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Age of Migration: Refugees as Living Laboratories

In this second part of our ‘This Age of Migration’ series, commentator Paul Currion argues that European governments, private enterprises and civic groups creating new ‘innovations’ to aid refugees should get the consent and participation of refugees themselves.

Written by Paul Currion Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A woman and child walk through a muddy field during a heavy rainstorm at a makeshift camp in the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, Sunday, April 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Hungary erects physical barriers to entry, Denmark and Germany confiscate refugees’ assets, Bulgarians hunt migrants like animals, NATO deploys warships to turn back refugees. Every week brings reports of a new policy being tried out in an attempt to bring down the number of refugees traveling to Europe. These policies appear as pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle – except nobody knows what the final image is supposed to look like.

The result is likely to be a picture nobody likes the look of. It is blindingly obvious that none of these “innovative” policies would ever be applied to native citizens without considerable opposition. As I mention in the first article of this series, displaced people are seen as fair game for experimentation in a way that citizens are not.

The truth is that displaced people rarely have any voice in nation states. A simple glance through history reveals that similarly marginal groups have frequently been subject to experiments, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in the U.S., the forced adoption of indigenous Australian children and the forced sterilization of African women.

It’s obviously not fair to compare well-intentioned architects who propose innovative refugee shelters or technology hubs that host “refugee hackathons,” to these horrific episodes in history. Yet they form part of a pattern in which refugees themselves have little say or influence in their creation of policies touted as being in the best interests of refugees.

The E.U.’s ongoing policy catastrophe fits this pattern perfectly well. To paraphrase Bruce Schneier, this is “policy theater.” These experiments are just the new clothes and our political actors the emperors who are wearing them. So asking whether or not they produce visible change is actively discouraged, in case it might reveal inconvenient truths.

Take, for example, the news that the number of asylum seekers in Germany has dropped since the borders closed along the western Balkan route. It might appear that the E.U.’s experiments have finally hit on a policy that will bring down the number of refugees. It’s an illusion – the numbers arriving by sea in 2016 have been higher than 2015 – and one that can be maintained only by treating Greece as a giant refugee camp.

Evidence was never the basis of this policy. Essentially, the E.U. is exporting the refugee crisis back to the areas that produced the refugees in the first place. By putting refugees out of sight of the European public through warehousing them in closed and remote centers, the E.U. and its governments hope to alleviate growing domestic political pressures.

This is nothing new. Other countries have periodically pursued similar policies of exclusion and expulsion, from Cambodian refugees expelled from Thailand in 1979 to the Tanzanian government’s clearance of Rwandan refugee camps in 1996, to 2015’s Pakistani policy shift that saw thousands of Afghan refugees walking across the border.

What is new is that Europe, the continent that considers itself the cradle of human rights, now pursues this not as a temporary measure, but as a precedent that other countries will feel comfortable in following. This is disruptive innovation on the geopolitical scale, as policymakers replace existing international commitments with hastily scaffolded national policies.

In their deal with Turkey, for example, the E.U. appears to have given up on one of the basic tenets of refugee law. The 1951 Refugee Convention clearly explains this principle of non-refoulement: “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”

The European Commission claimed that “Only asylum seekers that will be protected … in respect of the principle of non-refoulement will be returned to Turkey,” but Amnesty International claims that they “have wilfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.” This is not entirely surprising. By 2013 a European Parliament Briefing Paper on international refugee law identified a “gap between UNCHR guidelines and E.U. standards.”

That paper found that, while the E.U. pursued “an overall protection goal,” it failed to make that protection accessible, “either through indiscriminate border and migration controls deployed extraterritorially that block prospective beneficiaries en route or through the operation of procedural devices … that push responsibility away from the Member States.” If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a fairly accurate description of the current agreement with Turkey. The experiments continue.

The problem does not lie with the principle of experimentation. We need experiments to establish which policies yield the best results. The problem is the principle of consent – the ethics behind the experiments – and the need to include the displaced people themselves in the design and implementation of policies in order for them to be both successful and equitable. It’s a difficult line that we walk: We clearly need better policies, but too easily we overstep that line, treating refugees as guinea pigs in the policy laboratory.

A sensible first step for governments – for all of us – would be treating them as human beings instead.

“This Age of Migration” is our commentary series that reflects on some of the currents running beneath the crisis, from border fences and biometrics to the role of innovation and the rhetoric of invasion.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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