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US and EU Accept Dire Consequences for Refugees to Keep Them Out

In “containing” refugees to developing countries, the U.S. is following in Europe’s troubling footsteps.

Migrants float in a raft off the coast of Lesvos island, Greece, on November 13, 2015.

In July, news broke that the Trump administration was weighing the possibility of admitting zero refugees for resettlement in 2020 — a move unprecedented in the history of the U.S. refugee admissions program. Since January 2019, the U.S. government has forced thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are being processed, which has exposed asylum-seekers to assault, sexual violence and even kidnapping.

Following economic threats, Trump announced a deal to designate Guatemala as a “safe third country,” which would enable the United States to deport asylum-seekers who transited through Guatemala back to the country despite Guatemala having one of the highest homicide and domestic violence rates in the world. According to the Migration Policy Institute, Guatemala itself was one of the top three countries of origin for asylum-seekers in 2017 (the latest data available), and thousands continue to flee the country.

These recent policy shifts, along with the horrifying conditions at U.S. migrant jails, have prompted condemnation from politicians, activists and citizens alike. Yet the United States is sadly not alone in its hostility toward those fleeing violence and persecution.

Amid the growing politicization of refugee and migrant flows, Western governments have adopted measures to keep refugees outside of their borders, in first-destination, developing countries. While the United States has used the threat of tariffs and cuts in foreign assistance to force countries such as Guatemala and Mexico to stem the flow of asylum-seekers, European countries have adopted a combination of increased border enforcement and financial assistance to refugee-hosting and origin countries.

Such assistance is critical. About 80 percent of the world’s nearly 26 million refugees are located in developing countries often ill-equipped to deal with the economic and infrastructural pressures of additional populations without help. Yet increasingly, Western donors are making financial aid to refugee-hosting and origin countries explicitly contingent on increased border enforcement that would halt the onward movement of migrants and refugees rather than upholding their basic human rights. The United States and Europe are willing to accept increasingly dire consequences for refugees in order to keep them out.

Efforts to support refugees in first-destination countries — the primarily developing countries where they first flee to — have intensified in the wake of the European refugee crisis. From 2015-2016 alone, the European Union (EU) received nearly 2.5 million first-time asylum applications. In September 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The declaration committed an additional $4.5 billion for refugee responses worldwide and a temporary increase in resettlement slots. At the same time, it emphasized foremost a need to support the developing and first-destination countries hosting the vast majority of refugees.

Despite the declaration’s promises to uphold refugee rights, containment was an explicit goal of many initiatives launched to address the European refugee crisis. The March 2016 EU-Turkey deal was one of multiple strategies deployed — including ads placed in Middle Eastern newspapers — to deter potential EU refugee applicants.

The deal, which aid organizations and rights groups heavily criticized, would have permitted EU member states to send migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers arriving at their borders back to Turkey. In exchange, the EU committed 6 billion euros in financial assistance, as well as eased restrictions on visas for Turkish citizens, renewed consideration of its EU membership bid and limited refugee resettlement.

Though, in practice, the EU has largely avoided sending asylum-seekers to Turkey due to legal challenges, the policy has had its desired result. The combination of dire conditions in migrant detention camps in Greece and increased border enforcement in Turkey has drastically reduced the number of individuals arriving from Turkey.

This has come at the expense of unfulfilled promises to refugees for access to public services and safe asylum in the country. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented the Turkish government’s suspension of refugee registration, forced deportations back to Syria, and denial of health care and education. Nevertheless, the EU has largely ignored these issues in favor of continuing its funding for Turkey.

Perhaps the most egregious example of prioritizing containment at the expense of rights has been the refoulement of migrants and asylum-seekers to Libya. Disagreement over allocation of refugees and asylum-seekers within the EU prompted the end of the boat patrol program that brought individuals rescued in the Mediterranean to Italy. Instead, the EU has collaborated with war-torn Libya in sending migrants and asylum-seekers to the country before they reach the EU, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on migrant detention centers and training the Libyan coast guard.

As violence continues to rage between factions vying for control of the government, migrants and asylum-seekers in Libya have found themselves in the crosshairs. On July 3, an airstrike by a rebel militia on a Libyan migrant detention center killed approximately 50 migrants and asylum-seekers. Yet European leaders have offered little more than empty calls for the Libyan government to ensure their safety. Meanwhile, asylum-seekers and migrants continue to die by the hundreds at sea.

Increased funding for developing countries to address growing global displacement is crucial but not enough. In February 2016, for example, the Jordanian government signed a compact promising increased access to education and labor market participation for Syrian refugees in exchange for billions of dollars in grants, loans and preferential EU trade agreements. Instead of being contingent on containing refugees, the agreement made funding conditional on the number of work permits issued for refugees.

Yet the compact and broader Syrian refugee relief effort has struggled from mismanagement, poor design and underfunding. Access to legal work has improved but is still limited, and more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line. Domestic economic challenges and issues with the compact’s design have meant that the government is simply incapable of meeting most of the terms of the compact without political backlash. Refugees’ situation in Jordan indicates that even ostensibly well-intentioned efforts to support them in developing countries will fall short without better coordination and design in addition to more funding.

Furthermore, while developing countries have gone above and beyond in opening their doors to individuals fleeing conflict, they have little incentive to uphold refugee rights when developed countries are willing to send migrants and asylum-seekers back to war zones rather than allow them entry. Increased funding may therefore not benefit refugees without moving away from the securitized approach that currently defines Western policy.

The latest policies by the Trump administration, therefore, take place in a global context increasingly hostile to refugees and asylum-seekers. The containment approach adopted by Western countries has limited the flow of asylum-seekers for now, as the number of people applying for asylum in Europe had decreased to pre-2015 levels, and the number of daily arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border has fallen.

But this strategy has come at immense human costs that will only compound in the future. For vulnerable refugees — such as political activists, LGBTQ+ individuals, unaccompanied minors and families with disabled members — adequate support is simply impossible without third-country resettlement. Rather than using the developing world as a holding cell, developed countries instead have a responsibility to open their borders to asylum-seekers and refugees.

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