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The world’s broken promise of asylum


A British Border Force ship brings refugees found in the English Channel to Dover, England, Sept. 16, 2021.

By Max Fisher


For more than 70 years, the world has enshrined, in national laws and global agreements, a promise that was presented as vitally important: Anyone who cannot live safely in their home country may seek refuge in another.


If such people prove that they face the right sort of danger, and meets the host country’s conditions for staying, then that country is obligated to welcome them.


This ideal has never been perfectly observed, even in its origins after World War II, when it was seen as both a moral and a practical imperative, to rebuild shattered societies for the common good.


But the very Western powers that championed this compact have been steadily eroding it in recent years — chipping away at their own, and therefore the world’s, obligations toward a responsibility they once characterized as crucial to global stability.


That assault, experts say, reached a new extreme last week, as Britain’s government announced a new plan for thousands of foreign citizens in the country who had applied for asylum. Rather than hear their claims, it would ship them to Rwanda, a faraway quasi dictatorship in which most had never set foot, to become someone else’s problem.


Britain did not invent the practice of shutting refugees and asylum-seekers in faraway facilities. European governments have been paying foreign despots and warlords, in countries like Sudan and Libya, to detain migrants on their behalf for years. Australia outsources this work to a string of island nations sometimes described as its gulag archipelago. The United States effectively pioneered the practice in 1991, when it diverted boats full of Haitians to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.


A rise in right-wing populist politics, the backlash in Europe against a surge of migration in 2015 and then the coronavirus pandemic have accelerated this practice and others like it: walls, armed patrols and “deterrence” policies that deliberately make the journey more dangerous.


The result is not exactly that the global refugee system is dead. European governments are taking in millions of Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion, for example. Rather, Britain’s policy highlights that this system, once held up as a universal and legally binding obligation, is now treated as effectively voluntary.


“It’s pretty bold to, within a month, offer housing to Ukrainians and then announce you’re sending all the other migrants 4,000 miles away,” said Stephanie Schwartz, a scholar of migration politics at the University of Pennsylvania.


An Eroding Ideal


The world’s commitment to refugees and asylum-seekers has always been more conditional and self-interested than it was presented to be.


In the years after World War II, even as Western leaders pledged to resettle Europe’s refugees where they would be safe, they forcibly returned 2.3 million Soviet citizens to the Soviet Union, many against their will. One in five were subsequently executed or sent to the gulag, according to estimates by historian Tony Judt.


Still, as the Cold War hardened, Western governments increasingly emphasized their respect for refugee rights, and pressured their allies to do the same, as a way to position their bloc as superior to communist governments that sometimes barred citizens from fleeing. Western compliance remained spotty, privileging refugees from communist countries or others who offered some political gain.


But the real shift came at the Cold War’s end, in 1991, when Western countries lost this political incentive. Global refugee populations soared in the early 1990s, to 18 million, according to one United Nations metric, nearly nine times as many as when the world formally enshrined refugee rules in a 1951 convention.


But by the 2010s, as refugee outflows rose mostly from poorer countries, the response was very different. The United States applied similar policies to people from Central America as it had to Haitians, negotiating deals with governments, particularly in Mexico, to prevent refugees and other migrants from reaching the border. Europe and Australia pursued similar strategies.


The result: concentric rings of detention centers, some notorious for brutality, just beyond the borders of the world’s richest countries. Most are along refugees’ paths, or near the borders they had hoped to reach, allowing governments a fig leaf of compliance. Britain’s new proposal, by shipping people to the far reaches of another continent, takes this a step further, underscoring how the new system really works.


Some argue that enshrining new international agreements, or scrapping the old ones altogether, might more sustainably distribute global responsibility, particularly as a rise in climate refugees scrambles the boundaries between economic migrant and political refugee. World leaders, though, have expressed little interest in such plans. And if the problem is that governments do not want refugees and cannot be made to take them, replacing one half-ignored agreement with another would change little.


The Emerging Order


Europe’s seeming double standard — as its governments welcome Ukrainians but continue going to extraordinary lengths to keep out migrants from the Middle East — has laid the unwritten norms of the new refugee system especially bare.


Increasingly, governments apply ostensibly universal refugee rights selectively and often on the basis of which demographic groups are expected to meet domestic political approval. Even as Britain announced its expulsion of asylum-seekers already in the country, for instance, it apologized for not bringing in more Ukrainians.


Governments have also learned that, as long as they do not hold one another to account for breaking international norms, there is no one other than their own citizens to stop them.


And it is their own citizens who often demand these policies.


Right-wing populist parties saw their support surge in the past decade, in part by championing a backlash to immigration and portraying refugee rules as a plot to dilute traditional national identities.


While some establishment parties pushed back — Germany welcomed 1 million refugees amid the rise of the country’s far right — others concluded that curtailing nonwhite immigration was necessary to save their parties, maybe their democracies. Would-be refugees, fleeing wars or famines, were made to pay the price.


It was hardly the founding intentions of the global refugee compact that cycle-by-cycle domestic politics would determine which families, displaced by disaster, found a new life abroad and which were condemned to squalid camps or mass graves.


Still, if that is how it is to be, then the British public’s response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal, and its unusually brazen defiance of that compact, may prove revealing.


“It’s inhumane, it’s morally reprehensible, it’s probably unlawful, and it may well be unworkable,” David Normington, previously the top civil servant in Britain’s Home Office, told the BBC.


But whether the plan is truly workable, in the eyes of the British government or others, may ultimately depend less on laws or morality than on what the British public will tolerate.

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