The Global Refugee Crisis: State Complicity in Refugees’ Plight?

Nahla Mohamed is a second year History and International Relations at KCL. She comes from Cairo, Egypt, and has Egyptian-Sudanese heritage. Within her degree, her specific interests include the history and current affairs of the MENA region and Africa, the global history and pervasive economic, political and cultural legacy of colonialism, and the relationship between history and international politics. Her non-academic interests include writing, participation in Model United Nations conferences, and volunteering. 

For anyone who follows the news even briefly, it is clear that the global refugee crisis is one of the largest and most protracted issues of this century. Irregular migration flows (which are not exclusively composed of refugees but at least in considerable percentages) continue to be a major global issue which occupies great time and resources on the part of many countries, especially those in the developed world.  

However, considering that the plight of refugees is essentially a humanitarian problem, it is tragic yet perhaps unsurprising that the majority of  states’ time and resources on this issue are directed towards protecting their national interests by effectively reducing the refugees under their protection, rather than providing solutions to ensure their protection. Hannah Arendt’s distinction between pity and solidarity is a useful concept to explain the West’s response to the refugee crisis, which it views with a ‘politics of pity’ that ‘keeps its sentimental distance’, rather than with solidarity, which is a ‘principle that can inspire and guide action’.

Of course, this may not be news to anyone well acquainted with global politics, but this article will seek to demonstrate how states have been complicit in compounding the difficulties and rights violations that refugees, as an inherently vulnerable class of individuals, face on a systematic basis. It will discuss two points that perhaps are not directly obvious to most casual observers but lie at the root of the tragedy and protracted nature of the global refugee crisis. Firstly, that such conduct is part of a systematic effort by Western countries to evade their not only moral, but legal obligations towards refugees under international law. Second, it seeks to provide a possible answer to the question of why states’ responses towards refugees are so  self-serving: that they view the refugee crisis from the lens of long-established state centric concepts of national security, rather than adopting the more holistic concept of ‘human security’.

This article will focus on conduct towards refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to safety in Europe, because other than being a very high profile migratory medium for refugees, it is the one where the tragic consequences of state neglect are most apparent. 

Before I elaborate on the first issue, a brief explanation of some legal aspects is necessary. Under international refugee law, refugees are individuals have fled dangerous circumstances in their home countries and crossed an international border to seek safety in another country, due to ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’ according to the Geneva Refugee Convention. Moreover, although not stated by the Convention, individuals fleeing war are also considered refugees by the UNHCR. Under international refugee law, states have certain protection obligations towards refugees that include the responsibility to process their asylum claims and grant them asylum (i.e. protection) in their state if they meet the necessary requirements, in addition to states obligations under international human rights law. 

The first issue can be elucidated through discussion of how the obligation of rescue at sea is discharged in the Mediterranean. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states are obliged to establish search and rescue systems around its coasts (not only in its territorial seas) to enable it to respond to distress calls. This helps protect migrants’ basic human rights if they become distressed at sea (which is often the case given they mostly travel in flimsy, unreliable boats), particularly the right to life and right to freedom from bodily harm. However, when refugees are rescued at sea, the state to whom they are brought must accommodate them temporarily and process their asylum claims. This provides incentive for ‘frontline’ EU states such as Italy that experience large inflows by virtue of its geographical position, to try and stem their refugee inflows particularly given the lack of support from other EU states. However, they have done this in a way that blatantly violates their obligations under international human rights law. Indeed, a  UN investigation found that Italy had ‘failed in its international obligations to protect the right to life’ of over 200 migrants aboard a vessel that sank in the Mediterranean in 2013 by failing to rescue them in a timely manner. This failure was clearly negligent, as Italy’s response to the vessel’s distress calls came hours late and was limited to informing the vessel that it was in the Maltese search and rescue zone rather than launching an actual rescue effort.

Moreover, they have even tried to prevent private vessels from fulfilling their obligation under the UNCLOS to assist those in distress at sea and bring them to safety in an attempt to reduce the number of refugees brought to their ports in this way. EU states  have done so through the ‘criminalisation of sea rescues’, which culminated in the Italian government attempting to prosecute three vessels which had been rescuing drowning refugees in the Mediterranean (all run by NGOs including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières) with complicity in people smuggling, charges which the rescuers deny, and which have been cast into considerable doubt by several organisations. Nevertheless, this charge has meant that the vessels in question, who had saved tens of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean, are no longer able to do so.

By limiting its rescue efforts and ending the operation of such vessels who have saved tens of thousands of drowning migrants, Italy reduced the likelihood that migrants will be rescued at sea and limited refugees’ ability to seek asylum. This will continue to impact the number of refugees afforded protection in the absence of efforts to intake refugees from other European states. What is striking here is not only EU states’ blatant disregard for human life and refugees’ need for protection, suggesting that ‘the EU turned away from the Mediterranean, transforming it into a mass grave for Europe’s undesirables’, but also that they openly evade their legal obligations towards refugees under International Human Rights and Refugee Law, doing so with relative impunity. 

Explaining why and how however brings us to the second point on approaches to security. Statist approaches to security tend to focus on the state as an insulated unit by holding the state’s interests as the primary and sole objective; thus, they are unfit to address transnational threats and risks. Such an approach is especially problematic in relation to refugees, as it leads states to see refugees as a threat to national security and thus misses that providing a durable solution for refugees’ plight is an essential part of national security. This limited perspective drives states to take actions such as those mentioned above that supposedly protect their national security at the expense of the survival and livelihood of refugees. However, the guilt cannot be placed exclusively on frontline states such as Italy, but equally to states who refuse to play an active role in this issue; leaving the burden almost exclusively on these frontline states. Not only do the approaches of both types cause refugees immeasurable suffering, but they also miss the fact that, as a security issue, the refugee crisis is inherently transnational and thus requires a cooperative, transnational effort. 

This is where the concept of ‘human security’ becomes very useful. This is because human security is “an approach to assist states in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people”: it thinks of state security as essentially transnational. Taking a human security approach to refugee crises such as that in the Mediterranean would mean more holistic and cooperative responses to the issue could provide actual solutions rather than largely leaving refugees to fend for themselves. Moreover, an expanded security concept would provide grounds to hold states accountable for their negligent conduct towards refugees, as to reinforce the existing obligations under international law which seem to be largely ineffective in disciplining states conduct.

It is evident that despite the supposed ‘protection’ imperative that states are bound to regarding refugees, states have essentially treated refugees as burdens to be evaded, rather than as rights holders to whom they owe certain (especially legal) obligations. This approach is inherent to the way that most states view security; however, it is no way inevitable. In fact, a redefinition of states’ national security concepts would help provide more durable solutions to this protracted crisis and as such would help alleviate the plight of refugees and enhance state security in ways that might be unexpected at first glance.

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