We face a refugee crisis at a scale unprecedented since World War 2.
9 million Syrians have fled their homes, risking perilous sea journeys in rickety boats in hope of a conflict-free life. Closer to home, 25,000 stateless Rohingyas from Myanmar attempt to escape their persecuted existence.
The route to safety is not easy. In merely 3 days, 50 refugees have drowned en route to Europe. Even if refugees make it to safe land, they are simply rejected, back into the treacherous ocean. In 2015, a picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, drowned enroute to Canada sparked global outrage at the fate of these refugees. Yet, it is ironical and shameful that we have seen nothing much has been done to solve the problem. Countries continue to shift the blame and leave the refugees fending for themselves in war-torn countries and treacherous seas. Britain alone has rejected 62% of Syrian refugees in 2015.
While intuitive to claim that lives should be saved, the potential economic cost throws the existence of an obligation into controversy. However, I firmly believe that to save lives, countries with capacity are obligated to provide refuge.
Many developed countries with capacity reject refugees, incurring massive human costs. March 2015, a boat of Vietnamese refugees was rejected by Australia and left in dire conditions at sea for a month. This is at surface level, sufficient to cause outrage, however, it is even more horrifying to realize Australia disregards refugees’ basic right to safety despite being a founding member of the Universal Declaration of Rights. It is hypocritical that we see countries priding themselves upon the ability to uphold human rights, yet, continue to deny refugees their right to life. It is absolutely abhorrent that we allow lives to be lost on excuses of “economic development”, and hence, it is time to confront the issue.
The problem increases in severity as Middle Eastern conflicts get increasingly drawn out, complicated by involvement of terrorist groups like ISIS. Even after conflicts are resolved, instability post-conflict continues to endanger citizens. In Afghanistan, even with Soviet War ending in 1989 and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, violence caused by insurgent military groups still generates refugees. Many citizens are forced into a dichotomy where they either have to flee their homes or remain in a country with no peace in sight. More lives are lost with each minute. We need to start taking action.
Many countries have argued that they have no responsibility for non-citizens. However, I argue that the state’s duty of care extends to refugees, for two reasons.
Firstly, it is important to recognise that geographical boundaries are artificial and arbitrary. We value them only if they bring public good. This value is lost, when refugees are harmed as boundaries are used as a convenient excuse for states to shirk responsibility. Additionally, boundaries have been losing importance, as the rise of globalisation has built a world where we are more interconnected than ever. It is hence, unjustified to assume states have no duty towards non-citizens.
Secondly, all states have to uphold moral standards. The third pillar of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) states, “If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” All lives are sacred and cannot be quantified by citizenship. Therefore, states should acknowledge the lives of these refugees as equally important and worth protecting as citizens. Hence, when a state fails to care for its own citizens, it is principally justified for other states to take responsibility.
There is not only a moral obligation. Practically, refugees help end conflicts faster. Drawn out conflicts have decreased political will, when the endless reports of Syrian Conflict have normalized the suffering of the Syrians, desensitizing the public. States reject refugees because accepting refugees leaves a visceral impact, when providing for them incurs costs on the economy. Hence, forcing countries to accept refugees incentivizes them to seek solutions to the conflict, to reduce costs incurred by refugees. For example, the influx of Rohingyas increased attention on their plight. International pressure was placed on Myanmar, sparking off ASEAN’s first discussion on Rohingyas, a stark change from when discrimination of Rohingyas was ignored. Countries are more interested in resolving conflicts, increasing cooperation within the international community, hence increasing action taken to seek peace.
However, we need to acknowledge that refugees impose economic burden on host countries, Britain spends £700,000 daily on refugees. Given that interest of citizens should be prioritised, it can be argued that it is justified to reject refugees. I beg to differ. While countries would face economic costs, saving lives is more important. Economic problems can be mitigated through policies integrating refugees. Integrated refugees can become valuable to the economy, seen in Europe, where refugees alleviated problems like ageing labour force and declining birth rate. Furthermore, the lives of refugees should not be quantified by their economic value, as the right to life is inalienable. Given that we apply this logic to other citizens, we must not deny the same right to refugees, who are in fact, far more vulnerable and require a lot more protection than regular citizens. Hence, the obligation to accept refugees still exists.
In conclusion, the refugee crisis can only be solved with cooperation of the international community. It is thus, necessary for countries to realize the importance of being involved. A life, citizen or non-citizen, is still worth preserving. It is time that we start seeing the lives of these refugees as valuable and start taking action.