Then, as now, EU governments wrangled over their mutual responsibilities, shuttling people between member states on the grounds that they did not apply for asylum as soon as they arrived in the EU. Governments continue to delegitimise refugees in the public eye today, cynically labelling them ‘illegal’ or ‘economic migrants’.
In the 1990s, this unwelcoming rhetoric was accompanied by visa policies and carrier fines, which prevented people from getting out of war-torn countries to seek protection in Europe. The current environment is equally restrictive – just look at Hungary’s recently-constructed barbed wire fences.
During the Yugoslav wars, politicians deflected responsibility for this hostile reception at Europe’s borders by sombrely intoning that ‘solving’ the problem required tackling root causes. Even back then, this sounded as convincing as a Miss World contestant wishing for world peace. And we’re still hearing the same broken tune.
But perhaps it doesn’t matter that nothing has changed. In the end, the crisis of the 1990s didn’t entirely overwhelm Western Europe, though many feared it would. The onslaught of immigration and asylum restrictions introduced by EU countries by-and-large created the barriers they were designed to – so perhaps it’s rational for Europe’s governments to stick with tried and tested policies, especially those they think their electorates support.
But, here’s the thing. Grave as the situation in the 1990s was, it does not come close to matching the sheer scale, complexity and intractability of today’s refugee crisis – especially when taking Syria into account.
Outdated policies unfit for today’s crisis
While Europe’s protection response was certainly tested by the Yugoslav crisis, concerted international intervention eventually succeeded in ending the wars and associated mass displacements. But there is currently scant prospect of any comparable international action to end Syria’s displacement tragedy.
Rhetoric costs nothing, so David Cameron may pontificate for as long as he likes about his resolve to stop the devastation causing Syrians to flee. But the dismal record of our recent stabilisation efforts in countries such as Afghanistan – where joint international action has been possible and no expense spared – exposes this empty rhetoric. In reality, no amount of UK development aid will make any fundamental difference to the dynamics of the war in Syria.
The unreformed asylum and immigration policies that West European governments have relied on for the last twenty years cannot contend with the enormity and complexity of the crisis unfolding. We have to stop bickering over numbers, quotas and who is responsible for who, and start giving far more serious consideration to the bigger picture.
A global crisis with no political solution in sight
The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata – a key player in orchestrating the UN’s responses to the major refugee crises of the 1990s – was famous for insisting that ‘there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems’. In other words, refugee problems are essentially political in origin and must therefore be addressed through political action.
However, where there are no immediate political solutions in sight, inadequate humanitarian action – including barriers to refugee flight – will both escalate human suffering and may also risk aggravating the political causes of the crisis. This is now clearly a risk with regards to Syria.
Movement restrictions and refugee camps are not the answer
By imposing barriers to movement, European countries are closing themselves to asylum seekers, which has in turn fuelled the precarious and highly destabilising concentration of millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and other countries in the region. The dangerous journeys made by these refugees to Europe are also a direct consequence of the West tightening its borders.
Still, David Cameron insisted last week that the best way to help Syria’s refugees is to resettle them in the camps in countries around Syria. This may indeed be the best way for him to protect his own short-term political interests at home and in Europe, but it is far from a ‘best’ or ‘durable solution’ to the refugee crisis itself – or for the refugees themselves. In fact, we know from the long history of too many militarised, radicalised, insecure and destabilising refugee camps around the world that this is a highly risky approach.
Syria’s only chance to eventually reverse the displacement of its population will depend on the economic, social and political success of the new Syrian diaspora – something that can never be achieved through trapping the country’s (predominantly young) refugees in camps for years on end. Life in these camps is not only dangerous; it is also almost entirely devoid of hope.
I welcome the UK government’s promises to admit and resettle (at least temporarily) thousands of Syrians from refugee camps and to step up aid to the region. These are small but important steps towards recognising both resettlement and humanitarian assistance to refugees as crucial to stopping the current refugee emergency escalating into an even more catastrophic regional crisis.
But it’s nowhere near enough. Closing their borders may have worked for Europe’s leaders in the 1990s, but Syria’s conflict differs in one crucial way to the former Yugoslavia: there is no political resolution in sight. Europe needs to quit squabbling and start talking seriously and openly about the real crisis and the humanitarian responses it demands.