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  • Syrian residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

    Syrian residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) | Photo: Reuters

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Resolving the refugee crisis requires understanding displacement and migration as central to anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles.

Today, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening a high level meeting on migration and refugee movements at the U.N. headquarters. While the U.N. has raised the alarm on the ongoing refugee crisis for decades, it ultimately buttresses the right of powerful Western countries to manage and control the movements of migrants and refugees through quotas, intrusive screening systems, expedited deportations, and treating migrants as commodities to meet market needs.

Managed Migration

One of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) proposals ahead of the EU Summit last week was to strengthen the mechanisms of deportation (or what they call “humane return”) for those deemed not in need of protection. As migration policies around Europe and North America become more exclusionary and rates of criminalization and detention are on the rise, this proposal reinforces the division between deserving and undeserving and between refugees and so-called bogus economic migrants.

As Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole writes, “Migrants are welcome. Some of the refugees become migrants, once the immediate danger is past. Some migrants become refugees, caught in an unexpected vortex of malice. Don’t let yourself be spun into a language of hatred and exclusion, at this hot moment in which it’s deemed OK to support refugees but still condemn migrants. I say refugee, I say migrant, I say neighbor, I say friend, because everyone is deserving of dignity.”

While asking industrialized countries to accept more refugees, the U.N. has also pushed for increased funding and structural support for refugee-hosting countries in the global South that would, essentially, keep refugees from heading West. One of the only concrete commitments to emerge from the U.N. General Assembly is not any systemic policy change but a commitment to increase funding for humanitarian agencies. Nineteen countries are donating US$1.8 billion to U.N. agencies with an emphasis on work to improve basic conditions in refugee camps.

Most importantly, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has repeatedly made comments on the need for long-term commitments to “manage” migration and “governing” refugee movements in an efficient manner. This is part of the U.N. and the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) model of managed migration, which is to facilitate “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration.” While safe is not defined, orderly and regular are defined as migration that keeps within prescribed legal channels and includes the implementation of identity management systems, measures to better secure borders, and opening up legal avenues to migration that “match” migrants to labour market needs.

This emphasis on legal migration helps us to understand why the refugee crisis, though ongoing including astounding rates of fatalities over the past decade, is suddenly a crisis for the West because of the scale of those moving irregularly, without sanction, towards the West.

Humanitarianism as Imperialism

The humanitarianism of the U.N. falls short not only in its superficial liberalism, but because it actually creates more refugees.

Take, for example, the U.N.’s adoption of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine in 2005. Spearheaded by Canada over the past 15 years, the doctrine legitimizes and legalizes diplomatic, financial and military state intervention. Prominent examples of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine include foreign involvement in the coup in Haiti, deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops to Sudan, and NATO attacks on Libya.

This doctrine is, of course, asymmetrical; responsibility to protect is a justification used by powerful states pursuing their geopolitical interests in countries in the global South. Oxford researcher Chris Abbott notes, “It is the politically and militarily weaker states of Africa, and the strategically important states of the Middle East, that will face the threat of ‘humanitarian’ interventions.” Or as author Anthony Fenton puts it more bluntly, “The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a new name for the old concept of humanitarian intervention, or humanitarian imperialism.”

Most recently, Responsibility to Protect has been mobilized to intervene in Syria, including United States, Canada and Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Syria. However, aid workers in the region point out the obvious – that airstrikes kill and displace more people. Nearly half of Syria's population has been displaced with over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and 7.6 million internally displaced persons.

Instead of opening borders to refugees, political leaders in the UK, France, Australia and Canada are offering escalating military action as their humanitarian solution to the refugee crisis.

Resolving the Roots of the Crisis

There are 59.5 million people displaced around the world, the highest level of displaced people ever recorded. Patterns of displacement and migration reveal the unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and its racialized others. It is not a coincidence that those who are dispossessed and displaced from their homes, lands, communities and families are those bearing the brunt of global imperialist and capitalist forces. It is not a coincidence that those dying along the shores of Fortress Europe, in the blistering desert along the U.S.-Mexico border, or in detention centers around the world, are those bodies deemed illegal, undesirable and disposable because of the color of their skin, gender identity, and inability to assimilate into a hegemonic way of life.

all around, and creeping

self righteous, let’s say it, fascism,

how else to say, border,

and the militant consumption of everything,

the encampment of the airport, the eagerness

to be all the same, to mince biographies

to some exact phrases, some

exact and toxic genealogy.

—Dionne Brand, Inventory

Resolving the refugee and migration crisis, therefore, requires understanding displacement and migration as central to anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-oppressive struggles. The U.N.’s proposal for better management of migration will not solve this crisis. Fighting dispossession so no one is forced to leave their homes and breaking fortressed borders so people can migrate safely in the search of equality is the only just solution.

As officials in high-level meetings discuss quotas on our bodies and humanities, debate how to better govern our misery, posture on whose drones will kill more efficiently and whose walls are the highest, we must affirm a vision for self-determination. A vision for self-determination where we can live free from cages, militaries, borders, reserves, segregation, toxic industries, corporations and sweatshops. A vision for self-determination that dismantles hierarchies based on race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship and ability. A vision for self-determination over our own bodies, lives, cultures, lands, and labor. To be a friend to migrants and refugees is to affirm the self-determination of the dispossessed, not the sovereignty of powerful states.


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