What Refugee Deportations from Europe Say about the Need for Strategic Vision

Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:

In recent weeks, European leaders have come under intense scrutiny due to a plan that would send many Middle Eastern refugees back to Turkey. On April 4, the first phase of the deportation policy began when boats destined for Turkey left the ports of Greece carrying refugees [1]. Policymakers in the European Union have promoted the plan as a way of addressing the logistical and security dilemma associated with the immediate influx of asylum-seekers from war-zones in Syria and elsewhere. Yet by seeking short-term relief from the refugee crisis, the E.U.’s actions reflect a broader malaise on the developed world’s part in stepping up to the humanitarian catastrophe at hand. This inaction is both morally reproachable and costly to the long-term strategic interests of actors like the E.U. and the United States. Taking on a more visionary and engaged approach is the only way to ultimately resolve the refugee crisis and protect leading states’ projection of power in the international system.

Although the first wave of refugee deportations has barely begun, the early results indicate how little long-term vision European and Turkish leaders actually possess for its continuation. Officials have admitted to a great deal of uncertainty as to how expulsions of refugees from Greece would materialize or how do deal with the likely outcry from those seeking sanctuary. Officials have even struggled to assert information on the exact number and nationality of deportations, according to some humanitarian organizations. Turkish officials, meanwhile, seem equally in need of a long-term strategy for providing for the expected returnees. According to one report, work has barely begun to construct proper facilities at Dikili, the port where Turkish officials will receive deported refugees [2]. The apparent lack of foresight regarding the first steps of implementation casts doubt on the prospect of a well-formulated long-term plan of any sort.

In some observers’ eyes, however, the unfolding deportation policy and the logistical challenges entailed simply represent the lesser of many evils, a grim but necessary approach to alleviating a migration crisis of unprecedented proportions. The new policy, the argument goes, will deter future would-be migrants from attempting illicit and dangerous journeys to southern Europe. It will also help to address the security concerns and issues of unregulated migration that have troubled much of the E.U. As Peter Foster argues in the Telegraph: “The failure to be realistic about Europe’s willingness to absorb such vast migrant flows itself inflicted great costs on the European Union.” Proponents of the deal consider the arrangement’s troubling implications for humanitarian obligations and international law to be relatively minor issues compared to European security and stability. Speaking on the loose interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that the deal entails, Foster writes, “this is the reality of our troubled times” [3].

Such attitudes, however, fail to give the deportations sufficient gravitas from a legal or a humanitarian perspective. The refugee deportations do not represent merely loose interpretations of international statutes, but are willful failures to meet universal humanitarian principles. As human rights advocates have pointed out, it is likely that many of the refugees selected for forced return to Turkey will be denied their right to a fair asylum-application process. Other advocates are concerned that once Turkey receives many of these returnees, it will then send many of them back to the very areas of instability that they have sought to escape [4]. Even E.U. officials have conceded that the policy could represent a clear-cut breach of international law [5]. Evidence already suggests that these fears are well founded: a recent Amnesty International report indicates that Turkish security forces are forcing Syrian civilians back across the border, and possibly even back into conflict zones [6]. If this can be confirmed, the E.U. is already complicit in flagrant human rights violations. At the very least, it may be guilty of essentially handing off its basic humanitarian obligations. Yet the culpability extends beyond the E.U.: other states have similarly fallen short in tackling the situation’s fundamental injustices. Unless global powers change course and rise to the occasion, they will only continue to cede the moral high ground.

Setting the grave legal and moral repercussions of the deportation policy aside, the current situation points to a more fundamental problem: the loss of vision and strategic prominence among leading powers such as the E.U. and the U.S. in facing global calamities. The sheer numbers of civilians who have tried to enter Europe through desperate means or who have become inserted in foreign communities points to the reach of the crisis’ potential consequences. This does not even cover civilians who remain within conflict zones in Iraq or Syria or who have been internally displaced by instability. Given their logistical potential for addressing the crisis and its global interests in doing so, developed states such as the U.S. and its E.U. partners have a decisive impetus to step up and formulate a long-term strategy. This is not to say that there are not legitimate concerns for taking on more responsibility. The recent terror attack on Brussels further emphasizes how developed states’ vulnerability to security threats may only be heightened by greater influxes of asylum-seekers [7]. Broadly speaking, citizens of such developed countries have ample right to fear how such mass and rapid migration could affect their societies as a whole [8].

Yet by distancing themselves from the migration crisis to such a degree, developed states like the U.S. and the E.U. have failed to provide the strategic coherence that the world needs. The muted response to the crisis’ humanitarian demands is costing developed states a great degree of influence and preeminence on the international stage. Without a comprehensive plan of action, the crisis will further erode collective security, undermine global stability, and disillusion citizens to international leadership. The E.U. grimly illustrates how a lack of long-term solutions is already threatening leading actors’ power on the global stage. The E.U.’s humanitarian malaise, among other systemic problems, has chipped away at its capacity for demonstrating leadership and has rocked the continent’s faith in continued European unity [9]. A lack of coordinated action will continue to exacerbate tensions among the E.U.’s members regarding the distribution of responsibility for refugees and the economic burdens entailed [10]. Barring the formulation of an extensive and well-thought-out strategy, such economic and political dilemmas will go on to plague the U.S. and other global partners.

To reverse this trend, the international community has little choice but to come together and bring all of their ingenuity and political will to the table. Recent signs offer some hope that global leaders are realizing the gravitas involved. At a Geneva conference on March 30, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asserted that all countries must step to the plate and explore long-term provision and monitoring of refugees [11]. This concept would be a step in the right direction, but it would hardly be sufficient. The international community must make difficult and nuanced decisions in order to live up to universal human rights principles while still protecting legitimate security and societal interests. States will need to formulate precise and feasible policies for resettlement, humanitarian outreach, and appropriate migration monitoring. These measures will invariably compound the burden upon the U.S. and its partners, and the uncertainty involved will likely lead to missteps along the way. But they are necessary if leading members of the international system wish to construct a steady path to stemming and resolving the ongoing catastrophe.

Given the magnitude of the refugee crisis, one can understand why state leaders might be eager for short-term relief or ways of mitigating their responsibility. That is why the E.U.’s refugee deportations have seemed so appealing at the outset. Yet such scenarios are when it is most necessary for leading states to come together and pursue a long-term resolution. While a comprehensive strategy towards the refugee crisis will likely incur sacrifices and hard choices by actors like the U.S. and the E.U. and heighten the aggregate risks involved, the alternative may be worse from a moral and a strategic standpoint. Constructing a long-term vision for addressing the refugee crisis is not only a humanitarian and human rights necessity, but it will ultimately be in the international community’s best interests.














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