This post was published in ICAI’s online magazine Winds and Waves – now published at Medium.com (see explanatory note). It is an abridged version of a talk given by Vera Sistenich at the Social Media and Critical Care (SMACC) conference in Berlin on June 29th, 2017.
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By the end of 2015, 65.3 million individuals had been forcibly displaced by conflict or violence, and the world was hosting 21.3 million refugees — an increase of more than 50% since the end of 2011. By the end of 2015, Syria, in its fifth year of war, was the largest refugee-producing country — 4.9 million refugees, followed by Afghanistan and Somalia. In the same year, more than 5,700 migrants died globally or went missing. UNHCR calculates that in 2017, 1 in 30 migrants in the central Mediterranean died en route. This global crisis also includes the migration of Sudanese to Egypt, Congolese and Zimbabweans to South Africa, Eritreans to Israel and Italy, and Libyans, Iraqis, and Rohingyas across the world, as well as those fleeing murderous violence and lawlessness in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.
- a crisis of the post-World War II paradigm underpinning our refugee structures, which has been unable to cope with globalization’s complexities and is now struggling for relevance
- a crisis of the conflicting narratives for some of the greatest social challenges exemplified by national and international responses to refugees: from issues of human rights, xenophobia, sexism and economic protectionism, to terrorism and climate change
- a crisis of the lack of easy solutions to the main root cause of mass migration — growing and radical global inequality that includes the absence of civil order, physical safety and social and cultural structures necessary for people to live a dignified, fulfilling life, made ever more widely known through digital media of a hyper-connected world.
So what are some of the fears that are stirred up by refugees? Are they justified? What do they lead to?
The economic argument:
A widespread, but unfounded, fear is that an influx of refugees will drive up competition for work, push down wages, or drain the public coffers — a notion that feeds a rising global appetite for economic protectionism. The IMF has estimated that in the short term, the macroeconomic effect from the refugee surge is likely to be a growth in GDP of 0.1% for the EU as a whole and short-term cost to the EU will be 0.19% of GDP to public expenditure. We are talking about fractions of 1% net cost.
Australians know the economic dead-end folly of protectionism. In 1890, Australia was the richest country in the world when it chose to protect that success with quotas, tariffs, and regulations — a misadventure that dropped it to 20th and took decades to reverse. False emotive perceptions must not drive the economic trajectory of our countries.
The refugee crisis is also fueling the rise of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. The attempted US travel bans have been characterized as a response to a ‘phantom menace’, given that the chance that an American is killed by a refugee terrorist is one in 3.6 billion per year. Yet inciting Islamophobia plays into the ISIS recruitment strategy: the more a group can be seen to hate Islam, the more certain Muslims are likely to accept that their future is in joining, not rejecting, the Caliphate. Pointing the Islamophobic or xenophobic finger at refugees and immigrants exacerbates the conditions leading to radicalization and will backfire when preventing the rising phenomenon of homegrown terrorists.
At the same time it is unhelpful and unfair to lump all concerns raised about certain behaviours or belief systems of refugees and immigrants onto the racist pile. There is a pervasive tension between “freedom of speech” and offensive, discriminatory or racist talk. Expressions of “culturally-correlated irritations” could be more productively engaged with scientifically, examining whether or not they really pose any threat to existing societal values. Concurrently, host countries should be able to have open debates and evidence-based policies as to how to uphold the cultural and societal norms that attracted refugees in the first place, with a focus on promoting societal cooperation and peace..
One particular societal value — that of gender equality — is worth specific mention. Valerie Hudson, co-author of the 2012 book Sex and World Peace, demonstrated through empirical evidence how “the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity … it is how well its women are treated”. As we incorporate refugees and immigrants in the evolution of our multicultural societies, a core objective must be the empowerment of women.
‘Real refugees’ vs ‘economic migrants’:
At the heart of the breakdown of our existing refugee processes is a lack of solution for the fundamental dichotomy of the modern migration narrative — how do you determine whether someone is a ‘real refugee’ in distress, or a ‘fake refugee’ pursuing economic advancement not available at home? Yet this is a false dichotomy.
This breakdown is, I believe, symptomatic of an ever-rising key tension between two deeply held values in our existing liberal world order: human rights and the existence of sovereign nations. In the aftermath of World War II, Western policymakers set out to build a global system that would prevent a repeat of the disastrous failures of international diplomacy during the interwar period. They concluded that achieving both economic development and world peace needed free markets, human rights, the rule of law, and elected governments held accountable by independent judiciaries, free press and vibrant civil societies. The main institutions created as part of this post-war liberal order — the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, World Bank and the G-20 — together have influenced almost every aspect of the modern world but now are under attack by countervailing forces.
Rising domestic hostility towards refugees and immigrants is fuelling resentment towards supranational authorities and their ‘irritating meddling’ in the ability of sovereign nations to deal with refugees and migrants as they see fit. Emphasis on the tension between individual rights to seek asylum and self-governance by sovereign nations as seen through the lens of the refugee crisis is, therefore, self-serving in the current political climate.
By constantly challenging the legitimacy of refugee claims, governments can delay and stall meeting their international obligations, creating the possibility of by-passing them altogether. Increasingly, governments see political advantage in being hard on refugees as citizens priorize their own interests over any moral imperative to help needy foreigners and reward their governments for standing up to supranational authorities.
Our world order’s legitimacy is undermined when leaders consistently seem to interpret the rules as they see fit, ignoring key norms. Using the refugee crisis to delegitimize our global authorities and historical agreements slowly but surely chips away at the foundations of our post-war prosperity, democracy and peace. While the current world order is by no means perfect, it is all that we have in terms of fora and structures for international negotiations and accountability and we strike it down, consciously or unknowingly, at our peril.
The perverse triad — oil, instability, refugees:
The final, most fundamental, reason we must care about the refugee crisis is its relationship with oil. A perverse triad links refugees and oil: our dependency on it produces both political and environmental instability which generates refugees, and terrorist groups sell oil to fund conflicts which generate yet more refugees.
ISIS, which controls many oil fields in Syria, see oil as critical for financing its vision of an Islamic state. In Syria today, ISIS produces an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, earning about $1.5 million per day. They sell their oil at the wellhead to traders as well as to the Syrian rebels fighting them. Local hospitals, shops, farming and industrial machines are fuelled by ISIS oil. This has created a central dilemma in the international coalition’s fight against ISIS: how to bring down the Caliphate without fundamentally disrupting the life of the estimated 10 million civilians in areas under ISIS control?
Not only do conflicts over oil directly generate refugees, the climate change caused by burning oil will be a “threat multiplier” in creating resource conflicts and mass refugee populations fleeing droughts, firestorms, heatwaves, floods and desertification.
Exemplifying our greatest challenges:
In conclusion, then, we must care about the global refugee crisis because it exemplifies some of the greatest challenges facing our global institutions and liberal world order today.
- A root cause is growing global inequity fuelled by our addiction to oil. Remedies lie in global human development efforts, especially in educating and empowering women, and a definitive transition to a sustainable energy paradigm.
- Concurrently, we need to reject use of the refugee crisis as pernicious justification for economic protectionism, racism and Islamophobia, as well as the toxic undermining of our supranational authorities.
- If we do want to restructure our current world order, we must do this conscientiously, with thought and consideration for the hierarchy of moral and social priorities we are willing to live by.
As Hannah Arendt wrote, “The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. …[T]hinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down”. It is now critical that wherever we come from, we both care and think deeply about our attitudes and policies towards refugees.
Vera Sistenich is a Specialist Emergency Physician in Australia and a Research Associate at the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). Her research focus is on the development and implementation of clinical and public health care policies in the setting of humanitarian disasters.