As Refugee Tide Mounts, No One Is in Control

Macedonian police allow migrants to cross in Macedonia on a border line between Greece and Macedonia near the town of Gevgeli
Macedonian police allow migrants to cross in Macedonia on a border line between Greece and Macedonia near the town of Gevgelija on August 25, 2015. More than 1,500 mostly Syrian refugees, trapped in a no-man's land for three days, entered Macedonia from Greece, after police allowed them to pass despite earlier trying to hold back the crowd using stun grenades. Migrants who crossed the Macedonia-Greece border are now streaming into European Union member state Hungary, with a record 2,093 crossing over from Serbia on August 24, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Adapted from recent remarks at the Ditchley Foundation.

LONDON -- The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently published the statistics for 2014. At the end of last year we reported that 59.5 million people were displaced by conflict in the world. Roughly two-thirds were internally displaced, and one-third refugees. In some conflict situations, the internally displaced live much worse lives than refugees because their government, which is supposed to protect them, can be part of their problem.

Those figures mark an increase of 16 percent from 2013, and an increase of 60 percent over the past decade. We should not forget when we see these big numbers that behind each refugee there is a tragic individual story; a story of suffering. Many of these people have seen their houses destroyed, members of their family being killed and their communities bombarded. Many of them have lost everything. Women have been victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence and children are victims of trauma that may haunt them throughout their lives.

There has been a staggering escalation of forced displacement in the last few years. In 2010 there were 11,000 new people displaced by conflict per day; in 2011, 14,000; in 2012, 23,000; in 2013, 32,000; and in 2014, last year, 42,500 people were forced from their homes by conflict every single day.

What all this demonstrates is that we live in a world in which the capacity to prevent conflicts and to resolve them in a timely fashion is practically non-existent.

We live in a world in which the capacity to prevent conflicts and to resolve them in a timely fashion is practically non-existent.

At the time of the Portuguese revolution in 1974, when I started my political life, it was during the Cold War. In those days we had the bipolar world. Obviously there was not a global governance system, much less a democratic one. But most of the conflicts, as in Vietnam, were by proxy. The two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, would try to keep things under control. The power relations were clear.

Later, when I was in government after the Cold War, it was the period of clear American supremacy. France's foreign minister at the time, Hubert Védrine, called the U.S. "the hyper-power." Again there was no global governance system, much less a democratic one, but, then, too, there were clear power relations. I remember that in the crisis of East Timor, after the referendum, there was a real risk of a massacre of East Timorese people. The challenge was to convince the president of the United States that something had to be done -- that an intervention was necessary.

The moment Bill Clinton was convinced that an intervention was necessary, he made a speech somewhere in the Pacific when he was going to New Zealand for an APEC summit. The moment he said that an intervention was necessary everything happened. What was impossible the day before became necessary the next day. Indonesia accepted the intervention, Australia had the capacity to lead it, the Security Council met in an emergency session and unanimously voted in favor and the East Timor crisis was solved.

If the East Timor crisis were to take place today, I doubt that anything similar would happen. Indeed now we live in a period in which we no longer have a unipolar or bipolar world, we don't even have a multipolar world; it's kind of a chaotic world where power relations have become unclear. When power relations are unclear, impunity and unpredictability tend to prosper. That, I believe, is the reality behind the high levels of displacement that are taking place in today's world.

migrant boat

Turkish coast guards rescue some illegal migrants before their boat sank off Mediterranean coast in Antalya, Turkey. Turkish Coast Guard Command/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Impunity In Conflicts Within States

What is also clear today is that the nature of conflict has evolved. We no longer have conflicts between two states, between a government and a rebel movement, or a religious or ethnic movement against the government. What we have more and more are situations in which there are national armies, international forces, different kinds of ethnic, religious or political militias and bandits, all acting in the same areas. One can be a member of the militia in the morning and a bandit in the afternoon.

This means that the conflicts themselves have become more unpredictable. It's becoming more and more difficult for humanitarian agencies to have access to the people caught up in them. On top of that it is clear that the human rights agenda has been losing ground to the national security agenda. Governments feel increasingly free to do whatever they think they need to do in order to win the conflict in which they are involved, especially the internal conflicts in which they try to preserve the power they have.

One consequence is that humanitarian agencies are not allowed to be present in some of the most critical areas. It also means violations of international humanitarian law, with civilians paying the price. The protection of civilians has become very difficult.

Climate Change Displacement

As if these burdens were not enough, the challenges for humanitarian agencies are increasing for other reasons besides conflict. Population growth creates great pressures, and climate change is likely the defining problem of our times. It is the main accelerator of other trends in today's world such as food insecurity and water scarcity. The truth is that in a world that is smaller and smaller, these trends are combining more and more, and enhancing each other with more devastating impacts. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense with worse humanitarian consequences. Desertification in several areas of the world is progressing quickly.

When we see a big storm we cannot say that this is caused by climate change; but it is clear that climate change has an important impact in making such things worse every single year. Obviously this is having a dramatic impact on human displacement -- people do not flee conflict or persecution but flee because they can no longer live in the places where their communities have been established.

Time To Think Outside The Box

I'm not very optimistic about the capacity to improve the prevention and the resolution of conflicts in the near future. I think things will even get worse before they might eventually get better. Some people have the hope that the present phase of transition will lead to some form of a multi-polar organization of the world, with some kind of multilateral governance. Others think that the chaos is just the new stage, not a transition, but the normal form of organization of international relations for the times to come.

In either case, we need to think out of the box to find some new ways to address these challenges. If not, I believe we are condemned not only to see things getting worse, but we will continue to be unable to respond to them in an effective way.

When power relations are unclear, impunity and unpredictability tend to prosper.

For me, the most important idea is to link humanitarian aid and cooperation in economic development. The old idea is that relief agencies should come first with humanitarian aid and then, as the situation stabilizes, development assistance should arrive to guarantee the sustainability of the conflict resolution.

There has always been a gap between these two forms of international action. The problem today is no longer how to address the gap; the problem is how to make sure that the two things act in a combined way from the very beginning of a crisis.

If one looks, for instance, at the situation in the countries around Syria, it is clear that the problem is not only a problem of giving humanitarian aid to refugees: it's a problem of supporting the resilience of local communities and supporting the efforts by the governments to address the structural impacts of the Syria crisis, in their economies and their societies.

One-third of Lebanon's population today are Syrian refugees. Jordan has also felt a dramatic impact on its economy and society. Can you imagine what it is to have schools all of a sudden completely overburdened, health systems unable to respond to huge demographic increases and water and electricity supplies failing dramatically?

It is clear that we need -- both for the support of those communities, but also as an instrument to create the conditions for solutions -- to have development actors side-by-side with humanitarian actors from the beginning of a crisis.

Europe's Refugee Crisis

Last year Europe had about 600,000 asylum requests. This corresponds more or less to 1 per 1,000 of the European Union population. Now, think about an island with 1,000 people, and if one person comes to that island, we cannot say that the island does not have the capacity to absorb that person.

So, when speaking about the European refugee crisis, let's keep a sense of proportion. It's a huge challenge for Europe, it's a meaningful movement of people, but it is not something comparable with the impacts that countries like Lebanon or Turkey, Jordan, Cameroon, Ethiopia or Kenya are facing at the present moment.

The problem is that we are now witnessing a change among the displaced who are moving into Europe. It started in the central Mediterranean with the majority of people moving because of economic reasons; it was essentially a migration movement with some refugees.

But things are shifting. With the worsening of the living conditions of Syrians in the neighboring countries, 65 percent of the arrivals to Greece are already Syrians and 85 percent are from conflict countries, which means that what we are witnessing is less and less of a migration movement and more and more progressively a refugee movement. This, of course, highlights all the obligations that Europe has in relation to international refugee law and in relation to the European legislation in itself.

The drama is that people coming to Greece then tend to move onwards to Bulgaria and Macedonia, where we've just seen the turmoil and confusion at the border. The next stop is Serbia and the next is Hungary, which has recently announced the creation of a wall and a certain number of other very restrictive measures.

In the months to come we are going to see a very complex problem of movements of people from Turkey to Greece and through the western Balkans, for which I believe Europe needs to be prepared with a comprehensive response.

First of all, rescue at sea needs to be maintained; saving lives remains a key humanitarian objective that cannot be denied. At the same time, we need to massively support Italy, Greece and the countries in transit -- in between -- in order for them to be able to offer proper conditions of reception and proper conditions of integration in their societies, or at least of transit in a humane perspective.

But we also need to do a number of other things. It's essential to crack down more effectively on smugglers and traffickers, and what we have been doing until now is not enough. But cracking down on smugglers and traffickers can only be effective if at the same time we create more legal avenues to come into Europe, especially for people in need of protection.

That is related to resettlement opportunities; that is linked in turn to humanitarian admissions. Two countries in Europe bear the biggest burden: Germany and Sweden. Last year they received 43 percent of all asylum requests in Europe. There is no fair distribution of the situation within the European Union.

What we are witnessing is less and less of a migration movement and more and more progressively a refugee movement.

We need more legal avenues also in visa policies, in family reunification programs, and at the same time we need to make sure that a mechanism of responsibility and solidarity is created.

Why responsibility? Because the countries where people arrive sometimes have an easy solution, which is not to register them, not to fingerprint them, and just let them move. This has happened in Italy and in Greece.

Those countries where people enter Europe need to abide by the acquis communautaire, need to make sure that people are properly registered and adequately fingerprinted, and that those who want to request asylum have an opportunity to do so.

For those that are not in need of protection, there is a right of return to their countries of origin.

The principles of responsibility and solidarity need to be strongly enhanced by all European countries, because with 28 countries responding together, it would be relatively easy to be effective.

Finally, it is critical to address root causes. We know that the root causes of violent conflict are difficult to address, but at least in development cooperation policies much can be done. European development cooperation very rarely takes into account human mobility. Spain has been quite successful with its policy in relation to western Africa, where it has strived to help create the social and economic conditions for the populations there not to be forced to move. But in general, development cooperation doesn't take into account human mobility or the prevention of displacement.

The most effective solution is to increase the capacity of the countries of origin to absorb populations in distress, to give them opportunities and to be able to reduce the flows.

Having said this, the protection instruments that international law has established will also need to be maintained and Europe needs to remain a continent of asylum. It is my belief that this will happen.

There are some distressing indications of rising xenophobia in some places in Europe where there is a lack of understanding of the values of tolerance and diversity -- and a lack of recognition of the fact that all societies are becoming become multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

At the same time I also see a lot of very dedicated organizations in civil society, and several political leaders in different European countries, that are strongly committed to making sure that Europe remains a continent of asylum, and that Europe adopts a comprehensive approach to this problem based on a common responsibility, but also a common solidarity.

This gives me hope.

Earlier on WorldPost:

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Kos migrant crisis