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The rippling effect of refugee policies

The rippling effect of refugee policies

By Sara Pantuliano

In late September the UN General Assembly convened a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of “bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach”.

While there have been some encouraging commitments at last month’s separate Obama Leaders’ Summit, the UNGA meeting simply maintained the status quo, with a global compact on refugees pushed down the road to 2018. Overall, the pledges made between the two summits last month demonstrated that while richer countries are willing to make financial contributions, they continue to avoid their responsibility to offer safe routes to asylum. In the context of thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and thousands more trapped at Jordan’s border with Syria, business as usual represents an abject failure of courage and leadership in aid of the millions of people worldwide who flee their homes in search of safety and a better life. In recent decades, but most acutely since Europe’s so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, higher-income nations have increasingly rejected the international norms they themselves created in 1951. The recent deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey, under which the two sides have agreed on what amounts to a refugee swap, is just one example of the rupture of international norms, both in their letter and their spirit.

Worryingly, high-income countries’ restrictive practices are increasingly being replicated in the lower-income countries that host 85% of the world’s refugees. While domestic factors are clearly at play, our recent study traces a “ripple effect”, with developed countries influencing each other’s policies and then consciously cultivating or indirectly fostering similar approaches in lower-income states. European politicians have taken lessons from Australia’s draconian policies, and in so doing have created the impression that providing protection to people fleeing persecution is optional and subordinate to domestic priorities.

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece. Credit: Ggia, Wikimedia Commons
Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Lesbos island, Greece. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Ggia

Advances in communications technology, social media and the easy availability of international and domestic press have all played a part in ensuring that the harsh treatment of refugees in rich nations is witnessed globally. Countries like Kenya and Jordan are challenging the assumption that poorer countries will unquestioningly continue to host large numbers of refugees on behalf of the rest of the world. This May, when the Kenyan government announced the closure of the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, and the repatriation of all 260,000 Somali refugees there by November 2016, the Ministry of Interior said it was putting Kenya’s security first, stating, “We will not be the first to do so; this is the standard practice worldwide”. Responding to international pressure to open Jordan’s borders to Syrian refugees, King Abdullah told the BBC this February, “We have already taken 1.4 million people. If you are going to take the higher moral ground on this issue, we’ll get them to an airbase and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country”.

Rich countries are setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. If these countries, with stronger economies and institutions, are reluctant to meet their obligations under the Refugee Convention, it is hard to see what incentive there is for poorer countries to do so. At best, restrictions in developed countries send a clear message that there is one rule for them and another for the rest. At worst, they indicate that international obligations towards refugees simply no longer hold – either way tilting the balance towards restriction. If this trend continues there will be fewer and fewer places where refugees can go to seek protection.

In addition to the devastating human cost exacted by these policies, more restrictive measures may actually prove short-sighted. As policies in lower-income countries tighten, it is reasonable to assume that, in the long term, some of the people currently contained regionally will try to move onwards to Europe despite the dangers and difficulties this entails. People won’t stop looking for a chance to live in dignity and safety just because rich nations would prefer them not to.

There is still an opportunity to reverse this dangerous trajectory. Strategies aimed at deterring refugees are proving increasingly costly and ineffective. Rich countries would be better placed trying to promote positive emulation of good practices, such as Germany’s significant investment in refugee integration, the provision of safe pathways to asylum in Brazil, which since 2013 has issued 9,000 humanitarian visas to refugees fleeing Syria, or Canada’s private sponsorship arrangements, which between November 2015 and September 2016 resettled over 11,000 Syrians.

Whilst today it is common in Europe to talk about a “refugee crisis”, what Europe and other countries are in fact experiencing is a crisis of solidarity and of the very values that led to the drafting of the Refugee Convention in 1951. It is time for developed countries to rekindle the spirit that ushered in the Convention in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War, and prevent the negative effects of their current policies from spreading any further.


Sara Pantuliano is Managing Director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent think tank based in the UK. She is an expert in conflict and post-conflict contexts and a recognised public speaker on humanitarian issues. She is also Managing Editor of the journal Disasters, and the Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Risk and Resilience.

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