Migrant camp, Calais. Demotix/Matthew Aslett. All rights reserved.Let us discuss the central liberal concerns that arise from thinking through refugee policy. The first, and most important, is that the international community should not consider refugee flows as isolated, causeless, phenomena. Out of concern for refugees, governments must work on root causes, promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts, as well as worldwide respect for human rights. In opposition to this broad principle, many of the most dramatic refugee flows of the last decade have been the direct result of misguided policies that sought to promote regime change by force, thereby creating conflicts that spun out of control, causing extensive damage to complex social and political arrangements. Refugees are but the natural result of such endeavours.
In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, for instance, legitimate humanitarian reasons for intervention have been offered. However, little attention has been paid to collateral damage and unintended consequences. Intervening countries, of course, normally do not have to deal directly with the burden of refugee protection. It is relatively easy for them to act irresponsibly, under the assumption that the United Nations, in coordination with impoverished, affected countries – vulnerable, therefore, to political and financial pressure – will do whatever is needed to help those displaced by war or persecution. This kind of refugee policy may be literally ‘cynical’. There is no polite way to describe countries who have harmed civilian populations, through the myopic use of force, and later try to stand as their protectors, simply through the deployment of donations. A liberal, more honest approach, on the other hand, would be based on the principle that complex issues such as those relating to the construction of stable and democratic nation-states worldwide cannot be worked out by force; those issues, fundamental to the debate about the prevention of refugee flows, demand diplomacy, hard work and a lot of patience.
Secondly, once the Pandora’s box is open, no matter how or by whom, refugees must have the right to flee and find protection absolutely respected. There can be no excuses: non-refoulement must be regarded as a sacred principle, regardless of risks or costs. It is important to emphasize, however, that such an important principle must be upheld by the entire international community. The first receiving country, in that sense, represents an aggregate; that country, no matter how poor or isolated, should feel confident that it will not remain alone in doing what it is right. We are talking here about solidarity on a truly global scale. We are talking about a shared concern for the prevalence of international law.
It is important to remember that non-refoulement is obviously not enough. Refugees must not only be accepted, but also integrated with generosity. Refugee camps, therefore, should be regarded, at best, as a strictly temporary reaction to unexpected flows of people, never as a permanent solution to displacement. Effective liberal solutions include local integration or repatriation to a third country. In both cases, refugees should have the right to work, to have their professional and academic qualifications recognized, to receive equal pay for equal work, to access public services and to move freely within the host country and abroad. At the heart of this is the assumption that refugees should be given the opportunity to thrive. They will often need help at the beginning, but they should not be seen as a permanent burden. They may actually become an asset, if given the chance to contribute to the economic and cultural life of their hosts.
A final concern I would like to emphasize is related to the end of refugee status. When the conditions that led to flight are over, and if many years have past, refugees should have the option to remain where they are, especially when strong ties with the host country are in place. A liberal perspective, by definition, acknowledges facts and rewards individual efforts. Permanent residence or naturalization should be offered, therefore, to refugees that have integrated or that have lost connection with their former country of residence and feel that ‘home’ is the place where they are living. For children born in exile, this point is especially important.
For refugees who decide to return, there are many other issues. It may happen, for instance, that the place where they used to live has become occupied by others. Mechanisms should be in place to correct those situations, with care not to recreate tensions that lead to conflict and displacement. Rights that were violated, in other words, should be restored. At the same time, it is essential to avoid the logic of revenge. Building trust, after difficult times, is a delicate task that demands tolerance. It is important to underline, nevertheless, that lack of punishment for war crimes sends a deeply troubling signal, and makes difficult the construction of a professional, law abiding army in post-conflict situations.
The international community should, in turn, support reconstruction efforts – with care, however, not to dictate terms of complex political settlements under naive assumptions. Politics is not made only with those we agree with. Western powers, moreover, are not always neutral. The right to make mistakes and find solutions to those mistakes, without undue interference from outside, is an important part of self-determination.
At the current juncture, these elements are critical for the construction of a truly comprehensive liberal approach to refugee policy. We must have in our sights the entire chain of events related to forced displacement. This is work that requires the promotion of rights at every point where they may be violated, with an appreciation that we are dealing with a complex phenomenon that requires action on multiple fronts.