The Global Refugee Crisis: Past, Present, and Future

By Aramide Odutayo - 30 May 2016

Aramide Odutayo argues that history matters when studying the present migration crisis.

Does history matter when studying international migration? This commentary will compare the global response to the international migration crisis in 1939 and the current movement of Syrian refugees. This comparative assessment will illustrate that states have, yet again, abandoned their moral duty to grant asylum to individuals fleeing persecution and deprivation.

In the 1930’s, the international community failed to offer asylum to Jewish refugees that were victims of persecution by Nazi Germany. European states redoubled visa restrictions and physically sealed their borders to prevent Jewish refugees from seeking asylum in neighboring countries. Similarly, Canadian diplomats refused to implement a special admissions quota for Jewish refugees. Even though 94% of Americans disapproved of the Nazi’s pogroms, 77% thought that immigration quotas should not be raised to allow additional Jewish migrants. The total breakdown of the asylum system in the 1930’s has been largely attributed to a convergence of three factors, i) the global economic downturn caused by the Great Depression, ii) German aggression, and iii) latent anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, states refusal to admit Jewish refugees fleeing persecution led to internment and death.

The horrors of the holocaust as well as the enormity of Europe’s post-World War II refugee crisis led to a decade of intense experimentation in search of an international refugee protection system. In 1951, the United Nations approved the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that defines who is a refugee, delineates the rights of refugees, and the responsibilities of the nations that grant asylum. The 1951 convention was viewed as a success and international policy makers were praised for learning from the mistakes of the past.

Several decades later, the world is currently witnessing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The most recent report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated a total refugee and displaced person population at approximately 55 million people, the result of conflicts from South Sudan to Syria. This figure includes over 14 million refugees, 1.8 million asylum seekers, and 32 million internally displaced persons. The single largest cause of increased displacement is the ongoing Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has killed between 250,000 to 470,000 people and forcibly displaced approximately 11.3 million people. The scope of the Syrian crisis is breathtaking, with the country now comprising the world’s largest source of refugees, while Turkey, which shares the longest common border with Syria, is now home to the world’s largest refugee population.

Despite the enormity of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, many Westerns states have once again abdicated their moral duty to grant asylum to refugees. For example, England has registered less than 5,000 refugees, Canada has just recently accepted 25,000 refugees, Germany has granted asylum to 800,000 migrants a figure that is expected to increase to 1 million, and the United States has pledged to accept a total of 100,000 refugees by 2017. Given that Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, and Jordan have so far registered 2.5 million, 1 million, 800,000, and 630,000 refugees respectively, it is clear that affluent Western states have a moral duty to accept more refugees. Furthermore many countries that have signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention have repeatedly violated the principle of non-refoulement. Specifically, at the border of Greece and Turkey, and Spain and Morocco European border guards have forcibly repatriated asylum seekers. In Australia, asylum seekers that arrive clandestinely are imprisoned in remote detention centers where they were given little information about Australia, their asylum claims, and their right to legal counsel, advocates, and translators. States unwillingness to accept refugees can yet again be largely attributed to discrimination, specifically racism, xenophobia, and islamaphobia. Fears and moral panics about the ‘other’, coupled with the emerging consensus that countries must control its borders and protect its territory resulted in the rise of xenophobic and nationalist political parties in the United States, Australia, and across Europe, and the further entrenchment of an aggressive anti-migration regimes.

Critics of granting asylum to refugees often use the consequentialist rationale, as well as the language of economics when considering the issue of migration. Arguments are made that focus on the consequences of refugee flows for those who already reside in the destination country. In response to the claim that increased migration harms domestic workers, proponents of freer international migration argue that migrants add value to the domestic economy. Clearly, both sides ignore the welfare of the people and families they are speaking of, as if their lives were of no concern. Furthermore, critics and advocates disregard the meaningful issues of ethics and justice beyond the primacy of economic consequentialism. Nor do they attend to the question of whether protecting the interests of citizens of destination countries justifies treating others unjustly. Ultimately, the international communities refusal to accept refugees is a tragic point in the history of migration and future scholars will likely look back on this current crisis with horror.


Aramide Odutayo is a Masters of Arts Candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Her research covers themes at the interface of global governance, gender, migration, and social justice.

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