In part one of this post, I outlined the truly global nature of the refugee crisis, showing that rather than being concentrated in Europe, it stretches far and wide, across continents and cultures, generating intense human suffering on a tremendous scale.
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So what can be done to ensure the millions of currently displaced people do not continue to suffer the protracted inhumanity of refugee camps? First, a couple of concessions. The purpose of this post is not to establish a fool proof step by step guide to solving the global crisis. This would require the space of at least a long book, not a short blog post. Rather, it makes the less outlandishly ambitious, but perhaps ever so slightly more achievable, attempt to discuss how the situation could be improved.
The crisis appears to be so deeply and complexly embedded in the current world order, and world leaders seem so utterly incapable of devising a cohesive global response, that the temptation for fatalism in this arena is almost irresistible. Yet, as I shall outline below, there are examples of solutions to past crises, and indeed current ones too, that suggest positive change is possible.
Generally speaking, an international agreement based on collective responsibility is required. Within this, there must be broad based recognition in the Western world that the crisis cannot be kept out by fences, whether physical or legal. And so a movement in thought is required, away from trying to push the crisis out of the Western world and towards each nation agreeing to take collective ownership for what is truly a global crisis; away from national interest and towards global cooperation. The challenge lies in how to make this a reality.
University of Oxford academic Alexander Betts looks for insights from the case of thousands of Indochinese boat people after the Vietnam War. In this case, host states, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, refused entry to refugees, leaving many to drown. As Betts points out, after an international outcry, the host states agreed to receive the boat people, under the UNHCR’s Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP). Crucially, this rested on the commitment of a coalition of Western governments to resettle those deemed to be refugees. Thus, a solution was found, through international cooperation, with Western nations recognising their duty to play a fair and proportional role in resettlement. There was political will on the part of Western nations, partly engendered by powerful images of people drowning in the sea, to take serious steps to deal with the crisis, not to push it away and ignore it. Betts also uses this example to quite rightly expose the futility of the current European strategy to focus efforts on a ‘war on trafficking’.
However, while this case demonstrates the successful outcomes that can flow from international cooperation, the current crisis deals in millions, not thousands, and so the political feasibility of a CAP is much less likely. Could the recent Paris COP21 climate change agreement prove more useful? There are important parallels between the current refugee crisis and climate change: both are global issues, but affect the developing world more than the developed world; both (climate change more so in the past and the refugee crisis presently) have suffered from debilitating apathy and a prevailing sense that they could be ignored; and both require a cohesive international strategy with developed nations agreeing to play a prominent role.
For all its faults, the Paris agreement is unquestionably global in nature, with 171 countries having signed up in New York City on Earth Day earlier this year. What’s more, a significant aspect of the agreement is that developed countries recognised their duty to shoulder the majority of the burden of the response, partly shown by their agreement to jointly raise $100 billion per year to help developing countries cope with climate change. Therefore, while wholly acknowledging both that this is far from a perfect comparison and the Paris agreement is far from a perfect response, as an important example of global cooperation there are insights for dealing with refugee resettlement to be gained here. Firstly, in terms of how we shift thinking from the parochial to the global and thus make international cooperation possible. Secondly, in terms of how Western governments can come to recognise and acknowledge their duty to take the lead and shoulder their fair share of the burden.
The process from abject failure at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 to large scale agreement in Paris is important. It serves as a key reminder that the fatalism regarding multilateralism that followed the failure in Denmark can be overcome. It also shows that context is important. Copenhagen took place in a climate of global recession, with countries understandably reluctant to add further risk to frail economies. The Paris negotiations, however, played out under slightly more favourable economic circumstances, with a climate of solidarity and fraternité following the terrorist attacks on the city.
More importantly, the Paris negotiations saw the largest ever gathering of world leaders, who came with clear political will for a resolution. This political will to combat climate change was possible after a long (and continuing) process of broad based acceptance that the crisis could not be kept out, with an academic consensus on the perils of climate change finally permeating into public and then political thinking. People began to believe that climate change was important for them and this translated into political will.
The broad based support needed for political leaders to sacrifice national interest in order to resolve global crises is strikingly abundant for climate change, but, sadly, not for the refugee crisis. The alarming growth of right wing nationalism and isolationism prevalent throughout the developed world, of which Brexit is just one manifestation, is clearly not conducive to developing an effective international resolution on refugee resettlement. An international mind-set on issues pertaining to the movement of people across borders is needed, but if Brexit shows nothing else, it is that many ordinary citizens feel like they have nothing to gain from such an approach. The political will in the West to shoulder the majority of the burden will always be absent while this remains the case. To counter this rejection of internationalism and engender the broad based support required for a Paris type refugee agreement, inclusive policies are needed so that the victims of globalisation feel positively engaged in this type of international approach.
So far this has been a discussion primarily of how to deal with the symptoms, rather than resolve the causes, of the crisis. The global refugee crisis is being caused by persistent conflict and violence across the world, particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East, and it is these conflicts that need to be resolved if the flow of refugees is to be stemmed. Ultimately, as long as there is war, instability and huge disparities in living standards, there will be refugees on a global scale, meaning effective resettlement schemes – vital as they are for dealing with the symptoms – can only ever form part of the answer.
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