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The refugee crisis is a global problem that nearly every state is feeling and experiencing the effects of. This massive migration is one that sovereign states, intergovernmental organizations, existing institutions, and international laws and treaties are simply not equipped to handle. From a global standpoint, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deals with a vast majority of the current refugee and migrant crisis’ as they ensure the 1951 Refugee Convention is honored and implemented by member states. The 1951 Refugee Convention, formally titled The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is a United Nations treaty. It was ratified by 146 member states and formally defines who qualifies as a refugee, the rights forcibly displaced individuals are entitled to, and the obligations of the state to protect these individuals (UNHCR, 9). According to this treaty, a refugee is, “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..” (C.R.T.T.S.O.R., Art. 1). This treaty also ensures that states implement non-refoulement, a core tenet of the treaty and international law stating that refugees cannot be returned to a state in which their life or freedom is in danger. The global refugee crisis is often times called the migrant crisis, however, refugees and migrants are incredibly different groups of people with respect to motives and international law protections. The two terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ cannot and should not be used interchangeably. This crisis is the subject of many different prejudices as it challenges and possibly changes the cultures, environments, and familiarity of many host states and peoples. The global refugee crisis challenges much more than the financial and economic bounds of the host state but also changes the face of state and international politics as a humanitarian crisis.
According to the UNHCR, as of June 2017, there is 65.6 million displaced individuals, 22.5 million refugees, 10 million stateless people, and only 189,300 resettled refugees (UNHCR, 2017). As stated above, the UNHCR recognizes two other categories of people other than refugees, they are internally displaced persons (IDP) and stateless persons. Internally displaced persons are people who have fled their homes and cities, for the same reasons as refugees, but they remain within their state. IDPs are not entitled to the same rights and protections as refugees as they are still within their state of origin and are subjected to that governments laws. Stateless persons are people who do not have a nationality so they are not entitled to any rights or protections of a state and are often denied education, healthcare, the right to work, and typically have no forms of identification. A notable example of a group of stateless people are Palestinians, as they are not recognized by Israel as citizens and Palestine is not universally recognized as a state, leaving these people without a nationality (UNHCR, 2017). As previously mentioned, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ cannot be used interchangeably, since migrants make the choice to move and have the ability to return to their native state. Many migrants are classified as economic migrants because they migrate from their home state due to poverty, famine, natural disasters, education, and/or for better jobs and opportunities. Migrants are not entitled to any benefits or protections that refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to as they are subjected to the regular immigration process of the state they desire to immigrate to. These statistics give scope to how immensely large and prevalent the refugee crisis is across the globe. Many states cannot accommodate and provide adequate resources for the sheer amount of individuals seeking asylum.
The European Union (EU) refugee crisis is a prominent international issue as many EU states cannot afford to provide asylum to the hundreds of thousands of individuals in need. The large majority of these individuals are from Syria, as the Syrian refugee crisis has become one of the most notable and problematic refugee crisis’ in recent years. The Syrian Civil War has left extreme political unrest and instability causing over 5.4 million to flee since 2011. However, the current status of the state and continuing war still leaves over 13.1 million people in need with 6.1 million displaced and 2.98 million people trapped in besieged towns (UNHCR, 2017). Given Syria’s proximity to Europe, this crisis has made international headlines as many Syrians have fled for asylum in Western Europe, attributing to the European refugee crisis. So far, Germany has provided asylum for 518,300 Syrian refugees this year, substantially the most in the EU. However, providing asylum comes at a huge cost placing an economic and political burden on the host state. The host state also can majorly compromise their internal security and safety measures depending on the motives of the refugees themselves, although corrupt motives are unlikely. These three components cumulatively contribute to the refugee crisis as many states do not have and cannot risk the resources required to intake the millions of people seeking asylum.
The costs associated with resettling and providing asylum for refugees is a staggering amount, especially in Germany’s case. By 2020, Germany is predicted to spend over 90 billion euros directly towards supporting the incoming refugees. The German Ministry of Finance predicted that 26 billion euros would fund rent and unemployment checks, 6 billion euros would fund language courses, and 5 billion euros would help refugees find jobs (Johnson, 2016). The sheer cost to house, settle, employ, and educate refugees is astounding, especially given the struggle and financial disparity some EU citizens face. This cost is the subject of many viewpoints that support denying asylum seekers the right to resettle and is causing many wealthier states, as determined by their GDP, to lower their refugee intake as a cost-saving economic measure. This exact maneuver was demonstrated by the United Kingdom with their vote to leave the European Union in order to secure their boarders and not be subjected to the rules and mandates the EU has set regarding refugees.
The economic burden, an inherently bias term, in relation to the needs of refugees, is at the heart of neorealist international relations theory, as each states best interest is their primary concern. Although states, for example, the United Kingdom, recognize and value the input of non-state actors, the United Nation in this case, their own well-being and success in terms of military power, economic standing, and conflict come first. As theorized by neorealist Kenneth Waltz, “That would be necessary because economic capabilities cannot be separated from the other capabilities of states…States use economic means for military and political ends; and military and political means for the achievement of economic interests.” (Waltz, 39). In terms of economic cost, states view themselves first and foremost despite the humanitarian compel and compassion that non-state actors and other states advocate for. Interestingly, none of the Great Powers have intervened into the global refugee crisis because the economic cost would lessen their own abilities and the global refugee crisis creates a security dilemma (Creamer, 2017). All of the Great Powers benefit from the instability and struggle of other states which has in turn cause states to take countermeasures that decrease their power and standing within the international realm. The United States and the United Kingdom have both taken notoriously staunch and strict standpoints regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. States like Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and Lebanon bear the grunt of the refugee crisis causing theses states to lose some economic, military, and political power. From an economic standpoint, many states are acting in a neorealist fashion that prioritizes their own well-being and security over the lives of millions of refugees.
The global refugee crisis also challenges the social, cultural, and religious norms of many states. A global rise in xenophobia, especially from Western Euro-American states, has viewed the refugee crisis from a standpoint founded in racist and imperialist narratives. This essay has primarily focused on the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, however, it is important to be noted that the global refugee crisis is also extremely prevalent in South America (Lakhani, 2). Although racist and imperialist narratives have been employed throughout Western history, specifically when looking at the colonialization of Africa and the Middle East, a new rise in these narratives and xenophobia can be attributed to the Global War on Terror (WoT). After the 9/11 Attacks in New York City, United States President George W. Bush declared a war on ‘terror’ saying, “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” (Bush, 2001). This war was initiated by the United States but highly involved France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and NATO participants against the terrorist regimes al-Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) and the Taliban. Many Western states rationalized and justified their actions during the WoT by publicizing information and narratives, that were often based on exacerbated or false claims, that assimilated Islam and Muslims with radical terror groups. The use of fearmongering attributed to an extreme rise in Islamophobia and xenophobia because many Westerners view Islam as a religion that employs, justifies, and encourages the actions of these gruesome terrorist groups.
The growth of Islamophobia has also been a central tenet to the common idea that Christians, especially white Christians, are the main enemy and opponent of these terror groups. This belief can be based on some of the terrorist attacks in Western Europe and America, however, this belief ignores the Arabic, often Muslim victims of these terrorist groups that far outnumber the white victims. In fact, many of these victims are refugees that are seeking asylum from the same groups and fears many Western states fear themselves. However, it’s these states that are using their xenophobia and Islamophobia to deny victims and now refugees, asylum (Shakdam, 2016). The Syrian Civil War has allowed for ISIS to besiege, control, and destroy numerous towns that has led to the murder and exodus of millions of Syrian refugees. The election of United States President Donald Trump signified just how far xenophobia permeated the American public and government. During his campaign and still into his presidency, Trump advocated for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and inferred that Christians are the main objects of Muslim persecutions and terror attacks (Deardean, 2017). These claims are easily dismissed by US National Counter-Terrorism Center research that concluded, “Muslims have suffered 82-97% of terrorism-related fatalities in the past 5 years.” (Deardean, 2017). False rhetoric like this has associated refugees with a false security risk that has been used to justify legislation that has diminished their abilities to seek asylum because many refugees are Muslim people of color. According to UN Refugee chief Filippo Grandi, “The right to asylum is being undermined by xenophobia as well as nationalistic and political rhetoric intent on linking refugees with security concerns and terrorism” (Schlein, 2016).
The mischaracterization of millions of refugees from Islamophobic and racist narratives is a product of constructivism. The international relations theory of constructivism theorizes that states interests are formed by social identities, interactions, and that relations within the international realm of politics is based on actors’ beliefs, perceptions, and interpretations of others’ behaviors (Creamer, 2017). According to Constructivist Alexander Wendt, “the meanings in terms of which action is organized arise out of interaction” (Wendt, 403). From the beginning of the US initiated WoT and the rise in Islamophobia, United States allies have adopted the same beliefs and narratives that view refugees as a major terrorism security threat. This Islamophobic view also stems from a place of xenophobia as many Muslim people are viewed and treated as ‘other’ in these primarily Christian and white states. As previously mentioned regarding Germany’s refugee budget, notable opposition gained traction in Germany with the government funding language courses for refugees, in attempts to help them adapt to their new country. This opposition is rooted in xenophobic ideals that view foreigners as less-worthy because they cannot speak the language. This same narrative is represented in the United States, regarding refugees that cannot speak English, as laws have gone into place that blocked the funding of language programs (Shakdam, 2016). These ideologies, prejudices, and narratives are all products of constructivism where societal ideals, perceptions, and beliefs have translated into actions on behalf of numerous states that mischaracterize refugees as security risks.
The global refugee crisis has become a stuck pervading global issue because one solution that all states can agree and then put into action, has not been found. Of course, the issue is not as simple as finding a single solution because there is not a single cause or problem to this crisis. The simple answer would be eliminating all forms of conflict, but that day has never been seen and is improbable. The economic and financial cost of the refugee crisis is astounding and unaffordable for many states leaving refugees and states in limbo. Also, the perceived security and internal threat risk of granting asylum to refugees is another issue that plagues this crisis. For these numerous reasons and facets to the global refugee crisis, finding a global solution to this problem is an extremely complex endeavor given the sheer size and depth of this humanitarian crisis.
Although finding a single solution may be next-to-impossible, there are numerous opportunities for changes to be made regarding the treatment, housing, protections, and costs associated with helping refugees. A rudimentary change needed is that all refugees, from a policy and political standpoint, are viewed as a burden which limits their autonomy. This change in principle is a key component to improving the refugee crisis, according to renowned University of Oxford Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and UNHCR consultant Alexander Betts. Because refugees are viewed as a burden, their worth is seen in terms of beginning economic cost and their religious and cultural affiliations. This is partially why so many refugees live in refugee camps for an average of 5+ years instead of resettling elsewhere (UNHCR, 2017). Refugee camps, are great in theory because they provide immediate shelter and basic necessities, however, they’re often located in desolate locations that limit refugees access to education and employment. As a whole, refugees often are not given the right to work or freedom of movement; both of which greatly limit an individual’s autonomy and eventually their success. A solution theorized by Betts in Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, calls for states to allow refugees the right to work and the freedom of movement (Betts, 5). Betts cites Uganda as an example, because Uganda allows refugees the right to work and the freedom of movement which has stimulated and improved the economy. In Uganda, 99% of refugees are successfully employed and not reliant on government stipends. More impressively, of the refugees that own their own business, 40% of their employees are Ugandans (Betts, 41-42). These statistics show that refugees have the potential to stimulate the economy and benefit society when they are allowed to work and provide for themselves instead of becoming dependent on government stipends. If this small change in principle of viewing refugees as assets not burdens, was replicated throughout more nations the capabilities, desires, and success of refugees could be greatly improved. The same way in which constructivism explains the spread of Islamophobia and xenophobia across potential host states, can explain a way in which a positive light can be shed onto refugees throughout the international sphere.
Governmental systems and states function in a very selfish and ridged manner, adhering to the beliefs and ideologies they deem true in order to ensure their success, just as realism theorizes. However, states are composed of much more than just theories and laws as the true heart of a state is the people; humans. International relation theories do not expand to encompass the nature of humanity and the common bond people have regardless of nationality, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. Governments and states are not businesses where the goal is sheer profit because the goal of the state is to provide for its people and cost is not always the winning factor. The unlabeled and often invisible tenet to solving the global refugee crisis is humanity. It was on this tenet that the 146 states ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention because these states realized together that they have a shared responsibility to provide for other humans, especially the oppressed, in times of need because every life is actually of value. Refugees are people who have been put in absolutely treacherous and desperate situations who deserve compassion and kindness from states and people much more fortunate. Warsan Shire, a Somali refugee who resettled in England wrote, “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” (Evans, 4). This quote speaks volumes of the desperation that refugees have gone through to only be denied asylum as they are a ‘burden’.
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