How to Protect Borders and Refugees?


Is it possible to protect borders and refugees at the same time? This was the question posed at a round table discussion at IPI’s Vienna office on June 7th. With so many people on the move around the world, and states desperate to protect their sovereignty, governments are increasingly under pressure to control and even close their borders. But this is hindering the ability of refugees to seek asylum.

Participants took part in an open and lively discussion on how to manage borders and maintain stability in a way that does not violate the rights of people on the move. IPI’s Senior Vice President, Walter Kemp, presented IPI’s previous work on Desperate Migration and Forced Displacement, including a report on the topic written for the Independent Commission on Multilateralism. He expressed concern at the lack of leadership and creative solutions to address the challenge, and encouraged participants to use this opportunity to come forward with fresh ideas.

The meeting started with a general consensus that the current situation should not only be Europe’s problem, rather the issue should be addressed at the global level with a sense of solidarity among peoples and states.

Mr. Kemp recalled the Salzburg Declaration of September 9, 2015 in which a number of senior officials taking part in the IPI Salzburg Forum called for a global rescue initiative to create humane, properly resourced and equipped reception centers in key hubs in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe where refugees and migrants are congregating. “Why not have a rescue operation to pick them up?” he asked, echoing the Salzburg declaration that said such an initiative would reduce unsafe journeys, save lives, cut smuggling and trafficking, and circumvent unsympathetic governments.

Several participants, including UNHCR Spokesperson and Head of Communications Melissa Fleming, said that such appeals have already been made, but there has been insufficient support for resettlement. She noted that UNHCR’s goal is to resettle at least ten percent of the Syrian refugee population currently living in neighboring countries within the next few years. Another participant noted that there are independent initiatives like a company called Refugee Air. Nevertheless, the scale remains much too small to tackle the millions of refugees–particularly from Syria–that are in need of protection. It was also noted that resettlement requires a common European asylum and migration policy rather than ad hoc national responses. Participants discussed the advantages and disadvantages of granting all Syrians temporary protection status.

In the course of the discussion (involving representatives of inter- and non-governmental organizations as well as representatives of states), at least one participant questioned why the current international protection regime makes a distinction between “good” refugees that need help and “bad” migrants that should be sent home. He noted that many migrants are also moving for the sake of survival, and that this trend will only increase because of inequality and climate change. He noted that most flows of peoples are mixed between the two, or that people’s status changes along different parts of their journey.

At the same time, most participants felt that it would be dangerous to reopen the UN 1951 Convention on the status of refugees. “We will never get a better Geneva convention again–so hands off the Geneva convention!” emphasized Heinz Patzelt, Secretary General of Amnesty International Austria. That said, there was wide agreement on the need to strengthen the legal regime to protect migrants.

Walter Kemp highlighted a number of lessons learned from a new IPI report on the Cayucos crisis of 2006-2008 when 40,000 people tried to cross from West Africa to the Canary Islands in small wooden boats. He noted the priority that was given to saving lives, the use of readmission agreements with countries of West Africa, law enforcement cooperation, and development assistance to reduce incentives for people to move abroad. However, it was noted that some of these lessons would be hard to apply in Libya at the moment because of instability.

Lessons learned from the exodus of Vietnamese boat people starting in the late 1970s were also recalled. Alexander Casella, who worked for UNHCR at that time, stressed that cooperation with Vietnam had been vital for alleviating this challenge.

The tendency towards the “externalization” of borders was discussed, as seen in the Cayucos crisis a decade ago, Australia’s asylum policy, and recent decisions in some EU countries to close their borders and push the responsibility back to Greece and Turkey. They highlighted the danger of such policies in terms of preventing people from seeking asylum and violating the principle of non-refoulement.

Participants discussed preparations for the UN high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants that will take place in New York on September 19, 2016. They discussed some of the observations and recommendations of the UN Secretary-General’s report of April 12, entitled “In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants.” IPI will hold a meeting in New York on June 23 to put forward policy suggestions for the high-level meeting.

There was a particularly lively discussion on how to change the toxic narrative towards migrants and refugees. Martijn Pluim of the International Center for Migration Policy Development said, “If we cannot change the narrative, then we cannot solve the problem.” Migration expert Kilian Kleinschmidt and human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak agreed that civil society needs to have the feeling that politicians have the situation under control. “One of the main reasons why the right wing party gained so much popularity in Austria is the fact that the political response to the refugee influx last year was perceived as chaotic. This created fear.” Nowak is convinced that creating positive incentives for countries to take more refugees, like establishing a global solidarity fund, could help to change the narrative from negative to positive. Mr. Patzelt of Amnesty International emphasized that hosting refugees is a question of willingness and not ability. He noted that Austria hosts more than two million tourists every year, so it should not be a crisis to take in at least 35,000 refugees.“It is ridiculous to say that European countries cannot handle it,” he said.

In this and other respects, participants highlighted the importance of leadership, a constructive narrative, and effective management of the process.

IPI will continue to seek actionable solutions to this issue through dialogue, case studies, and policy recommendations.