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Fences, fortresses, and fortifications: What (not) to do about contemporary refugee flows?

In 2015, more people fled from persecution, war, human rights violations, discrimination, and other hardship than at any other time since World War II. UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, estimates that worldwide more than 60 million people, or one in every 122, have been forced to flee their homes.

The vast majority of them have been displaced in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq and sought refuge in neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. As the conflicts in their home countries continue, or indeed worsen, many of them lose hope that they can return any time soon. The fact that international organisations such as UNHCR and IOM, the International Organisation of Migration, are given insufficient means to assist and accommodate the large number of displaced persons in refugee camps contributes to the desire of many people to seek protection elsewhere. Frequently, they use the assistance of migrant smugglers who, in the absence of legal avenues of migration, offer ways to cross international borders that would otherwise be insurmountable.

In an attempt to stop the flow of irregular migrants, most of them refugees, many countries in Europe and Australia have developed, and sometimes instituted, plans to re-introduce border controls, build fences, or stop migrant vessels from reaching their destinations. Australia’s infamous ‘turning back the boats’ policy, introduced in 2013, for instance, is one of a suite of measures adopted by the Australian Government to deny and deter the arrival of refugees and turn or tow the vessels in which they travel back to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, or other places from where they departed. The measures adopted by Australia, which also include the indefinite detention of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have come at great human and financial costs and violate international refugee and human rights law. The ‘turn-back’ measures are a way for Australia to evade its international obligations and, in effect, render its signature under the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees meaningless. Preventing vessels of asylum seekers from reaching Australia frustrates the intention of the Convention and places refugees at risk of refoulement. Australia’s unilateral decision to return asylum seekers to the place of embarkation also undermines the cooperative spirit of the international protection regime and places additional burden on countries that have few resources to cope with the influx of irregular migrants.

Although European nations have—fortunately—refrained from adopting measures similar to those in place in Australia, there are ample calls from many far-right movements and by some political parties to close international borders around and between European Union Member States, reintroduce border controls within the ‘Schengen Zone’, and build fences along the borders to prevent the influx of irregular migrants. Austria’s Minister of the Interior explicitly stated that “we need to build a Fortress Europe.” Hungary, Slovenia, and other Eastern European countries have since also built fences and closed some borders to irregular migrants. Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, along with others, now conduct controls at borders which, until recently, could be crossed freely. With no end to the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries in sight, it is likely that further and harsher measures will be adopted to prevent the entry of asylum seekers.

The rise in displaced persons worldwide poses a significant challenge to source, transit, and destination countries alike. “Never has there been a greater need for tolerance, compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything,” notes the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr António Guterres. The suggestion here is not to abandon immigration controls and encourage the uncontrolled movement of large numbers of migrants, but to develop meaningful mechanisms that recognize the plight of refugees, provide them with protection and assistance in the country of first refuge, and offer resettlement and orderly, legal avenues of migration to those seeking protection elsewhere.

International migration, as has frequently been said, cannot be stopped and suppressed, but it can be planned and managed. The resettlement of people from refugee camps to destinations further afield is one such measure that provides refugees with a long-term solution and saves them from having to resort to the services offered by migrant smugglers. Refugee ‘centres’ in transit countries, like the one operated by UNHCR in Tunisia between February 2011 and June 2013, are another alternative that offers asylum seekers temporary reprieve and a way to apply for safe passage to Europe if they are found to be refugees. The so-called ‘hot spots’ that are being developed in Greece, Italy, and other locations along the outer border of the European Union, are based on a similar idea, but have the disadvantage that migrants face great dangers or have to resort to smugglers to reach these ‘hot spots’. A further measure to provide orderly alternatives for asylum-seekers is to enable them to apply for refugee status through embassies and foreign missions of the main destination countries, a practice that was in operation by some EU Member States and Switzerland until the mid-1990s. This would need to go hand-in-hand with better communication, cooperation, and burden-sharing between EU Members and other states willing and able to take refugees. It would also require the development of meaningful immigration laws and policies and national action plans that foster integration and prevent xenophobia.

To this end, the current challenges should also be seen as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, to engage in forward thinking, and to develop sustainable, long-term policies and practices. The current crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere will not be the last time that large-scale displacement will occur. Refugee flows and forced displacement, however, generally do not occur overnight. They are predictable and manageable without having to build fences, fortifications, and fortresses.

Headline image credit: Syrians and Iraq refugees at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece 2 by Ggia, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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