You are the officer in charge of overseeing refugees’ related issues in a multilateral humanitarian organisation. There is an ethnicity-based civil war going on in a region and as a result, many people are being displaced. Hitherto, the economically better-off neighbouring countries have accommodated the streams of migrants with financial support from your organisation. The violence in the region has increased recently and the flux of people seeking refuge has grown substantially. With countries sealing their borders, the refugees are left in a vulnerable situation. You are sent to negotiate for humanitarian settlement of refugees with the neighbouring countries, who also happen to be a powerful economic bloc. However, they refuse any more accommodation on the following grounds: (a) Drainage of resources in the face of subdued economic conditions. (b) Domestic political repercussions. (c) Rehabilitation will encourage more influx and indirectly fuel the persecutors. (d) Permanency of settlement in face of better prospects than at home. What are the counter-arguments that can be cited to convince the countries for an immediate solution? Suggest some long term measures as well that should be followed to address the problem. (15 Marks)

Mentors Comments:

  • While ethical arguments are must to convince on humanitarian grounds, the answer must also propose economic, equitable and more acceptable, pragmatic solutions. 
  • The answer should reflect the understanding of reluctance in such issues and therefore must specifically address each point with a combination of short and long term solutions.

Answer:

Refugees have been defined as those unable or unwilling to return to their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” As mentioned, their numbers are increasing due to increased violence. Even though the concerns raised by the countries are genuine, the crisis at hand requires a humanitarian response. Turning refugees back or erecting walls will only lead to their piling up on borders and will exacerbate the problem.

As an officer-in-charge of managing refugees and convincing countries to step-up their efforts, I will have to appeal to their core societal values as well as convince them with short-term economic and political arguments. As has often been the case, the high minded declarations of principles have often remained mostly that – declarations. Therefore, to extract action on the ground the arguments must be presented in a convincing manner where social, political and economic goals of the countries are advanced.

My arguments would be:

(a) Regarding the drainage of resources in the face of subdued economic conditions:

Yes, the cost of maintaining refugees in camps and shelters may drain resources temporarily, but in the medium term, there are economic benefits to be reaped. A significant proportion of the incoming refugee population would be young, energetic, motivated, and committed to building a better future in their new homes. Capitalizing on this, the decision-makers can turn a severe short-term challenge into a powerful long term advantage.

Private sector can also be involved, including MNCs. Early involvement in the process of assessment, education, and integration planning would allow the private sector to help shape policy from the outset. They can help identify the skills and abilities that would most benefit their sectors, establish guidance and training programs, and offer apprenticeships.

Also, since these countries, for example, European countries today, are old/ageing, the refugees will act as an antidote to ageing populations and low birth rates. They can help address the looming shortages of working hands in the near future.

(b) Addressing domestic political repercussions:

Certainly, there will be political pressure from the opposition parties, who might try to monger the anti-immigration sentiment in the public, creating fear about losing jobs, draining resources and cultural invasion. In such a scenario, the political and community leaders would have to appeal to the public conscience about the cost of doing nothing. I would encourage political leadership to unite on the issue and with support of Civil Society, build up a public case for rehabilitation of refugees. It is important to honestly explain to the locals about the responsibilities they have – economic, historical and above all humanitarian.

Powerful images shake the conscience of the public and political leaders and therefore, I should make sure that they are not aloof to the conditions of the people. I will appeal to them to lead with morality and purpose, rather to waste time in appeasing or courting populist movements. Only by turning the challenges into opportunities can social, political, and economic risks be mitigated.

I will also give a statistical argument that the refugees which they are shouldering are only a minuscule percentage of their population and therefore, the perceived threats are more exaggerated than real. For example, in Europe, the asylum seekers are less than 0.1% of its population.

The grouping of the countries should be working to encourage and harness the generosity of some of its members, while containing and resisting the selfishness of others. To be successful, however, there must be burden-sharing. If those whose instinct is to be generous are left alone to shoulder the burden, that generosity will not last for long.

(c) Rehabilitation will encourage more influx and indirectly fuel the persecutors:

This argument mixes the two problems at hand together and confuses the cause-effect relation. The refugees are the immediate concern and everything must be done to rehabilitate and resettle them. It does not in any way forestall nations’ responsibility to take action to end the civil war.

Bringing an early end to war should be the ultimate goal of all nations. But that should not be the pretext for ignoring the conditions of refugees. In what way the countries intervene should be decided by international laws/treaties, but the hands-off approach should not extend to the many civilians who have no choice but to seek refuge outside their home country. The least that can be done is to welcome them.

(d) Permanency of settlement in face of better prospects than at home:

The refugees are mostly fleeing persecution in their home countries but are also attracted by the economic prospects that these countries offer. This is a reality that the countries must accept and treat as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Historically, waves of migrations have only enriched the culture and economies of destination countries. In the long run, a society can advance only through openness and tolerance. The United States would not have become the leading world power without the successive waves of migrants that landed there.

Not all of these refugees will remain in Europe permanently. When they do return to their homelands, they will have the skills to help rebuild their societies and economies, as well as provide strong ties to the country where they sought refuge. The importance of this investment may seem distant, but will certainly reap dividends in building strategic weight, strong trade and not to mention, soft power.

Some long term measures that can address the problem

Everybody recognises that ending the war and turmoil is the only possible long-term solution to the refugee crisis but nobody expects this to happen anytime soon. This means that beyond the humanitarian rhetoric the only option is to devise the most efficient containment policy which will limit the crisis of conscience on seeing conditions of refugees. Some measures that can be taken:

  • Greater protection and assistance to people in their own countries so that they do not have to flee in the first place.
  • Next, efforts should be made to provide for their temporary settlement in nearby areas. This will require more man and material resources than currently available. Affluent countries, especially those not sharing the refugee burden should contribute generously. This way, it would also be easy to repatriate refugees once the conditions normalise.
  • There should be a multilateral asylum policy to facilitate the equitable sharing of the burden of refugees.
  • An integrated asylum agency to verify, facilitate and resettle the refugees in different countries. The current system of fragmented border agencies is not only inefficient, expensive and cruel but also nonaccountable and works only to pass the responsibility.
  • NGOs, religious bodies and the private sector should be roped in.
  • Public-facing organisations, such as sports clubs can step in to build societal opinion in favour of welcoming.

We cannot blame people for wishing to leave conflict-ridden, impoverished countries and find a better life elsewhere. In their situation, we would do the same.

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