On past as prologue

As I barrel through a ton of older literature, I’ll be posting quotes that read like they were written today —

From: Alte Grahl-Madsen, Chapter 21: “Identifying the World’s Refugees” (1983), in Peter Macalister-Smith and Gudmundur Alfredsson (eds.), The Land Beyond: Collected Essays on Refugee Law and Policy by Alte Grahl-Madsen (2001), p. 259.

Stemming the Tide

It is part of the tragedy of our times that several states by various methods are seeking to prevent or at least to discourage refugees from reaching their shores to seek sanctuary. Military security zones may be established along frontiers and coastlines, making penetration hazardous, to say the least; or vessels carrying would-be refugees may be intercepted at sea and ordered to return with their human cargo. Visa exemption agreements between certain states may be abrogated, simply in order to prevent an uncontrollable inflow of asylum seekers by air, sea or land.

Just as there may be collective decisions of eligibility, some governments have of late adopted policies that virtually amount to collective non-eligibility for members of certain ethnic and other groups, which means that members of these groups may be returned to their homeland without ado, immediately upon arrival. Others may be returned to a country through which they have passed en route, on the pretext that that country is their country of first asylum, very likely adding to the number of refugees in orbit.

In order to reduce further the pull factor, or in other words to make refugee life as unattractive as possible, asylum seekers may be denied the right to work and may be restricted in their movements, even confined to a camp. There has also emerged the concept of humane deterrent, the idea being to make living conditions in camps as miserable as possible so as to deter others from considering flight as a viable alternative to there fear, anguish, and misery at home.

In May 1979 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by UNHCR and the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam concerning the “ordinary departure” of persons from Vietnam, the purpose being to eliminate at least one “push factor”.

The United Nations has now initiated an attempt to find ways and means to avert future flows of refugees. It is not intended to abridge the human right to leave any country, including one’s own. Instead, the General Assembly of the United Nations has turned its attention to the root causes of refugee problems, condemning “all policies and practices of oppressive regimes as well as aggression, alien domination and foreign occupation, which are primarily responsible for the massive flows of refugees throughout the world and which results in inhuman suffering.”

If anything shall result from this initiative, action will be necessary on many factors, ranging from penetrating studies of the limits of international law to practical and economic measures that can help states to solve their internal problems without recourse to oppressive policies of the kind that may cause mass flows of refugees.

Do we glimpse the contours of a brave new world?

footnotes removed. Originally published as “Identifying the World’s Refugees” in The Global Refugee Problem: US and World Response, Gilburt D. Loescher and John A. Scanlan (eds.), The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 467 (1983) 11-23.