A Monstrous Refugee System


The issues of immigration and asylum seeking are hot issues that often lead to extreme views. That is why I want to deal with these in small bite size chunks.

The system is desperately in need of reform. It was created in 1951 and its been adjusted from time to time since then, but it really was created in a different era to deal with a different set of problems. It was created after the war and the awful truth about Nazi death camps was revealed fully to the world. Then it became uncomfortably obvious to everyone that the west disgraced itself during the war when various states including Cuba, the United States, Canada, and various European countries realized what they had done when they had refused to allow Jews to disembark from the ship the M.S. St. Louis onto their shores in order to find a safe haven from the threat of appalling persecution. Many countries had refused to allow them into their countries and when the ship returned to Europe it later became apparent that hundreds of Jew had subsequently died in the concentration camps. The consciences and reputations of the western countries were irretrievably besmirched. It was one of the most sickening results of the war.

Added to that, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees was really designed to help and protect the people in the countries of Eastern Europe  who found themselves behind the Soviet Iron Curtain.  The western countries were led by the US who was concerned about opponents of the Communist regimes who were being persecuted by Communist regimes. It was felt that these people should have the right to live elsewhere and to be well cared for while a new home could be arranged.” This made sense in 1951 as the Cold War was starting. It makes a lot less sense in the 21stcentury.

That convention signed by 145 countries created an international organization—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (‘UNHCR’). By that convention the signatory countries including the United States, Britain, Canada and most other countries of the west committed themselves to reciprocally allowing people that were fleeing “persecution” onto their territories for the purpose of gaining asylum or safe haven. Countries had a legal duty to help as a result of that Convention.

As Betts and Collier have stated, “Reflecting its intention, the legal definition of a refugee was someone who is outside her or his country of nationality and faces a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ It was unambiguously a product of its time and place, explicitly temporary and at the time intended only to apply to people in Europe.”[1]

Ever since people have realized that the criteria are too narrow and do not adequately deal with modern conditions. As Betts and Collier opined,

Time did not stand still. Refuge is as relevant today as it was in the late 1940s: the numbers speak for themselves. But both the causes of flight and the appropriate responses to flight have changed radically. Some refugees are indeed fleeing persecution by their state. But the overwhelming majority are now fleeing disorder: the fallout from state breakdown. Some refugees still need temporary food and shelter and some need to be resettled permanently in a new country.  But most need a haven where they can earn a living until they are able to return home once order has been restored…The Convention and UNHCR are still there, ever less appropriate for modern needs.  In the absence of root-and-branch reform, they have drifted into piecemeal adjustments.” [2]

Those adjustments while often worthy of support have created an ugly and ineffective monstrosity of a structure ill suited to deal with the current “refugee crisis.” Yet we have no choice but to ‘dance with the girl we brung.’ The result has been, as Betts and Collier put it,  “What began as coherent common rules for responding to persecution have evolved into chaotic and indefensible responses to the problem of mass flight from disorder.”[3]

Many of the changes over the years were made by well-meaning people who wanted to massage or manipulate the archaic system so that it could better serve modern needs that everyone in the arena realized were desperately needed. But the ultimate result was far from elegant or even effective or equitable. As Betts and Collier put it, “With wide variations in legal interpretation, policy coherence has been lost. Court rulings have become eccentric: refugees in identical circumstances will be granted asylum in the courts of some nations but refused it in others; even within the same country, they will be granted asylum in some years but not in others.”[4]

That sounds like a monstrosity to me. Monsters rarely deliver justice.

[1]Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, (2017) p. 4-5

[2]Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, (2017) p. 4-5

[3]Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, (2017) p. 4-5

[4]Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, (2017) p. 4

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