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The year in review, but which year? Let’s start with 2017, and see if I can end up back here. Within the past twelve months, and drawing somewhat at random:

  • UNHCR once again reviewed its position on climate change and disaster-related displacement, all the while pushing ahead as lead on the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, its Programme of Action, and what is hoped will emerge as the Global Compact for Refugees;
  • A team at Columbia University launched a draft treaty on ‘global mobility’;
  • European countries seemed increasingly perplexed, and uncertain exactly where to take their ‘Agenda for Migration’;
  • Violence in Central America continued to drive displacement into an increasingly hostile environment, and there is still no end to the war in Syria;
  • The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh has resurged, with all its potential for impact in the region and beyond;
  • And nearer to home, we have the never-ending controversy of those transported to Manus Island and Nauru, which none of those responsible appears to have either the wit or the courage to resolve.

Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief, said recently, ‘Everyone gets paralysed by bad news, because they feel so helpless’. The political philosopher, J. R. Lucas, saw another perspective – those ‘unassuageable feelings of guilt’ and the dissipation of effort and effectiveness that can come from the sense that we are as much responsible for what we do not do, as for what we do.

And that is why, each day, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of cutting through the negative, and getting to effective action by focusing on that part of the whole where we can, or perhaps we can, make a difference.

‘Getting there’, in turn, means knowing and understanding. In the words of a recent Guardian headline, ‘They know the risks and still they come’. And that is the lesson delivered so clearly through the tragedies of the Mediterranean, themselves repeated on seas and oceans near and far. It is a lesson which too many States either don’t want to hear, or can’t imagine how to integrate it into policies and practices. Nonetheless, it must be learned.

Twenty-two per cent of the Gambia’s GDP is made up of remittances from their citizens abroad. For many other countries, too, their people are a primary natural resource, and when abroad, an income stream as well. Sending them back may be a matter of ‘right’, but it also impoverishes... These dimensions cannot be ignored, if we want to manage things well.

The case of the Rohingya, in turn, reminds us of the complex world we live in. At the root is the issue of statelessness, not just in the formal sense of being denied nationality in law, but in the day to day sense of being denied an identity in the land of one’s birth and upbringing. But that ‘root’, too, is contested, and religious difference joins with the politics of exclusion. In supporting Myanmar’s ‘democratic transition’ while calling for accountability for atrocities, clearly more than top-down diplomacy will be required.

So, in many respects and in the challenges presented, 2017 is not so very different from any other year. Someone, somewhere is still telling us that the international refugee regime is failing – a politician, looking to grind down the law in favour of power, perhaps, or a well-meaning academic, enthused with extravagant plans and formulae to remake the world. 

The basic premises, though, are false, and witness to a singular lack of historical awareness. For history tells us that providing protection and finding solutions for refugees has always been a struggle. It is, perhaps, a perpetual struggle, forever pitting the visceral negative concerns of any community facing change, against the positive, which is that common humanity and resilience on which we have all drawn and can draw again.

There is and always has been a dynamic at work here. It has its highs and lows, and whether the line on the graph will show progress, that we have done better over time, perhaps only a hundred-year perspective may tell.

And within that dynamic, as we know only too well, there’s always the politics, international and domestic. At the international level, history shows us that humanitarianism can often be exploited in the interest of foreign policy goals. And at the domestic level, time and again we find that it’s the politics which pursues the wayward vote, or offers a return for media support, or seeks profit from promoting apprehension and division, and that gets in the way of realistic and constructive solutions.

Looking back

Any year can be the excuse to look back, not necessarily to rue the years between, or to trot out the usual tropes about repeating the errors of the past, or needing to learn (although I am rather fond of the line that ‘What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history’). Rather, as today, looking back can be a refreshing reminder, both of where we’ve come from (the good and the bad) and of what we’ve achieved (generally a mixed bag). And this, in turn, can be our springboard to the future. Today’s conference is precisely about that – looking ahead and building a principled institutional and cooperative base for humanitarian challenges to come; for they certainly will come.

Looking back does indeed present a mixed picture. Forty years ago, 1977 witnessed the failure of States to agree an international treaty on territorial asylum. Fifty years ago, 1967 witnessed the signing of a protocol universalizing the international refugee protection regime.

One hundred years ago, it was a very, very different world. 

On 25 October (or 7 November 1917 in the new style), the Bolsheviks under Lenin led an armed uprising in Petrograd, brought down Kerensky’s provisional government, and took control.

That momentous event led on in turn to the Russian civil war, to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, and to utter, utter consternation. It disturbed the natural order, and no other government seemed willing at first to recognize or deal with this revolutionary regime, whose origins and methods were at once so alien and threatening. But the world never stands still, and it was Russian refugees who were the catalyst for action and collaboration in the then new League of Nations.

It was the Soviet’s early policies of denationalisation which underlined the necessity of international protection for refugees, and of cooperation in relieving their often desperate situation, in according them a legal status, finding solutions, and preventing their return.

The rest is history, just one consequence of the events of 1917, of the greater tragedy that was the First World War, and the collapse of empires which followed. But that history tells us other things, too.

Fridtjof Nansen, when he accepted to become High Commissioner for Refugees in September 1921, was already High Commissioner for Prisoners of War. His repatriation efforts, facilitating movements from west to east and east to west, not only established his credibility as an interlocutor with the Soviets and other governments, but also meant that he was well-placed to understand what would come about from the severe drought and famine which struck the Volga region and the Ukraine in 1921.

With European countries facing the possibility of disease following in the footsteps of the displaced desperate for food, Nansen stressed getting to grips with root causes. ‘Stop the famine, and you stop the migration,’ he advised. ‘Stop the migration, and you stop the epidemics.’ And that’s what they did.

Those inter-connecting factors, obvious as they are, still need to be borne in mind today, particularly if States (and international organizations) are to think outside the box and demonstrate the flexibility necessary to respond effectively and humanely to those without protection, whether as refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants regular, migrants irregular, migrants in countries in crisis, smuggled migrants, or migrants victims of trafficking; and whether the drivers of displacement are conflict or persecution, economic under-development and destitution, drought or famine, climate change or disaster.

During the 1920s, a lot was indeed achieved, particularly on the basis of non-binding arrangements. States took up the call to provide travel and identity documents for refugees, employment was found, children and those with disabilities were given particular attention, loans were raised to finance resettlement, and forcible returns were prevented.

What was lacking, though, was a permanent ‘total approach’, which became only too apparent in the 1930s. It was precisely the unwillingness of States to deal with the political issues, the causes, at the heart of displacement which led James McDonald to resign as High Commissioner for Refugees coming from Germany (Jewish and Other) in December 1935.

Again, the rest is history, but first it had to be war, politics by other means. And then it was the politics of the Cold War, which for decades thereafter captured the humanitarianism which seemed initially as if it might influence the self-interest of States for the better.

Since then, on the plus side, the international refugee regime has become universalised, and UNHCR, acting on behalf of the international community, has assumed a huge catalogue of institutional responsibilities. The politics, however, have never gone away. In a divided world, States remained apparently content with ad hoc measures, and content to resist the obvious – that refugees were not a temporary phenomenon, an anomaly likely to resolve itself.

And then, to complicate things still farther, the short-term gains offered by the falling away of Cold War politics were soon lost in the new politics of securitisation, in which humanitarian need became very much the exception.

Where once they had been papered over in the interests of expediency, other gaps in the ‘system’ of governance applicable to the movement of people between States in all its forms now became only too apparent. For States had long since failed to put in place either rules or practices for sharing the international community’s responsibility to provide protection and find solutions more effectively and equitably. They had failed to see that migration itself is an international phenomenon, which also requires principled cooperation and collaboration if it, too, is to be managed humanely and equitably.

And the international community of States continued to find itself unwilling or just too perplexed or both, to deal with the root causes of displacement, whether those were conflict and persecution, or underdevelopment and economic destitution.

Closer to home, closer to now

Not surprisingly, and from time to time, these systemic failures have been exploited for self-interested reasons, and have allowed States to indulge in extremist unilateral tendencies. While ultimately ineffectual and self-defeating, these can and do mess with the elements of a regime which, for all its faults and incompleteness, nevertheless provides a principled framework for cooperation and accountability in protection and solutions.

Into this imperfect working model, Australia threw a spanner, or something worse. It is with regret but with no apology that I make this critique. Having served here for UNHCR back in the day, the Australian experience has always been a key element in my own professional development, and I know how much better we can do things here.

But by intercepting asylum seekers, transporting them to Manus Island and Nauru, and banning any refugee among them from ever setting foot or finding here a solution to their search for refuge and protection, Australia chose not to play by the rules, unilaterally announcing to the rest of the world that it would just have to pick up the pieces and pay the price.

The world, not having been consulted, did not rush to Australia’s assistance. After all, what was the refugee regime getting back in return? In exchange for indulging local concerns about boat arrivals, did Australia triple its financial contribution, or offer to raise its resettlement quota to 100,000 a year? No. Nothing.

Instead, this exceptionalism and the ill-thought out policies that went with it have done untold harm to hundreds of victims, and have damaged this country’s credibility and reputation, at a time when it might have focused on and made a positive, protection-oriented contribution to the Global Compacts on refugees and migration, which we are looking at today.

2017 – What else was learnt?

So back to 2017, and it’s not all bad news. Europe, certainly, seems to be on a bit of a learning curve, notwithstanding regular demands from some quarters for more control and more returns, and despite decades of management failure in that regard. The EU, or elements within it, sometimes seem quite wedded to the idea that the way ahead, or perhaps the way back, is through putting pressure on ‘sending’ and transit States, and by unilaterally imposing the so-called safe third country notion of someone else’s responsibility on non-EU countries. The European Commission’s ‘Action Plan’ from last July, for example, said nothing about addressing the drivers behind the movement of refugees and migrants, whether outside or even within the EU, but digging a little deeper there are some hopeful signs.

A more nuanced approach figures in the Paris Joint Statement of 28 August 2017. This emerged from a meeting which brought France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the EU together with Niger, Chad and Libya, on an agenda to address the challenge of migration and asylum – a significant engagement of very different countries across a broad range of common interests.

Their Joint Statement begins with key principles, recognising front and centre that migration is a transnational phenomenon, and not for any one State to deal with alone. It implies a long-term development approach and, in addition, humanitarian protection needs and obligations must be taken into account. That means saving lives, combatting smuggling and trafficking, improving human rights protection and living conditions for migrants in ‘embarkation’ countries, such as Libya, while also boosting voluntary returns and resettlement for those in need of protection.

It means also attending to root causes, supporting the resilience of host communities along the migration routes, and providing income streams and economic growth models alternative to smuggling.

A ‘new’ common European asylum system is needed, ‘to strike the right balance between responsibility and solidarity with the Member States that manage an external border, and to ensure resilience to future crises’. And that may well include an EU Asylum Agency, to iron out inconsistent recognition rates and promote fairer distribution of refugees.

Of course, the EU will still have to deal with those non-compliant Member States which, although they signed up to certain common values, to solidarity and the fair sharing of responsibility, perhaps never wanted to know the meaning of words, their own histories notwithstanding.

But otherwise, this forward-looking approach, and indeed the European Commission’s recommendations on increased resettlement, a voluntary humanitarian admission scheme, and enhancing legal pathways, still remains in contrast and in tension with the continuing emphasis on failed models of control and return, now to be enhanced (in theory), by as yet undefined ‘pragmatic arrangements’, and by the EU employing ‘all possible levers’ vis-à-vis sending and transit countries. Again we have that dynamic, and the politics, and we will have to see how it works out, as we will, too, with the Global Compacts.

The Global Compacts – Half-way there?

As many also have said, the initiatives set in motion by the 2016 New York Declaration have opened up an historic opportunity. Still, there are some things we can be sure about. The Global Compacts will not be a panacea for all the challenges which come with the movement of people between States. They will not solve the problems of refugees and migrants and those on the edge of displacement. They will inevitably be compromises, but with that ever-elusive political will, with commitment and with good faith, they could well strengthen the architecture of response.

But all this in turn will fail unless protection and a rights orientation are kept both front and centre in what comes out. Protection is not the enemy, or an obstacle to effective management and even control; on the contrary, it leads the way, showing what can and cannot be done, and standing as the measure, both of success and of accountability.


The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.