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A Troubling Tradition of Excluding Refugees

Jeff Crisp at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre traces historical reluctance to admit refugees – from the U.K.’s rejection of Tamil refugees to Australia’s “Pacific Solution” that deters migration.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil children play outside their shelter at a resettled village in the former administrative capital of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka. AP/Eranga Jayawardena

Since it was first announced in March, a great deal has been written about the E.U.–Turkey refugee deal, with some commentators suggesting that the proposed arrangement represents a new turn in European asylum policy. In fact, it is simply the latest episode in a long-standing effort on the part of E.U. members and other industrialized states to curtail and manage the arrival of asylum seekers.

In February 1987, a group of Tamils arrived in the U.K. from war-torn Sri Lanka and attempted to seek asylum at Heathrow Airport. They were refused permission to do so, and attempts were quickly made to force them onto an aeroplane and remove them from the country. Twelve of the asylum seekers decided to resist, and, in a highly publicized demonstration, stripped down to their underpants and sat on the freezing tarmac, refusing to move.

The government’s response to this incident was speedy. Two months later, legislation was introduced to impose steep financial penalties on any airline or other carrier that brought foreign nationals into the U.K. without the necessary documentation. Setting out the case for the new law, a government minister said that the U.K.’s system of immigration control was under serious threat and that immediate action therefore had to be taken. “If we allow people to flout the visa or other requirements,” he said, “our control will quickly be overwhelmed. We cannot afford to ignore such abuse.”

In fact, the scale of that so-called abuse was grossly exaggerated. In 1986, the U.K. received just 4,266 asylum applications, while the refugee recognition rate for that year stood at no less than 78 percent.

Restrictive Practices

From that time onward, there was a steady rise in the number of asylum applications being submitted in the world’s more prosperous countries. Their response was to introduce a succession of measures designed to curtail that movement.

They included new visa requirements and pre-boarding documentation checks; sanctions on airlines and other transport companies carrying people without the requisite papers; the increased fortification of land borders; interception and interdiction at sea; the apprehension and prosecution of human smugglers; the introduction of concepts such as “safe country of origin,” “safe third country” and “internal flight alternative”; fast-track asylum procedures for so-called “manifestly unfounded cases”; the detention of asylum seekers and the imposition of restrictions on their right to work, social welfare benefits and legal aid.

In addition to the introduction of such restrictive measures, the industrialized states have been looking very hard for alternative ways to curtail the arrival of asylum seekers. Three are particularly pertinent to the negotiated deal between the E.U. and Turkey.

Safe Zones

The first is the establishment of “safe zones” in countries of origin – zones that limit the need and ability of people to seek asylum in other states. The second is that of “migration management” agreements, usually involving cooperation between the industrialized states and less prosperous countries in the same region. The third is that of legitimizing state strategies by securing the involvement of UNHCR, IOM and other international organizations. The following sections of this article examine the issues that these strategies raise in relation to the E.U.–Turkey deal.

While international attention has focused on the “one for one” refugee return and resettlement agreement provisionally agreed upon by the E.U. and Turkey, there is another and relatively neglected component of that accord. And that is to be found in the E.U.’s commitment (in the words of the official communique) “to work with Turkey in any joint endeavour to improve humanitarian conditions inside Syria which would allow for the local population and refugees to live in areas which will be more safe.”

Three observations need to be made with respect to this element of the deal. First, it is an extremely vague proposal, with no details provided as to how humanitarian conditions will be improved inside Syria given the ongoing conflict in that country, or how the situation inside the north of the country will be made safer for displaced people and local populations. Second, the communique says nothing about the right of Syrians to leave their country of origin and to take refuge in Turkey – an important omission in view of the fact that around 75,000 displaced Syrians have now congregated in the border area and are being prevented from crossing into Turkey.

Third, the whole notion of safe zones in countries of origin has a generally dismal history. While the 1949 Geneva Conventions allow for the creation of hospital zones, neutralized zones and demilitarized zones in situations of armed conflict, such arrangements require consent between the belligerents and depend on complete demilitarization. Those safe zones that have been established since that time have clearly not met these conditions. In Bosnia in 1995, U.N. troops stood by as Serbian forces overran the safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa and committed terrible atrocities there. In Rwanda in 1994, the safe area established by France provided a refuge for the very people who had organized the genocide.

The one relatively successful safe area, established in northern Iraq in 1991 to halt a Kurdish refugee influx into southern Turkey, prevented the Kurds from exercising their right to seek asylum, required a massive military presence (a no-fly zone and the deployment of 20,000 NATO troops) and was underpinned by an agreement between the U.N. and the Iraqi government. While Turkey’s current desire to establish some kind of safe zone in northern Syria is understandable from a geopolitical perspective, it is highly questionable on humanitarian grounds as to whether this model should or even could be repeated.

Migration Management

In terms of the strategy of migration management, there have been a number of recent arrangements that seek to limit the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers in the territory of prosperous states, by means of deals with less developed states in the same region. Australia’s so-called “Pacific Solution” provides one example. The migration agreement signed between Libya and Italy in 2011 provides another. A third example is to be found in the proposals that have been made by several E.U. politicians for asylum seekers to have their claims to refugee status assessed in North Africa, with countries in that region imposing strict controls on their ability to cross the Mediterranean. The proposed E.U.–Turkey agreement provides the most recent example of this phenomenon.

But all four of these examples raise serious issues. Are they legal under international law? Are they ethical in terms of outsourcing the refugee problem to developing countries that are already hosting the vast majority of the world’s exiled populations? And are they operationally viable? The proposed E.U.–Turkey deal envisages the involuntary return to Turkey of any refugee arriving in Greece. But will people who have undertaken very difficult, dangerous and expensive journeys to that country simply acquiesce in their deportation?

International Organizations

A final strategy employed by the E.U. and other industrialized states has been to secure the participation of international bodies such as the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in their efforts to curtail the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers. We should not be surprised about the eagerness of E.U. members to involve such organizations, given the competence and capacity they bring to refugee situations, and, more significantly, the legitimacy they can offer to contentious and possibly illegal state practices.

And this is exactly what has happened in the past. Despite its initial reservations, for example, UNHCR played a central role in supporting the establishment of the northern Iraq safe zone, while IOM has been active in several aspects of Australia’s Pacific Solution.

An important question now is whether UNHCR will agree to an involvement in the E.U.–Turkey deal, especially in its resettlement component, the size of which will be based on the number of involuntary returns from Greece and the Aegean Sea. As yet, the organization’s position remains unclear. UNHCR has emphasized that it is not a party to the deal, has expressed concern about any arrangement that involves the blanket return of all individuals from one country to another and has ruled out any participation in detentions and forced removals.

But UNHCR will also find it very difficult to reject the agreement in its entirety, not least because of the need to maintain a good relationship with Turkey, which is hosting a larger number of Syrian refugees than any other country in the region, and because E.U. and NATO member states provide around 75 percent of the organization’s funding.

According to a recent article in the Financial Times, UNHCR has said that it would play its part in resettling refugees from Turkey to the E.U., despite the concerns that it has expressed about the agreement to return new arrivals from Greece. Justifying such an involvement, a UNHCR spokesperson told the newspaper, “resettlement should not be conditional on external factors, and the protection needs of the individual remain the priority.”

This article originally appeared on Look Up and has been republished with permission.

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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