Is the International Refugee Regime Fit for Purpose?

Rebecca Smyth is a Global Justice Academy Student Ambassador for 2015-16. In this post, Rebecca reflects on the second in our series of Rapid Response Roundtables on the current refugee crisis. Rebecca will also report from the final roundtable, ‘What Can Scotland Do?’.

This panel discussion was a follow-on event from the first panel discussion held at the beginning of October on the roots of the current Syrian crisis. The panel was comprised of Professor Christina Boswell and Dr Lucy Lowe from the School of Social and Political Science; campaigner Amal Azzudin of the Mental Health Foundation; and Jamie Kerr, Partner at Thorntons Solicitors specialising in Immigration Law. It was chaired by Dr Mathias Thaler.

“The international refugee regime is spectacularly not fit for purpose”

Drawing upon her academic research and own experience working with the UNHCR in the mid-1990s, Professor Boswell demonstrated the ways in which the origins of the current global refugee regime have combined with EU policy to create an unsustainable system for dealing with the current refugee crisis.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was designed to respond to post-World War II displacement within Europe. It was based on individual cases, individual status and the concept of ‘exilic bias’, the idea that once an individual was granted refugee status, they would stay within the country permanently. The limits of this approach became apparent in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was revealed to be ill-equipped to cope with a massive influx of people fleeing conflict and violence. In response, an increasingly restrictive approach was adopted at both national and EU level. Rather than the issue of accepting refugees and asylum seekers being framed as a moral or humanitarian issue, it is framed as a matter of targets and indicators, a technocratized, dehumanised approach to the matter.

This frame was disrupted in August and September. Popular mobilisation in response to images of once-again ‘humanised’ refugees in the media forced governments to act, while the physical arrival of refugees at borders disrupted the geographical distancing and outsourcing of the EU approach. According to Professor Boswell, the compassionate public response is unprecedented in the past twenty years of studying refugee politics and policy.

However, EU leaders swiftly regrouped around the previous project of outsourcing, and returned once more to wrangling over quotas, reinforcing border controls and mobilizing third countries to deal with the problem on their behalf. The attacks on Paris on the 13th of November will more than likely exacerbate the situation. In this current climate, it seems unlikely that the refugee regime will be redesigned any time soon.

Comparison with the Kenyan situation

Dr Lucy Lowe also highlighted that the outsourcing and dehumanisation of refugees is at work in Kenya, where refugee camps have become another way of keeping people at a distance. In emergency situations they of course provide vital support and protection, but it is certainly cause for concern when they have been in place for decades and up to three generations of families spend their lives in them. For Dr Lowe, this serves the interests of wealthier states, whereby the problem can be kept at a distance and indeed ignored entirely.

Through her research, Dr Lowe has seen and heard first-hand what a ‘refugee regime’ means for those living in it. She recounted the story of Mohammed, Amina and their children, who left Somalia for Kenya in 1991. Some of the family stayed in the refugee camp they were sent to, while others moved to Nairobi and settled in Eastleigh, nicknamed ‘little Mogadishu’ because of its large Somali population. Here they encountered daily police harassment and violence. Because of Kenya’s encampment policy, whereby refugees must live in camps, those settled in Eastleigh are often picked up by the police and forcibly transferred to camps. Since the terrorist attacks on the Westgate Shopping Mall and Garissa University, Somalis have been subjected to increased violence and arbitrary detention. This ugly, broken system has resulted in Amina and Mohamed’s family being separated across three continents. Mohamed is in the US, some of their children are in Canada, Sweden and Kenya, and others decided that it was better to live in Somalia under the fear of attacks by Al-Shabab and US drones than to deal with the everyday indignities of life in Kenya.

The parallels between how Kenya and Europe are failing to deal with refugees are striking and dispiriting: dehumanisation, keeping those in need at a remove, and suspicion of ‘the Other’ are all at work in, and perpetuated by, the current refugee system.

“How do you give people hope?”

Amal Azzudin was for many perhaps the most memorable speaker. Much the same age as the students in the audience, she came to the UK as a refugee 15 years ago. While in school in Glasgow, her friend Agnessa and Agnessa’s family were subject to a dawn raid by the Home Office. They were detained in the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Amal and some of her friends campaigned for their release, a campaign which was fortunately successful, but since then she has lost many others to dawn raids and multiple detentions. She currently works for the Mental Health Foundation with asylum seeker and refugee women. For many of them, they may be physically safe in the UK but the entire asylum process is tantamount to mental torture. They don’t know when their leave to remain will be granted, if ever. Some women Amal works with have had their cases lost by the Home Office. One woman has been living here in limbo for 21 years.

In September, Amal travelled to Greece as part of the numerous Glaswegian efforts to support refugees. Her anger and frustration was palpable as she described the absence of major NGOs and the prevalence of those profiting from misery by selling life jackets and dinghies at extortionate prices.

“The system has never worked properly – the question is how to fix it.”

A lawyer who deals with refugee and asylum issues in the context of the courts, Jamie Kerr gave an honest account of a system which on the whole does not work, but has at least acquired protection for many desperately in need of it. By his own admission somewhat ‘case-hardened’, he feels that his work is characterised by operating within the framework of the rules in place to get the best results possible, while slowly pushing the boundaries of what those rules say. As someone new to studying law, this really resonated with me as a fairly apt summary of how human rights work often has to be carried out.

The Q&A session provided further evidence, as if any was needed, that there a huge number of people out there who want to help, but don’t know how to or where to start. The power of mass media, how best to raise the issue with the government, what exactly NGOs are doing, and reconceptualising migration as something positive were all themes touched upon. Hopefully this week’s session, “What can Scotland do?” will provide some answers to these urgent questions.

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