The responsibility to protect: the case of refugees

Morgane Atoumo


A young Syrian migrant girl is held by her mother next to railroad tracks where migrants wait to cross into Macedonia Sept. 2, in Idomeni, Greece. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Win McNamee/Getty Images - via Flickr Commons)

A young Syrian migrant girl is held by her mother next to railroad tracks where migrants wait to cross into Macedonia Sept. 2, in Idomeni, Greece. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Win McNamee/Getty Images – via Flickr Commons)

The responsibility to protect (R2P) challenges the dominant realist tradition of international relations as for the first time, absolute sovereignty was challenged to hold states accountable for their actions towards their population. Indeed, R2P advocates sovereignty as responsibility and grants the international community the right to carry a humanitarian intervention when a government is no longer able to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or when the state is the perpetrator of these acts. While marking a landmark in international law, R2P remains extremely controversial, no consensus has been clearly stated, it does not provide a solution for asylum-seekers and its use remains sporadic, to say the least.

The civil war raging in Syria is a clear example: the international community is torn between the Assad regime and its opposition and the end of the summer 2013 marked a week of uncertainty as protest amounted to prevent Western powers from intervening in Syria after the use of chemical weapons on civilians. While part of these protestors declined the argument of intervention of R2P,  refused the violation of sovereignty, or believed secessionist movements were manipulating the world to advance their nationalist motives another portion did not feel concerned by “far away countries we know very little of”. Yet, these far away countries we know very little of generate other problems impossible to deny in the interconnected world we live in: the massive waves of refugees. There are several reasons why countries should open their border to refugees in this instance.

The first reason for opening borders to Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers is responsibility. The case of Syria is not exempt of external interference: in fact, Western powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Gulf states have meddled in the conflict for strategic reasons. In fact, the US has been supporting democratic uprisings in the region during the Arab Spring: Syria was no exception. The Obama administration has been financing, training and voicing its support of a “moderate” opposition while bringing together a coalition to destroy ISIS. The Islamic State is a direct consequence of the US invasion of Iraq, it has been created as a response to the sectarian regime of Al-Maliki in Iraq and has seen the chaos of the Syrian civil war as a golden opportunity to expand its territory and establish a so-called caliphate. The UK and Australia have been providing intelligence and assisting with airstrikes. France has recently joined the coalition, rejecting any compromise involving the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey have helped raise a Sunni Muslim opposition in Syria while Tehran has been assisting the Alawite Assad regime, further extending the rift between Shia and Sunnis and Moscow has been supporting Assad since 2011 (providing arms, cash, military advise and has recently started bombing ISIS and rebel-controlled regions).  In a few years, Syria has unfortunately become the playground of power politics, contesting for regional hegemony (Iran and Saudi Arabia), reviving the relics of the Cold War (the US and Russia) and exhibiting profound sectarian divides (Sunnis and Shias). As pro-active actors in this supposedly domestic conflict, how could Western and Arab countries deny a safe haven to those who have been casualties of neo-realist world politics?

Via Flickr Commons

Via Flickr Commons


The second reason for countries to open their borders to the inflow of migrants, especially Syrians is the benefit that results from immigration. Firstly, as the graphic below demonstrates, the majority of Syrian refugees seek shelter in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey – which will rapidly be overwhelmed.

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In fact, Jordan and Lebanon are two of the smallest countries in the region, with weak infrastructures, limited resources and already home of Palestinian refugees – they are nearing a point of overstretched and need to be relieved (hence migrants choosing to risk crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). Other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states should step in and welcome Syrian refugees (sharing closer cultural and religious ties) instead of hiding behind millions of dollars given in aid. Secondly, European nations have a lot to gain from the inflow of migrants. In fact, the media and right-wing groups have been depicting a gloomy picture of waves of migrants stepping over European frontier to rampage the continent when in fact “refugees differ from economic migrants as they have not chosen to come […] nearly all want to go home and they don’t sit in refugees camps calculating where they can get the best benefits” says  Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Therefore, they are more likely to adapt to their host countries: a study from University College London found that migrants who arrived in the UK between 2000 and 2011 were less likely than native Brits to be on state benefits and no more likely to live in social housing. Migrants are not a social burden, as the Centre for European Economic Research has published, the 6.6 million residents in Germany with foreign passports in 2012 will pay 147.9€ billion more taxes and social insurance than they receive as social transfers over the remaining life cycle. Also, bringing refugees will provide a solution for the demographic problems of the continent (ex: in 2012, Germany had 200,000 more deaths than births), the shortage of manpower and skills in certain sectors (the social care sector in the UK is in great need of personnel to care to the elderly) and could reduce the public debt (The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford reported that letting 260,000 immigrants a year could halve the UK’s public debts in 50 years).

History remembers the United States welcoming Germans  during World War II, Russian dissidents during the Cold War and Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Hungary should remember the compassion and efforts of WWII-devastated Austria which welcomed almost 200,000 Hungarian fleeing from the violent repressing of the Soviet regime in 1956, granted them political asylum such as Budapest-native Andras Gros, who eventually moved to the United States, changed his name to Andrew Grove and co-founded the computer giant Intel Corp.


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