Saturday, November 21, 2009

Of State Borders, Wars and Refugees

by Lev Lafayette  (picture above)

The fact that communities have always had policies concerning the movement of people into the lands held by that community should surprise nobody with even a modicum of understanding of anthropology and history. True, there are some rugged individuals who dream of a past or of a future, where one can simply wander with absolute freedom wherever they should like and perhaps many of these are well intention with a desire to interact with nature in solitude. But terra nullius was, and is, a fiction; the principle of freedom of movement is one that must be negotiated and balanced with present occupiers and their claims of jurisdiction. It must be acknowledged that capital will always be more likely to have greater freedom of movement than labour, for capital itself is not a moral actor. With technological and systematic development, such borders have developed from vague marchlands often defined by natural boundaries (forest, river, mountains) to very specific and precise designations, controlling both the movement of people and also the movement of animals, plants, and goods, not to mention the opportunity for rulers to acquire lucre through visa charges, excises and duties.

With the institution of landed property the negotiations between immigrant and established community ceased to be a negotiation between equals with the balanced tipped firmly in favour in the owners of estate. The opportunity now existed for one person or class of persons to acquire the best land to exclusion of the others. If the calculated risk was considered worthwhile, this acquisition was made force of arms in the pursuit of monopoly profit. Wars, both across state borders and within them, have challenged the effectiveness of administrative systems to smoothly operate in some cases, and in others the local jurisdictions have simply had to acknowledge the chaos as a quirky result; a most famous case being Baarle-Hertog (the Belgium exclaves in the Netherlands) and Baarle-Nassau (the Netherland's exclaves in Belgium), where the complexity arises from a number of medieval treaties, land-swaps and sales between the Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant and ratified by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1843.

Whilst such borders seem amusingly anachronistic in a civilised and modern Europe, they underlie a much more serious concern; that fluctuating borders, between and within states, are often the result of violent conflicts which displace huge sections of the affected population, before, during and after the actual conflict leading to the presence of refugees seeking sanctuary. The contemporary definition of a refugee is derived from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which defined a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country. The 1967 Protocol expanded the original definition which was specific to "events occurring before 1 January 1951... in Europe". The Convention and Protocol combined do not have such geographical or temporal limits. Until a person is legally recognised as a refugee in a country where they seek sanctuary they are designated as asylum seekers.

Behind these legal definitions is the very real people themselves. At the beginning of 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the total number worldwide of such people at almost 8.5 million at the beginning of 2006. This figure excludes some 4.6 million Palestinian refugees classified under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), who are the only group to be granted refugee status to the descendants of refugees. Nor do these figures include Internally-Displaced People, those who have been forced to flee their homes for the same reasons as refugees (usually civil war) but remain within their country's borders. At the end of 2006 the number of these persons was estimated at 24.5 million, with some 40% of these being in Africa. Conditions in refugee and IDP camps is typically very poor and are rife with abuse and violence. For the large number of children in such places there is little opportunity for formal schooling. Asylum seekers, apart from often suffering physical wounds, often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (approximately 9% across several studies) and major depression (5%).

A common characteristic of both refugees and internally displaced persons is that the people involved are seeking sanctuary. An ancient times among both the Greeks and Egyptians it was held that a person who fled to a temple could not be harmed without inviting divine intervention. This religious right to asylum was included in medieval European legal codes, originally with King Ethelbert of Kent, c600AD. In modern times, significant numbers of people seeking asylum after the first world war to the establishment of the League of Nations' High Commission for Refugees in 1921, dealing with some 1.5 million people who were fleeing the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War and soon after some 1 million Armenians fleeing the genocide in Turkey. International response however, was not always beneficial. The United States introduced the Emergency Quota Act (1921) and the Immigration Act (1924), aimed at reducing the migration of southern and eastern Europeans. As a result most of the European refugees - principally Jews and Slavs - fleeing Stalinism, the Nazis and World War II were barred from coming to the United States.

Often overlooked is the massive refugee crisis in the last months of WWII and immediately afterwards. During the war itself the Allied forced had created repatriation of over seven million displaced persons in Europe and China. However as Soviet forces advanced towards Germany, some five million German citizens fled northern and western Poland and Prussia. Further, Poland engaged in an ethnic expulsion program an issue further complicated as most of eastern Germany was under Polish administration. Large numbers of Germans were also expelled or left eastern Europe; an estimated twelve million in total and between five hundred thousand and a million perishing in the process.

Other refugee crisis in the second half the twentieth century and in contemporary times begins with the partition of India, leading to the largest movement of persons in history, with some eighteen million Hindus and Sikhs moving from West Pakistan to India with a smaller number of Muslims moving in the other direction. The Algerian War of Independence resulted in some two million Algerians either fleeing into the Algerian hinterland or relocating to France, Morocco or Tunisia, along with some nine hundred thousand European-descended Algerians. Decolonisation also led to approximately one million people of Portuguese descent leaving Angola and Mozambique and the Angolan Civil War caused four million IDPs and five hundred thousand refugees. During the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, more than ten million Bengalis fled to neighboring India. Following war and the establishment of communist governments in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1975, about three million people became asylum seekers, resulting in the term 'boat people' entering the vernacular. The civil war in Sri Lanka, from the early 1980s onwards, generated over one hundred thousand refugees and almost three hundred thousand IDPs. In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, over two million people fled into neighboring countries. A civil war in Tajikistan has led to 1.2 million refugees and displaced persons. Africa's instability is so great that countries are often simultaneously countries of origin for refugees and countries of asylum for other refugees; the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the place of origin for over four hundred thousand refugees, but it is also the place of refuge for almost two hundred thousand. In contemporary Darfur, some 2.5 million people - a third of the population - have been forced to flee the homes after attacks by government-backed paramilitaries. The current war in Iraq led to displacement of some 4.7 million persons; 2 million seeking refugee status and the others as IDPs.

The reality is that whilst there are wars, with their heavy foundation in the existence of standing armies and the prospect of monopoly control of natural resources, there will be asylum seekers. Indeed, if scientific expectations have a degree of accuracy, in all probability the twenty-first century will witness huge displacements of people as 'climate change asylum seekers'; those whose homes and livelihood become no longer viable due to rising sea levels, deforestation and desertification, extreme weather, extinctions etc. With these affects monopolistic competition for resources will become greater, leading to more wars and increased numbers of asylum seekers in coming decades. In these circumstances it is probable that there will be a rise among reactionary nationalists who will oppose such asylum seekers, who will support their expulsion and detention and generally seek to overturn the Refugee Convention.

In contrast a policy that is dedicated to maximising human freedom promotes policies that allow anyone to settle in any area subsequent to basic health and security checks, limited by the carrying capacity of the region in question. Indeed, there is a utilitarian argument that refugees should be given priority over general immigration as their needs are greater as will be the change in their circumstances. As for specific settlement locations, these should be determined by smaller jurisdictions, not larger. As the Howard administration in Australia sought to reduce the refugee intake into Australia - and engaged in a particularly racist and heartless program of incarceration, temporary protection visas and even sending naval vessels to prevent the landing of those arriving by boat - many areas of regional Australia expressed great desire for further migrant populations to settle in increasingly deserted townships.

The detention of asylum seekers is another issue that is not going to go away, and it will be increasingly a favoured tool of popularist governments who seek to incarcerate asylum seekers pending determination of their status as a refugee, especially those who arrive by boat. In Australia, such "unauthorised" arrivals have been treated with outcry by a conservative media even though in 2008 the total number people who sought asylym in such a manner was a paltry 3.4%. Australia was the only country that mandated the detention of all such arrivals, and public claims were often made that this would deter people smugglers, although it was never substantiated how punishing the victims would challenge the perpetrators. Because application for refugee status is a universal right, one that transcends local jurisdictions, and the temporal vagaries of politics, the management of such applications should be determined internationally, not by the states in question. In other words, rather than processing of refugee claims and management of detention centres being carried out by states, they should be carried out by the UNHCR.

As a further emphasis on the universal applicability of the claims, concerted international effort needs to be directed towards those countries that are not signatories to the 1967 Protocol. Specifically this refers to a swath of countries across the middle-east and southern asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia among others. Of course, in some of those cases people may indeed be fleeing from the governments of such countries. Nevertheless, the existence of these non-signatories causes problems for neighbouring states, as these asylum seekers are supposed to seek refuge at the first country of opportunity. With the existence of 'non-countries' in between the source and destination, the real or imagined concern of selective choice weakens claims of asylum among the existing inhabitants.

Whilst these three policies - universality of the Protocol, UNHCR processing of asylum seekers, localised settlement of refugees - will certainly serve to provide greater justice for refugee claimants and local communities, reminder is drawn to the original points of this article; that whilst there is the possibility of monopoly ownership over natural wealth, there will be the the impetus for wars both internal and external to states. Whilst this problem remains unresolved, along with the lack of responsibility of damage to the environment, a genuine tragedy of the commons, there problem of asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons, shall remain.

by Lev Lafayette, founder of Labor for Refugees (Australia)

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  1. Heartfelt and very well researched. Thanks for this. :))

  2. Interesting Lev. A good reminder of the formalism of refugee protections.

    Is Labor for refugees going to reconstitute itself to campaign against Rudd Labor in its appalling and reactionary treatment of refugees?

  3. Hello John,

    Labor for Refugees was formed with two objectives; ending mandatory detention and ending temporary protection visas. By the end of my six year involvement in the group it was Labor policy to do just that, and both of those are now federal government policy.

    The organisation still exists and still active, and any further actions are really up to the current organisers. You may wish to contact Robin Rothfield in Victoria and Jenny Haines in NSW for any activities that the branches are up to.


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