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Rethink Refugee Policy before the Next Emergency

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By Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, Chairman of the SGO Group and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations

Syrians arriving by boat at the end of harrowing — and for some, fatal — journeys have shaped the image of Europe’s refugee crisis. Yet Europe is in the grip of something even bigger — a combined refugee and migrant crisis. So although most of the new refugees are fleeing from a handful of violent conflicts, many recent arrivals are part of a growing, long-term pattern of migration. Over the next decades, the pressures of global demography and inequality could lead to tens of millions, or even more, making the journey to a developed country in search of work and a better life.

Among the many misfortunes of refugees and migrants today is that they came too soon. Europe has yet to wake up to the fact that Western countries, with ageing populations and dwindling numbers of young, will soon welcome significant numbers of newcomers of working age. Politically, the conversation now is more about the limited resources of host countries rather than the potential value of the people coming in. As European countries begin to understand their own demographic changes, these attitudes will likely transform. This shift is yet to happen in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

In the meantime, if asylum for refugees is to be preserved and public confidence restored, the refugee and migrant flows need to be treated as separate. For economic migrants, that tragically means much more robust and prompt, although humane, policies of deportation home; hopefully accompanied over time by a more generous visa regime for those whose skills are needed. For Africa, in particular, there needs to be much higher global investment in imaginative and ambitious development strategies which will create good jobs at home. More than a third of the world’s working-age population will be African by the end of this century; the continent currently risks decanting an increasing portion of jobless from its growing population into neighbouring Europe.

For now, the international community, and Europe in particular, urgently needs to focus on rethinking refugee policy. The crisis in Syria has revealed that the current system, instituted after the First World War, is politically untenable.

For a long time, Europe has cruised on its refugee history. Generosity in the first half of the century to the victims of Nazism, Stalinism and other ruthless systems made modern Europe, setting both its values and providing the human capital that drove a disproportionate amount of its economic, intellectual and cultural success. Later, smaller-scale but successful resettlement of those driven from their home countries — from the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin and welcomed into the UK, to the Vietnamese “boat people” who found new homes in France and Germany, among other places — confirmed the win-win proposition. A generous asylum policy that showed respect for international law was rewarded by an injection of remarkable, hard-working arrivals into their new communities. This was an investment that paid off handsomely.

Today, we are in danger of trashing the moral leadership that Europe has earned over the years. Our exhortations to others to show generosity to refugees sound hollow when we are seen as evading our own responsibilities and — Germany and Sweden apart — accepting derisory numbers of refugees.

This shabby response is partly because public opinion is alarmed by the violence and chaos associated with Syria and the wider Middle East. Islamophobia is on the rise following the Paris attacks in November and sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. But this sense of panic in the face of a “flood” of refugees is accentuated by the failure of political leaders to demonstrate they have a coherent plan to contain the situation.

What is needed is a four-part plan that will both address the current crisis and lay the foundations for how future refugee emergencies will be addressed:

1.We need much more proactive diplomacy to head off crises before they spin out of control.

It was this ambition to detect the early warning signs of conflict and to take preventive action that drove the establishment of the International Crisis Group, born out of the Balkans experience. Usually refugees come from just a handful of countries. Currently, Syria is by far the largest driver of population flows, accounting for almost a quarter of all refugees and the largest number of internally displaced persons. But Syrian diplomacy has been a stop-start affair that never seems to grasp the nettle of the conflict — whether that is the future of President Bashar al-Assad or the rise of the Islamic State. That failure is only compounded as Russia and Turkey militarily leap in while a hesitant U.S. and Europe wring their hands. An unaddressed crisis in “faraway” Syria has metastasised into a cancer that eats at the European Union itself.

Syria now has up to eleven countries indirectly taking part in its civil war. The second and third biggest refugee producers, Afghanistan and Somalia, suffer from similarly internationalised conflicts as proxies and their outside sponsors proliferate. Death and destruction of local communities are the first costs of festering conflict; second are massive outflows of refugees; and the third can be regional or even global stability. Neglect carries a high price.

2.Proper support must be provided for countries that bear the brunt of today’s refugee crisis.

In the context of the Syrian emergency, countries of first asylum include Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — which together are now home to more than four million refugees. If pledges from the successful Syrian donor conference held in London in February to raise money for these front-line states can be combined with a commitment by the hosts to liberalise work permits and residency requirements to allow long-term stay, we may rebuild a credible asylum policy. And it is true that many refugees would like to remain close to home. Lebanon is hosting over 1.1 million refugees and rising, almost a third of its original population. Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees of any one country, and Jordan has also allowed in massive numbers. So support has to be forthcoming in a predictable and sufficient volume from the beginning of a crisis. This should be part of a new codified approach to refugee care along with reciprocal obligations on the host countries to allow refugees to work and integrate. Refugees are no longer short stayers. Rather, the average period of exile across the world’s 60 million refugees is seventeen years.

3.Europe must provide direct asylum to refugees.

Turkey has mixed the generosity of its asylum policies with the bargaining style of the bazaar, raising its price to keep refugees away from Europe itself. This tawdry game of cards is only possible because Europe has sacrificed its moral leadership by closing its doors to refugees and failing even to achieve any real internal burden-sharing. Europe cannot be limited to paying the costs for others to host refugees — it must also include a generous element of direct asylum. Canada, under new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has shown this is not a game of numbers (Canada has only offered 25,000 places so far), but rather the character of the offer. Canada’s offer was not made grudgingly under pressure of arriving boats, but out of respect for its international humanitarian obligations. So the moral power of Canada on this issue rides high globally even as Europe’s descends to new depths.

4.We need a consistent and compassionate approach to distinguishing between migrants and refugees.

From a public policy point of view, it remains necessary to separate economic migrants and refugees, though increasingly this is not all that easy considering the interplay of economic failure and political fallout in weak states. A dependable and widely agreed upon system that allays the economic fears of host countries while making sure that no vulnerable people are ever sent back to dangerous situations is essential.

Part of ensuring this is to share direct asylum across Europe equally and fairly — Sweden and Germany have had to consider a high rate of repatriation in the face of a surge in asylum applications. As long as asylum systems work to consistent standards and are not overwhelmed, they should be able to distinguish between economic migrants and refugees. For now, where job seekers cannot be accommodated, their humane return home is required. With time, and labour shortages, this will look the most ephemeral part of policy, but for the moment it is an indispensable public confidence-builder.

This new four-step policy has to be fit for purpose not just for Syria but for other refugee emergencies. An axiom of foreign policy regrettably seems to be to act only when a problem arrives at your own doorstep, which is why this crisis that threatens to engulf Europe may be an opportunity to create a more realistic policy framework for the future. This is despite the fact that whatever policy is forged now is likely to be looked back on as strangely xenophobic for an allegedly open world: the migrants who today will fail the test of asylum and be sent home will be tomorrow’s indispensable and youthful addition to an old Europe’s declining workforce. However, the first three steps may be a solid platform for sharing a global responsibility that is not going away.