What History Can Teach Us About The Worst Refugee Crisis Since WWII
"European states were the architects of the modern refugee regime."
Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Alexander Betts, Director of the University of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre.
The thousands of men, women and children streaming through the borders of Europe have finally drawn the world's attention to a historic crisis.
The United Nations first warned over a year ago that more people around the world had been forcibly displaced than at any time since World War II. That figure has since risen from 51 million people to almost 60 million. The main reason behind the spike in refugees is four years of brutal war in Syria, the U.N. says.
Europe has struggled to muster a response. Germany is among a few countries who have have been willing to welcome a substantial number of refugees and sought a common European strategy to deal with the crisis. Other nations have locked down their borders, crammed refugees into transit camps, and said they won't take in Muslims, creating alarming echoes of the past for WWII historians and Holocaust survivors.
In the aftermath of the World War II refugee crisis, the world set up the first legal protection regime for refugees and created a plethora of multinational organizations to assist refugees and migrants. Alexander Betts, Director of the University of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre and a Professor of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, laid out five history lessons for dealing with the refugee crisis in a Guardian column this week. The WorldPost spoke to Betts about whether the refugee crisis after WWII might shed light on the crisis in Europe today.
There are more people displaced around the world than at any time since the Second World War, and Syria alone is the largest refugee crisis in a generation.
Until recently, the dominant assumption in Europe was that refugee issues primarily affected other parts of the world. Europe has faced large refugee movements during, for example, the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts of the 1990s. However, this is the first time in its history that Europe has faced a mass influx of refugees from outside the region.
The existing Common European Asylum System was not designed for such a situation. With the notable exception of Germany, few European countries emerge with much credit. Although this is gradually changing, there has been a lack of political leadership and moral courage. Over 2,700 people have died this year at Europe’s borders and a lot of this would have been preventable with more urgency and better political choices.
What lessons can we learn from the WWII crisis that could be applicable today?
There is a lot to be learned from history. European states were the architects of the modern refugee regime. They negotiated the 1951 Refugee Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It is a legacy we should be proud of and seek to preserve. It was a moment at which Europe collectively understood that people fleeing persecution should have a right to seek refuge in order to access fundamental human rights.
Yet some refugees languished without help for years after WWII ended. Is it unfair to expect Europe to respond immediately today?
It’s true that many refugees did not receive immediate support after the Second World War. But I do not think we have the same excuses today. We have learned a lot over the last 70 years.
Around the world, a neglected tragedy that is poorly understood is the situation of protracted displacement. Over half the world’s refugees have been in exile for at least five years, many in closed refugee camps where they do not have the right to work or move freely. This leads to an unacceptable waste of humanity. We should be recognizing that, with the right policies, refugees have skills, talents and aspirations, and the ability to contribute socially and economically. We should not be leaving people in limbo.
Despite the huge efforts after WWII, there was nationalist and anti-Semitic backlash at the time. Do you see any parallels with the responses of far-right or anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe today?
From the start of the Syria crisis, there has been inadequate willingness to resettle Syrian refugees. The unspoken reason for this has been fear of admitting large numbers of Muslims.
In Europe today, many people have a fear of immigration and terrorism. But there is a small but growing element of latent fascism. In many countries far-right parties are influencing the political agendas of mainstream parties. There is a genuine risk of a backlash over time, and it’s very important that politicians show leadership in countering xenophobic narratives.
You’ve written about the increase in “survival migration” -- people fleeing for their lives but who don’t match the traditional definition of refugees. Is the refugee protection system that was set up after WWII still fit for purpose today?
It is very important that we protect the distinctive rights of refugees and that we safeguard the 1951 Convention. If we tried to renegotiate that framework, it’s unlikely we would get such a good deal for refugees today.
In order to absorb growing numbers, though, we will need creative policies that rethink the nature of protection and assistance. These will include recognizing the capacities rather than just the vulnerabilities of refugees. To be sustainable, we will need to help people to help themselves, integrate them into the global economy, and empower them to make an economic contribution. For example, Uganda has adopted a Self-Reliance Strategy that gives refugees the right to work and significant freedom of movement. In our research, we've been able to show these kinds of policies can lead to better outcomes for refugees and host communities.
Does the current refugee crisis challenge the whole post-WWII idea of a European community, considering how difficult it has been for these nations to define a common policy on refugees, migration or border controls?
As has been widely acknowledged, this is a defining moment for the European Union. Key European values, such as regional cooperation and respect for human rights, are under threat.
To be effective in this area, the EU has to come up with an approach based on collective action. It needs a refugee policy to share responsibility within Europe and to support refugee protection globally.
However, it is struggling to either come up with a shared policy vision or to build political consensus around that vision. Angela Merkel has shown remarkable leadership, and a core group of countries are now working together. However, a number of other countries are refusing to cooperate and are instead pursuing unilateral strategies.