Europe’s refugee / migrant crisis

By Richard Black|September 7, 2015|Research|21 comments

It is too early to say if September 2015 was a turning point in western Europe’s attitude towards migrants and refugees, but the tragic and very public death of Aylan Kurdi has certainly had a powerful effect on both public and political opinion.  It should also have a galvanizing effect on those of us who have researched refugee and migration issues for many years – the voice of the academy has been there, in radio and TV interviews, commentaries on the crisis and in emerging proposals and some funding for new research, including some from SOAS researchers. But a systematic engagement remains to develop.

There is much to understand – but one way of approaching the crisis is to think through the historical precedents, to consider whether they offer us pointers as to what the space is for political and public action.  This is not easy, as historical precedents are never quite the same as what is going on now.  But surely this is an area for analysis and debate that is currently lacking.

Some have gone down this route. A recent excellent posting by Becky Taylor draws parallels between the public reaction to the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956 and emerging signs of compassion and solidarity in Europe today, but the Hungarian uprising is hardly comparable in terms of either the geopolitical circumstances (it happened at the height of the Cold War) or the numbers of refugees involved (an order of magnitude lower, at least).

Others have suggested that the closest parallel involves the events at the end of the Second World War, as millions of people found themselves homeless or stateless, or indeed tried to move home.  Certainly the period 1945-51 was a formative one: it was a crisis that gave birth to the UN Refugee Convention and established both attitudes towards refugees and a policy framework to deal with them for at least two decades.  Yet that was also a refugee crisis born of conflict that had engulfed the whole continent, where the sense of responsibility and urgency to find solutions was at a level that far exceeds what is likely to emerge today.

Meanwhile, although the political and economic crises that are producing today’s flows of refugees and migrants have their epicentres outside Europe, if we look to other major refugee crises that have happened outside Europe, whether that is Afghanistan, Rwanda, Liberia, or more recently the exodus from Iraq following US-UK intervention in 2003, all share a crucial difference – relatively few of those displaced made it out of the affected region.

Of course the fact that refugees from these earlier conflicts mostly found asylum – or were ‘contained’, if you prefer – in neighbouring or ‘transit’ countries in Asia, Africa or the Middle East is not in itself a good reason for inaction on the part of European states or disinterest on the part of European publics.  But the fact that many of the countries that were places of first asylum or transit in these earlier crises – Syria, Libya, or Lebanon for example – are either no longer in a position to offer safety or security themselves, or are at the very least fully-stretched, does force us to think differently about ways forward.  And given the extent to which conflict has been ‘hidden’ from Europe by these artificial borders, and the ‘burden’ of hosting refugees (such as it is) has been borne by others, some might argue that this is about time too.

Yet there is a modern-day European parallel that could help us to think about how to respond to events in Syria and elsewhere in the world in political, policy and indeed research terms to current events – and that is Bosnia in the 1990s.  The political crisis in Bosnia happened over two decades ago but the similarities are striking to the current situations in Syria at least: a brutal civil war, fuelled by overt or covert external interventions from various sides – the West, Russia, and the Gulf States; a territorial stalemate in that war which left ordinary citizens who had initially hoped to ‘stick it out’ either at home or close by to abandon hope for a resolution to the conflict, however imperfect; and a confused and vacillating approach from western states both to the conflict itself, and to the refugee crisis that it generated.

But if this analogy is right, how does it help?  Bosnia was hardly a crowning achievement of European refugee or foreign policy, and many of the debates we are having now about migration and refugees – about the role of trafficking, or the question of burden sharing – were unresolved then, which is perhaps why they are still current today.

I would suggest the analogy does help, though, in three key ways.

First, with the benefit of hindsight, and notwithstanding the many mistakes that were made in relation to the crisis in the wider former Yugoslavia, Bosnia does provide an example in which hundreds of thousands of refugees were accommodated in western Europe at short notice – especially across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the same countries most affected today – and who went home when the crisis was resolved.

I am not suggesting that either the circumstances of their reception – much less than Convention refugee status – or of their return – hardly the ‘voluntary’ return that states and international organsiations asserted – were ideal.   Nor am I suggesting that the crisis in Syria is clearly temporary.  However, for those worried that each refugee or migration crisis adds additional people to be housed and found work, schools, healthcare, social care on a permanent basis, the Bosnia crisis does provide an alternative model for what can happen: it gives the lie to the assertion that there is ‘nothing so permanent as a ‘temporary’ migrant’.

Second, what made the difference in terms of the resolution of the Bosnian conflict was when western Europe and the US started to engage with the crisis in a more coordinated way.  Initially, the European approach to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia was all over the place – and nationalist politicians within Bosnia exploited these divisions and rivalries.   We set up ‘safe havens’ for displaced people without really understanding how they would be defended, with terrible consequences.  The parallels with Syria are striking.

In the end, it did not need formal military intervention to end the war in Bosnia.  But it did need a coordinated approach, and a clear strategy.  In turn, coordination and strategy are so clearly lacking in relation to Syria – and our failure to push for a political solution ends up fuelling more violence.

Third, looking back at the Bosnia crisis, one of the problems facing Western diplomacy was that it was always difficult to see which side ‘we’ in the West should be on – as Yugoslavia’s religious, political and economic fault lines mirrored those in the wider Europe.  Indeed, as political solutions were explored and parties finally brought to the negotiating table, those who took part were the nationalists from all sides.  By contrast, those Bosnians who had believed in a multi-ethnic pluralist Bosnia had been systematically sidelined.

This last point sets us the most difficult challenge, since the political, economic, cultural and religious complexities of the current conflict in Syria – and indeed conflicts fuelling refugee crises elsewhere in the world – are no less than that of Bosnia.  Yet grapple with complexity we must – in a way that is informed not by simplistic or ideological narratives, but by integrated understanding of the region’s politics, culture and history.

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  17. This is a very interesting piece and well informed by someone who clearly is an expert on issues of migration, and it is good to draw on historical comparisons. May I therefore suggest that it might be useful perhaps (I am not an expert on migration and refugees studies and therefore this is a layman comment) to look at the post-second world war European migration to the US, whereby fairly desperate migrants went to the US and fostered the economic development of that country to make it a world economic power. I don’t see much of this discourse in the media and not even by experts, that migration brings economic development. The UK and Europe need skilled workers and many Syrians refugees have University degrees and professional skills of high standard that the UK and Europe will greatly benefit from. I believe that the current German approach to the migration crisis is informed by this view.

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