.
The deal sounds cynical and it is. But it could potentially form the basis of a humane and sustainable worldwide “burden-sharing” solution for people displaced from their homelands for whatever reason (other than pure “economic migrants”) to replace the manifestly unsustainable Refugee Convention 1951. All countries of first asylum (countries adjacent to those generating flows of refugees) could be offered similar deals, whereby like Turkey they would agree to accept return to their country of asylum seekers who have attempted irregular onwards migration to a more distant first world destination.
Under such a system first world nations could lawfully refuse to accept any asylum seekers reaching their shores where it is feasible to return them to a participating country of first asylum. In return, participating countries of first asylum would receive billions of dollars from first world countries (who would be required to make binding financial commitments to contribute rateably by an agreed formula) to establish and maintain humane refugee centres with decent housing and facilities including good health care and education. Such centres generate employment and other economic opportunities for the citizens of those countries, which is no doubt why Turkey (not to mention Nauru and PNG) is willing to agree to the deal. Other benefits that could be offered to participating countries of first asylum might include preferential trade arrangements and priority access of their citizens to guest worker schemes in wealthier countries (e.g. Australian 457 visas).
The scheme would also need to include human as well as financial burden-sharing on the part of first world countries. Those first world nations who could sensibly take significant numbers of “refugees” needing permanent resettlement (as opposed to those who can reasonably be required to go home once the crisis in their homeland has passed or reached tolerable proportions) would make commitments to take agreeed numbers each year, in return for a commensurate reduction in their financial commitment. Countries like Australia, the US and Canada could certainly commit to taking 25-30,000 permanent resettlement refugees each year, and all or most EU countries might be expected to agree to take (say) 10,000 per year each. New Zealand and some more prosperous Asian and South American nations might also agree to take a lesser but useful number each year. It isn’t unreasonable to envisage that worldwide commitments by reasonably prosperous nations to accept around 500,000 refugees in total each year might be achievable. That should be sufficient over time to accommodate all those in genuine need of permanent resettlement.
I’m not suggesting that achieving international agreement for this sort of radically restructured world refugee convention would be quick or easy. But if you accept (as I do) that the current Refugee Convention is now completely unserviceable and irrevocably broken beyond repair, and that effectively open borders are not a tolerable alternative, then what choice is there?