The EU-Turkey deal has been widely criticised for being potentially illegal and immoral as well as unworkable. Others have pointed to the grubbiness of the negotiations and the willingness of the EU to compromise its values in order to secure a deal with Turkey in an attempt to stem what are expected to be even larger irregular migration flows to Europe this year.
These opinions all have at least a kernel of truth to them: the returns to Turkey are likely to be tested by the European Court of Human Rights, as was the case with Italy's infamous 'push backs' to Libya, and may similarly be found to be illegal; the refugee 'swap', with its echoes of the thwarted 2012 Australia-Malaysia deal, may also be found wanting. Turkey's demands for visa access for its citizens, the large payments it will receive and calls for accelerated EU membership certainly highlight the high stakes involved and point to Europe's strong desire to bring migration flows under much greater control. As Mulloch-Brown recently argued: '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'. Others have asked the more blatant question: Is Turkey blackmailing Europe?
Deeper analysis, however, shows us that more systemic issues are involved. When viewed in an historical context these issues highlight that, while some aspects of managing large-scale human displacement have remained more or less constant over time, radical shifts in global connectivity are forcing us to question fundamental aspects of the international refugee system and its implementation.
In terms of the constants, the EU-Turkey negotiations remind us once again that managing large-scale human displacement — and the fate of many people's lives — is inexorably linked to geopolitics and often tragically intertwined with civil and transnational conflict. There has always been negotiation and compromise in managing displaced populations internationally. Palestinian refugees displaced in the late 1940s and their descendants, for example, continue to remain deliberately outside UNHCR's mandate (under the mandate of a separate 'temporary' UN agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), not because they are fundamentally different to other refugees but because they became collateral damage in sensitive geopolitics many years ago. Likewise the root causes of human displacement—conflict, persecution, relative depravation, corrupt or weak governance, community violence and natural disasters — remain persistent features in many locations throughout the world.
Importantly, however, increasing numbers of people displaced are able to move further afield. Massive changes in global connectivity — telecommunications, transportation, access and portability of funds, and transnational networks spanning origin, transit and destination countries — are making it easier for more people to migrate via unregulated migration pathways supported by migrant smugglers. The increased agency of a small but growing proportion of those displaced is placing the international refugee system under enormous pressure.
One of the fundamental principles of the international refugee system is that people must have crossed a border in order to be refugees; there is also an implicit right to claim asylum in another country. When the Refugee Convention was finalized in 1951, industrialised states had significant control over media and public information, refugee resettlement was controlled by states (including under the UN, and states largely controlled movements of people beyond immediate areas of displacement. In this environment, the system that was developed made sense geopolitically to destination countries — people could not in reality get very far. A system that incentivised movement when movement was very constrained and highly controlled was perhaps more about maintaining the status quo.
In today's environment, the system created in 1951 does anything but maintain the status quo. It's a radically different story now. Many more people have access to information, money, advice and (smuggling) migration services; the appification of migration has taken off. A system that relies on, and encourages, asylum seeking is crumbling and fragmenting because more people are able to realise their aspirations to move. Those who are involuntarily immobile are becoming increasingly mobile and the international refugee system is becoming a funnel for irregular migrants. Connectivity enables longer distance movements and accelerates the rate of growth of those movements to higher levels.
What does it mean for the international protection system, and for states and refugees? Firstly, there is much greater acceptance that the refugee system is failing both states and refugees. While suggestions on how to fix the system may vary, acknowledgment of the significant policy gap that has opened up is far less controversial these days, and particularly in the wake of the 2015 flows to Europe. It will be an extraordinarily challenging task, and there is highly likely to be a lack of consensus on key aspects, but it is an important one that needs to be addressed for the medium and longer terms. Implementation of the Refugee Convention needs to be adjusted, rather than the Convention itself, which is widely ratified and supported.
Second, the current crisis means that notwithstanding the weaknesses in the refugee system, there are aspects that urgently need to be implemented. Existing core principles such as non-refoulement, the return of failed asylum seekers, and managed refugee resettlement need to be implemented as priorities, including as a means to improve public confidence in migration. These principles are evident in the EU-Turkey agreement, although its implementation will be the true test of whether or not the agreement upholds those principles in practice. Implementation will also test its effectiveness. Stemming a flow that has already deepened and diversified is much harder than preventing it in the first place.
Finally, key areas that sit alongside the international protection system need to be acknowledged and prioritised. The illicit migration sector involving migrant smugglers is becoming increasingly intertwined with forced migration flows. There is an urgent need to tackle smuggling systematically through multi-faceted responses based on a more sophisticated understanding of smuggling practices and processes. Another critical area warranting substantial resources and lateral thinking is that of the integration of refugees. While Germany is the destination country most affected, other European countries' input and practical support of integration provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate European collaboration and unity. After all, Germany's refugees of today are likely to become residents and citizens of many other European countries in the future. Collective support of integration, with its positive focus on migrants and migration, has the potential to benefit Europe in practical as well as symbolic ways, to the benefit of states, citizens and refugees.
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