The Refugee ‘Crisis’ – What Happened to ‘Never Again’?

If ever there was a topic that denoted the very clear line between theory and practice, it would be the refugee ‘crisis’ currenting ‘plaguing’ Europe.

First of all, let us all be clear on what a crisis really is. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a time of intense difficulty or danger.” This usually necessitates “a difficult or important decision” to be made. Now, yes, the refugees arriving on Europe’s shores are in crisis: they are in grave, if not imminent danger, in their home countries (such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) and have very difficult lives – more than most of us can even fathom. Perhaps among Europeans, our grandparents can. Amongst many populations the world over, conflict and hardship are very much part of daily life.

Following World War 2, which saw the largest forced displacement of people in history, particularly in Europe, there was general agreement amongst world leaders (particularly European and North American leaders) that such tragedy and travesty would never happen again. The United Nations was formed, and many laws and conventions were conceived and adopted by UN member states (by most, if not all) to ensure the safety of those displaced and the protection of those unable to flee conflict. In 1951, the UN adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which was, as eloquently written in the Guardian, ‘a milestone of humanity,’ that recognized ‘whatever the cost, there are some eternal values worth upholding in a civilized society.’ A noble and human response to a war and its consequences that resulted in promises of ‘never again.’

However, with some reflection, the 1951 Convention resulted from the millions of Europeans displaced in Europe. One wonders if such an undertaking would have occurred should a similar calamity hath befallen the entirety of Africa or Latin America? Of course, there is also the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) which explicitly prohibits the expulsion of foreigners. Thinking back to the days when it wasn’t quite so easy to migrate (from a transport and technology perspective), it is not a stretch of the imagination that most European countries interpreted ‘foreigners’ to mean those from neighbouring Caucasian countries. Asian and African refugees were a distant concept that were probably perceived to be irrelevant for the times. Let’s be honest with ourselves – conventions such as those that were conceived and adopted in the 1950s were reacting to problems, not anticipating them. Very few UN and European conventions ever have.  

So, things have changed. The conflicts of reference are no longer on European soil between European countries. The conflicts of today are not even between states, but between state armies and non-state actors, with terrorist organizations mixing it up. Conventions on how wars are fought, on the protection of civilians, of basic humanitarian principles – well, most of that is out the window. Besides, they were drafted by and lobbied for by Western countries who held the power in the UN, reflecting how European powers fought wars based on cultural norms of right and wrong. This is not to say that norms of right and wrong differ much between cultures, but how we as society respond to breaches of these norms, based on history, culture and societal beliefs. Thus, we have a problem.

Europe is safe. For people fleeing war and violence in which these conventions on protection of civilians and use of chemical weapons are largely being ignored, you do whatever you can to save your life and that of your family. Considering the population sizes of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is amazing that the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores isn’t bigger. In 2015, only 1.5 million people claimed asylum in Western (OECD) countries (not necessarily only from the three countries mentioned above). Compared to the 2.6 million refugees existing (because ‘living’ is not a fair assessment of their situation) in Turkey and even more in Lebanon and Jordan, Europe has received a relatively minor number.

But it seems our leaders have forgotten the lessons which lead to promises of ‘never again.’ Leaders of today aren’t actually old enough to have experienced the ‘lessons’, perhaps learning of them in school and from their parents (like we have). The Refugee Convention and the Convention on Human Rights were adopted likely before many were even born – inherited yokes to bear; should they even be responsible for those promises? (Forgive me while I play devil’s advocate here). Besides, as I mentioned above, it was a somewhat simpler time – the advent of technology has necessitated new legal frameworks and more restrictions. As noted here “today, we live in a highly regulated society with rules and laws that sort today’s migrants into categories like ‘documented’ or ‘undocumented,’ ‘with permits’ and without or ‘irregular’, as opposed to ‘illegal.’ However, ‘as all migrants know, these labels obscure a simple truth. People from rich countries are able to travel legally almost anywhere. Those from the rest of the world are able to go, legally, almost nowhere.’

So here we are. In theory, there was a promise of ‘never again.’ In practice, Europe and North America have been slowly building legal ‘walls’ to keep refugees out. Some European parties to the 1951 Convention have even raised the possibility of amending it to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of welcoming refugees. Issues of security, of cost, of (my personal favourite) space ring hollow. There are more than enough studies to demonstrate that of all ‘categories’ of migrants, refugees are the most entrepreneurial and rely on state benefits for the least amount of time. And when it comes to space, well, just Google drone footage of Syria and ask ‘how, exactly, could someone stay?’ Almost everything has been destroyed. A friend in Canada recently commented that accepting 35,000 refugees is honourable ‘but where will they live? We have a housing crisis.’ I would reply that a) learn the definition of ‘crisis’, b) if you insist on using that term let’s qualify it with ‘affordable’ and c) it’s not like we’re asking for 35,000 individual residences in one community. These are families, and they’ll be spread across the (very, very large) country. Trust me, there are enough vacancies.

That conversation basically wraps up the question of what happened to ‘never again’? into a fairly ugly bow: never again – for us.

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