Can the world afford changing the rules on refugees?


Tragic fates. President Donald Trump listens to Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, from Yazidi, Iraq, centre, as he meets with survivors of religious persecution in the Oval Office of the White House on July 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP)

If the Western world no longer feels obliged to provide refuge to people from poorer countries, at the very least it should cease destabilising Arab and African countries for geopolitical gain.

The Trump administration has decided on the Temporary Protected Status given by the United States to approximately 7,000 Syrians. The designation, granted by the US Department of Homeland Security, is meant to help people from countries affected by war, environmental disaster or other extraordinary conditions. The 18-month extension announced August 1 merely defers the uncertainty.

It stays in place until conditions in the refugees’ home countries improve but for the Syrians in Donald Trump’s America, their legal right to stay is uncertain.

In the name of getting tough on fraudulent claims for refuge, the Trump administration has been making it harder for people fleeing violence and trafficking to enter the United States and lodge asylum claims.

Trump recently met a Yazidi woman from Iraq and a Rohingya Muslim, along with other victims of religious persecution from around the world. It was a set-piece event and there is little sign Trump would do anything to provide refuge.

Reports stated that the administration was considering a total shutdown of refugee admissions next year, a policy change that could affect thousands of Iraqis. The US Department of Defence has championed their admission because they risked their lives assisting US forces.

The issue of migrants seeking asylum is hardly less fraught in Europe. The European Union has promised to check into a BBC investigation into the brutal treatment of migrants trying to enter the bloc via Croatia.

The report said that even a minor — 17-year-old Mustafa from Egypt — was not spared a beating. He and other migrants were robbed by Croatian police, who are apparently engaging in so-called “pushback” operations meant to prevent people from seeking asylum in the European Union.

Is the idea of asylum and refuge all but over? It was always subject to an individual state’s willingness to comply with the 1951 Geneva Convention, which defined the status of refugees, set out rights of individuals granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations.

The convention is legally binding but compliance is not enforceable by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That agency cannot make Trump accept asylum-seekers or grant them refuge. It cannot force the United States to maintain protections for Syrian refugees already in the country. Were the United States to renege on its promises of resettlement of Iraqi translators, there is nothing anyone can realistically do about it.

The post-World War II international consensus on asylum and refuge was always about goodwill. The rights promulgated by the convention were interpreted in very different ways by disparate countries but the overall thrust of the convention has generally been accepted. Until now.

A more piecemeal approach to refugees has been in evidence in recent years. Bangladesh allowed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from neighbouring Myanmar to remain on its soil but initially refused to recognise them as refugees. Last year, the United Arab Emirates, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, regularised the residency status of Syrians in the country. However, the Emirates uses bespoke terminology for the situation and the remedies it offers.

As for the United States, since Trump became president denial rates for asylum-seekers and visas for victims of human trafficking have skyrocketed. US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jessica Collins recently explained it as a response to a grim “reality.” She said: “Our asylum system is being abused by those seeking economic opportunity, not those fleeing persecution.”

The same sort of view is increasingly taking hold in Europe, all of which suggests waning support for an internationally accepted obligation to provide a safe haven to those fleeing conflict.

What comes next? What should come next? What might conceivably replace the old order? How to fashion a new paradigm?

One thing is clear. If the rich Western world no longer feels obliged to provide refuge to desperate people from poorer, conflict-ridden countries at the very least it should cease destabilising Arab and African countries for geopolitical gain and the profits of defence manufacturers.

Second, rich countries should stop the continuing impoverishment of the global south. This occurs mainly through the machinations of large Western multinational companies, which deprive governments of poor countries of tax revenue by means of remarkable accounting contortions.

The United States has long opposed progressive changes to global rules that would force multinationals to pay tax where economic activity is actually occurring but the so-called Mauritius Leaks, a recently released cache of 200,000 files from a law firm in the Indian Ocean tax haven of Mauritius, showed that billions of dollars in revenue were being withheld by Western companies from some of the world’s poorest governments.

We are at a fork in the road on the issue of asylum and refuge. Those who do not want to provide succour have the right to refuse it. Equally, they shouldn’t be stoking the conditions that create refugees in the hundreds of thousands.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly