The Agony and the Exodus

The tragic exodus of people from war-torn Syria and surrounding countries challenges the world’s reason and sympathy. Since 2011, some four million people have fled Syria, with millions more internally displaced. Syria’s neighbors – Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – currently house the vast majority of the externally displaced. But, as the crisis has progressed, hundreds of thousands of refugees have headed toward Europe, with most taking the extremely dangerous marine route.

The nature and scale of this exodus have rendered all previous legal and political assumptions about migration obsolete. In the past, the chief motive for migration was economic. The debate to which economic migration gave rise was between liberals, who upheld the principle of the free movement of labor, and those who wanted restrictions on movement among countries in order to protect jobs, culture, and/or political cohesion.

As the world filled up with nation-states, and empty spaces filled up with people, restriction triumphed over free movement. Controls on immigration became widespread after World War I. All countries developed population policies.

But there has always been another, much smaller, group of asylum-seekers – those individuals forced to flee their home countries by persecution, often on religious or ethnic grounds. The 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees recognized a right of asylum for those unable to return to their country of origin owing to a “well founded” fear of persecution.

In practice, however, it has never been simple to distinguish between economic and political migrants, because political persecution usually includes economic restrictions. The Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, or Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, were both economic and political migrants. So were the East African Asians forced out of Uganda in the 1960s.

But the number of those identified as political refugees with a right of asylum was much smaller than those whose chief motive was to improve their economic lot. This reflected the relatively settled political conditions of the world of the 1950s. Back then, the countries from which refugees are now escaping were under colonial or quasi-colonial rule, while homegrown dictatorships then emerged to preserve order in the old empires’ successor states. It was the collapse of these brutal systems in the wake of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2011 that created the current refugee crisis.

The refugees’ flight from Syria and other war-ravaged countries comes up against legal regimes that are poorly adapted to cope with it. The European Union severely restricts labor from non-member countries, but allows free movement of labor within its single market. This is justified by the fiction that the citizens of EU countries are members of a single polity. The right of Greeks to work in Germany is no different from that of Parisians to work in Marseilles.

But the EU is an incomplete state – one that may never be completed. An obvious indicator of this is that it lacks a fiscal-transfer mechanism to reduce the pressure of emigration from poor to rich areas. In the absence of this, it is assumed that free economic migration within the EU will produce little net movement of populations. The implicit model is that of the “guest worker” who comes and goes; in practice, a sizeable share of economic migrants from poorer parts of Europe stay in their country of destination, fueling an increase in support for anti-immigrant parties.

The asylum system is totally unprepared to deal with the new generation of refugees, who are ineligible under the existing framework, because they are fleeing not from specific acts of persecution, but from the disintegration of their states. They can be provided “humanitarian protection” or be granted “discretionary leave to remain” for a short period; but then they can be deported as illegal immigrants.

So what is to be done? Temporary residence status, in Europe or outside, would be reasonable if a rapid return to normalcy in the refugees’ countries of origin was a realistic prospect. In Syria, for example, it is not: Although politicians and commentators talk about stemming the flood at the source, no peace plan is in sight. The US and Russia back different sides. The West cannot accept the possibility that the Assad dictatorship, however brutal, may be the least bad option on offer. So the civil war will continue, the number of refugees in transit camps will increase, and more of them will risk their lives to enter leaky Fortress Europe.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has proposed distributing 160,000 of the refugees currently in Europe across the EU’s 28 member states. Germany is prepared to take far more. Indeed, Chancellor Angela Merkel has bravely asserted “the fundamental right to asylum for the politically persecuted with no upper limit; and that goes for refugees who come to us from the hell of civil war.” But other European leaders, faced with the rise of extremist, anti-immigrant parties, have not endorsed Merkel’s view; and the refugees still have to get to Germany through countries like Hungary, which are erecting walls and other border defenses to keep them out.

The truth is that the West cannot or will not absorb refugees in the numbers needed; and it has no solution to the problem of failed states. This means that, apart from doling out humanitarian aid to those in refugee camps, it has no policy. Unless and until that changes, the tragedy can only deepen.