In 2015, an estimated 38 million people were internally displaced around the globe – 18 million people were refugees and 1.8 million were asylum seekers. And yet, one word can explain the horrific lack of action by international leaders that leaves far too many without the necessary assistance; that word is politics. Indeed, the invisible, but very real, force of politics continues to prevent effective action, and when effective action does somehow eventuate, politics is the force that brings it to a halt. It is undeniably chilling that what should be a social issue is now warped by the realm of politics, where the national interests of states contend with obvious moral duties to protect human rights, and more significantly, human lives.
Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the devastation in Syria has provoked what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has labelled as the “biggest movement of people since World War Two.” In May 2015, the United Nations estimated more than 4 million Syrian refugees had fled the country, and around 8 million were internally displaced. In March 2015, 12 million were considered in need of humanitarian assistance, including around 5.6 million children. By May, this had risen to 15 million. As UN action was, as has become all too typical, far too slow in dealing with the crisis on hand, many of these refugees were forced to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers crossing the Mediterranean, in the hope of reaching safety in Europe.
It was in October 2013, when 366 migrants perished at sea, that the Italian Government responded by launching Operation Mare Nostrum. The fleet, consisting of an amphibious assault carrier (capable of landing rescue helicopters), two frigates and five patrol vessels at any one time, rescued 150,000 migrants and arrested 330 people smugglers in its one year of operation. However, opposition within Italy grew as opposition throughout Europe became vocalised. The British Government labelled the program as “an unintended pull factor,” believing it encouraged migrants to take the perilous journey. The Italian Government had also been neglecting to abide by the Dublin Regulations (obligations which EU members must adhere to in regards to the asylum seeker application process) in not fingerprinting and properly examining all rescued migrants. By October 2014, pressure from the European Union had mounted to the point where the Italian Government was forced to abandon the program.
Instead, the EU established Operation Triton, presenting it as a superior alternative to Operation Mare Nostrum. However, Triton received far fewer resources and only one third of the budget. Most importantly, it did not include the active search and rescue component that was a crucial feature to the success of Mare Nostrum. Ultimately, the number of those crossing the Mediterranean has continued to increase, with the UN documenting 219,000 in 2014, which increased to more than 300,000 in 2015. This trend suggests that the removal of Mare Nostrum has not reduced the ‘pull factor’ at all.
As the politics of the European Union left many refugees helpless, many in Syria were forced to flee to neighbouring countries. However, unlike European states, countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are not equipped to deal with such an enormous crisis, as they are lacking resources and funds to effectively host the flow of millions of refugees. As of 2016, more than a quarter of the Lebanese population is comprised of Syrian refugees, prompting the government to call on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to halt refugee registration. This achieved little, however, as thousands still flow into the country. In Jordan, more than one in thirteen people are now Syrian refugees. As of May 2015, Turkey had taken in 1.6 million refugees from Syria, the most of any state. Such mass movement of people to these countries have significantly burdened domestic economies, and for the refugees, they are left stranded in camps with limited food, water and necessary resources.
Looking closer to home, it is since 1982 that ethnic Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, have been refused citizenship by the Buddhist Burmese government, which denies their existence altogether. Within the country, more than 140,000 are estimated to be internally displaced, and local authorities severely limit access to NGOs to provide aid. Decades of this social and institutional discrimination has forced many Rohingyas to flee Myanmar, a phenomenon which has escalated a great deal in the past few years. Between 2013 and 2015, the UN estimated more than 120,000 Rohingyas fled the country in what it dubbed as “floating coffins.” The rate of refugees fleeing is increasing. In May 2015, 8,000 refugees were stranded in the Andaman Sea, which finally prompted some response from the South Asian Pacific region.
On the 29th of May, officials from various regional states, including Australia, attended the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, hosted in Bangkok, with the objective of attaining a multilateral solution to the crisis. The Burmese Government continued to reject all accusations that it was to blame for the crisis. When the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott was asked whether Australia would offer resettlement to some of the refugees, he replied “nope, nope, nope.” Both Malaysia and Indonesia, however, agreed to provide humanitarian assistance to 7,000 migrants. Ironically, Australia is one of the few states in the region to have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, yet the government continues to forgo the obligations it has agreed to. Article 33 of the Convention establishes the principle of non-refoulement, where a state party may not return a refugee to a location where they may face persecution. Article 31 declares the right for refugees not to be punished for the illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state.
Australia continues to violate these obligations with its ‘Stop the Boats’ policy, whereby the Navy has repeatedly and forcibly turned back boats, and with the functioning of offshore detention facilities. Amidst the talks in Bangkok, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called out the Australian government in stating those who sign treaties have an obligation to believe in what they sign. A final shocking twist in events was the Abbott Government’s decision to pledge $5 million (AUD) to the government of Myanmar.
Australian migration policy since the beginning of the 21st Century has ceaselessly abandoned moral duties to refugees in a clear preference for border security. Still, this year, the migrant crisis in the South Pacific continues, and though initial aid from Malaysia and Indonesia was promising, 26 NGOs report that 70% of migrants in Malaysian refugee camps have no access to safe water.
Can we be hopeful that states will begin to opt for moral obligations rather than political interests? Only months into 2016, it is yet to be seen whether countries capable of effective action will finally take initiative. The Italian Government proved that successful resolution is definitely in the realm of possibility. Indeed, even Germany, which had once favoured the establishment of offshore processing centres in Northern Africa, resembling Australian centres on Nauru and Manus Island, has now led the way in Europe for resettlement. In August 2015, the government agreed to suspend the ‘Dublin Regulations.’ A month later, Chancellor Merkel assigned €6 billion to emergency aid and promised an intake of 800,000 refugees by the end of the year. In November, German newspaper ‘Die Welt’ declared that more than 950,000 asylum seekers had entered the country in 2015.
Other EU states, however, continue to act in the interest of border security. In September 2015, the Hungarian Government began erecting a 177 km long razor-wire fence along its Serbian border to prevent the flow of refugees. The horrifying popularity of Donald Trump in the ongoing US Presidential race suggests that an unfortunately significant percentage of the US population supports racist and hardline immigration policy. Perhaps most significant in the continuation of opposition to resolution is the rise of ISIS, which has allowed governments to employ the excuse of terrorism to justify border security over an obligation to refugees.
In the meantime, whilst politics continues to interfere with resolution, refugees continue to flee persecution, continue to die at sea, and continue to live without hope.