European Economic Forum Speech

By Keith Best

Migrations and Resource Wars – How to Deal with the Challenges of the Future?

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Karpacz, Poland

Major migration is a feature of the modern world – and will increasingly be so – yet dealing with it at a global sustainable level, rather like the search for lasting peace, so far has eluded human ingenuity. There are an estimated 272 million international migrants – 3.5% of the world’s population – living in countries that are not their origin. The focus now, however, is on forced migration, the refugees and asylum seekers (now the highest number in history).

Despite the EU’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) since 1999 consisting of the five key pieces of legislation (the Asylum Procedures Directive, the Reception Conditions Directive, the Qualification Directive, the EURODAC Regulation and the Dublin Regulation)seeking that asylum procedures are harmonised across the EU it has its major flaws which were exposed in the refugee crisis of 2015. Implementation and enforcement are significant weaknesses but perhaps the greatest is the failure to ensure a shared responsibility to welcome asylum seekers.

The EU Common European Asylum System has some redeeming features but has not brought a region-wide solidarity among its states. The burden has fallen disproportionately on the front-line states and others (with notable exceptions) have not been prepared to share that burden more fairly. Richer countries like the UK may have populations that complain about refugee arrivals but they receive far fewer than other states:  in the year ending September 2022, Germany received the highest number of asylum applicants (296,555) in the EU+, followed by France (179,705) and Spain (128,015) against 75,000 in the UK (and that being the highest number for almost two decades).

The European Commission’s proposal for a new Pact on Migration and Asylum in 2020 sought to address this but this in itself has also been criticised as inadequate and impractical. A Joint Roadmap in the Common European Asylum System and the Pact on Migration and Asylum was agreed in September 2022. We must wait to see what, if anything, positive emerges.

In the UK the Government is under fire for it costing £7m a day to house asylum seekers but what most people do not understand is that is coming not from additional taxpayers’ revenue but is funded from the overseas development budget – the very source of what should be spent in developing countries as part of the answer!

We must learn from those shortcomings in finding a better solution both regionally and globally.

As a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order, there were 108.4 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced at end 2022. It has grown from less than 40million in 2000 (UNHCR). There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and lack access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement.

At a time when more than 1 in every 74 people on Earth has been forced to flee both regional groupings of states and the global community need to wake up.

Of the 35.3m refugees (29.4 million refugees are under UNHCR’s mandate and 5.9 million Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate) 41 per cent are under the age of 18. In addition, there are 62.5 million internally displaced people. 5.4 million are asylum seekers.

Low- and middle-income countries hosted 76% of the world’s refugees and other people in need of international protection. 70% of refugees and other people in need of international protection live in countries neighbouring their countries of origin. 52% of all refugees and other people in need of international protection came from just three countries: Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan. Children account for 30% of the world’s population but 40% of all forcibly displaced people.

The pressures are mounting: the population of Africa is expected to double by 2050. This will add 1.2 billion people to Africa’s 2019 population of 1.3 billion people.

Rather than making a virtue of necessity, enabling migration and improvement in skills and life chances most of the wealthier states have sought to close their doors and prevent such movement. Yet the free movement of people within the EU has shown the benefits of migration in opportunities and satisfaction of labour needs especially among young people. Deterrence is not the answer. Managed facilitation is.

The rise in refugees has seen the burgeoning of international trafficking gangs which need international intelligence co-operation and co-ordinated police action to prevent their exploitation of human misery and carelessness for lives. By August of this year the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded more than 1,800 migrant deaths in the central Mediterranean. The numbers are mounting of those who perish in small boats in the English Channel. Yet 87% of those arriving this way go on to be accorded refugee status – they are not economic migrants.

Even eradicating the traffickers will not stop desperate people seeking desperate remedies. The obvious answer is to stop the causes of flight at their origin: an investment in preventing and ceasing conflict, poverty and abuses of human rights in those countries from which people flee – but this involves a degree of investment which the wealthier world so far has not been prepared to make.

The immediate starting point must be to speed asylum procedures and identify swiftly those who are in genuine fear of persecution in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Ideally, there should be increased safe passageways which means identifying refugees closer to their home. Most women and children are lucky to cross one international border – most are in neighbouring states. Türkiye hosted nearly 3.6 million refugees, the largest population worldwide, followed by the Islamic Republic of Iran with 3.4 million. In Lebanon 1 in 7 is a refugee, in Jordan 1 in 16.

What is needed both at the European Union and global levels is a co-ordinated approach to migration which analyses what works and what does not. The emphasis of so many on deterrence is misplaced and does not appreciate the motivation of those fleeing persecution or economic hardship. The failure of states to accept burden sharing and to indulge in what is perceived to be national self-interest (or, as we say in UK, NIMBYism – Not In My Back Yard) is counter intuitive as it leaves the wider problem unsolved.

In so far as asylum seekers or economic migrants have any choice of final destination (and those in the hands of people traffickers and pre-paid passage often do not) that choice is based more on use of a second language, availability of work, the freedoms enjoyed and perception rather than what may await them by way of emergency accommodation or benefits. Many of those from poorer countries would find even the harshest conditions on reception preferable to what they have left behind. Moreover, most of the attributes of a country which might make it appear attractive to refugees – a safe and prosperous environment with job opportunities and the rule of law – are matters of which host countries should be proud – yet the policy of deterrence seeks to make the lives of asylum seekers uncomfortable.

Migration is now part of the international norm and the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. The only solution is to manage it in a sensible manner. The obvious answer is to prevent or at least inhibit the reasons for migration – that means a massive investment and transference of wealth from the richer to poorer countries so as to provide both a decent standard of living and employment opportunities for young people in those countries from which people migrate. It goes without saying, also, that there needs to be greater international commitment to the prevention and cessation of conflict and abuse of human rights which is another factor why people flee. It is clear where that money should go: to those countries which generate the most migration ie Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. The impasse through the use or threatened use of the veto in the UN Security Council by some of the P5 members in identifying and dealing with conflict must be circumvented and I am pleased that the General Assembly now seems to be flexing its muscles on this.

I am old enough to have been directly involved in the dispersion of Vietnamese refugees who had fled to Hong Kong in the late 1970s which was resolved by the United Nations convening an international conference in Geneva in July 1979, stating that “a grave crisis exists in Southeast Asia for hundreds of thousands of refugees”. The results of the conference were that the Southeast Asian countries agreed to provide temporary asylum to the refugees, Vietnam agreed to promote orderly departures rather than permit boat people to depart, and the Western countries agreed to accelerate resettlement. The Orderly Departure Program enabled Vietnamese, if approved, to depart Vietnam for resettlement in another country without having to become a boat person. As a result of the conference, boat people departures from Vietnam declined to a few thousand per month and resettlements increased from 9,000 per month in early 1979 to 25,000 per month, the majority of the Vietnamese going to the United States, France, Australia and Canada. We need a permanent international initiative along these lines in which genuine refugees can be recognised either sur place or having fled to a neighbouring country and then, on an agreed quota system, given safe passage to a recipient country.