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Adrift, Permanently: When it Comes to Refugees, the Crisis is Normal

November 19, 2015

On October 1st, the Institute for European Studies hosted a panel on the refugee crisis in Europe. Three of our panelists have posted their remarks from that panel on a forum run by the Consortium for the Study of Religion, Ethics, and Society at Indiana University. The remarks by one of our panelists, Timothy Waters, is posted below. To see the remarks of the other two panelists, click here

Adrift, Permanently: When It Comes to Refugees, the Crisis is Normal

Waters imageTimothy Waters – Professor of Law at Indiana University, Associate Director of its Center for Constitutional Democracy, and affiliated faculty at its Institute for European Studies

“If a man would lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.” That is Adam Smith – one of the architects of our modern world – in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s hard to conceive a bleaker or more profound truth about humanity, and anyone contemplating the running sore of the Syrian refugee crisis would do well to remember it.The only thing Smith gets wrong is the seeing: You can google pictures of a Kurdish boy photogenically washed up on the Turkish coast – one of thousands in the Aegean and Mediterranean – but observing the suffering of others doesn’t ensure loss of sleep, or an effective response. In truth, it is not in our nature – our system – to do otherwise.Not a message we like to hear. But even in today’s academy – more Sparta than Athens, and an increasingly self-funded Sparta at that – sometimes our purpose should be to see the world as it is, not propose remaking it. So, at the end of this essay, you won’t find a handy list of three things we can all do to fix the refugee problem. It’s not a problem we can fix, because the problem is the system. It is predicated on proximity, self-defined obligations, and self-interest; we are simply seeing it work.

Consider the contours of this crisis: Grinding war in Syria has displaced millions. Hundreds of thousands – together with Afghans, Eritreans, others – are making their way to Europe, across the Mediterranean, up the same Balkan valleys armies have traversed for millennia. Most head for the wealthy north. This migration and European states’ clumsy oscillations – opening borders, closing them, stringing barbed-wire, shooting teargas, throwing food – have triggered a political crisis in Europe.

But when did this become a crisis? While millions languished for four years in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – or when they began arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary? The current flow, though large, is a rich man’s problem: European Union leaders struggled to distribute 120,000 refugees, but even 500,000 or a million, in a wealthy continent of a half billion, is objectively manageable.

It is a crisis not because of refugees, but because of Europe. The EU is neither fish nor fowl: If it were a state, refugees would be a problem, not a crisis. But its present, interim position – with its so-called Schengen zone allowing borderless travel – is a design that, like the euro, cannot bear the weight of events. That is a flaw of EU governance, not the refugee system.

Under international law, countries have obligations to offer asylum, but in practice that means the place of first refuge; states regularly expel applicants who had a ‘realistic opportunity’ elsewhere. Refugees off the Libyan coast who destroy their documents understand this; migrants crying ‘Germany’ are not just fleeing danger but seeking the best possible life. They want something the system is not designed to give.

And not inclined, because states only have the obligations they choose – that’s the system too. Refugee law rests on the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Jordan and Lebanon aren’t even parties. Turkey is, but only accepts the original Convention’s obligation to receive refugees from Europe.

So the poor states ringing Syria have no obligations under the Convention – or obligations to waves of hypothetical European refugees – while wealthy Europe take a fraction of the burden; America, Asia, and the Gulf states take even fewer. And there are tens of millions more: The European flow is merely the spillover from a standing pool of human suffering, festering between the clashing plates of the state system.

That system is the creature of countries seeking to do something humanitarian without contradicting their own interests. It works this way because the governance of our globe works this way. The academic world, where I live, has become besotted with visions of a post-national world of hybridity, polycentrism, and decentralized networks. But a hybrid, polycentric network is not necessarily a pretty one, in the way a hydra is not pretty. The marks of multicephaly are auto-interpretation, self-dealing and ox-goring – ‘coordination’ but not ‘decision.’

Global governance is not global government. The more we chase the chimeras of shared society, the more we must acknowledge: In a real sense, there is no international legal order deserving of the name. Without centralized institutions of decision-making – without world government – this is the kind of regime we can expect.

One can imagine better systems. But implementing them is like the pacifist dream that ‘if every soldier laid down his arms, war would be over.’ A beautiful idea, full of pathos, but structurally implausible: It only happens at the end, when demoralized, dispirited, defeated forces mutiny, when there is chaos, collapse and desperate flight – rather like a refugee crisis.

This is the system we have; we are not likely to make a better one. ‘Improvement,’ if it comes, is likely to mean more effective border controls — like the great ring forts circling Spain’s enclaves on the African coast, or its highly effective shore patrols to keep boats away from the Canary Islands, or Australia’s high seas interdiction efforts that divert refugees to other countries for processing.

And as for the human beings, we can do some things: The impossibility of more than marginal reform means we should focus on the margins – granting asylum to a few more refugees, giving more funding for UNHCR. There’s your take-away. But it is a palliative, proffering a bandage, not providing real haven. The bandage is the system too, making life marginally less miserable in the permanent camps.

The crisis is real. Tonight, on the Aegean, men will put their wives and children into rubber rafts and push out from the Turkish shore, overloaded, motors failing, adrift. Some will make it; but others will sink, and those on board will die, tonight.

But, the crisis is also normal, and the ocean is wide: Sleep well tonight – you can see it all on the news tomorrow.



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