Democratic Governance: the Only Answer to the Migration Challenge

The combination of conflict, poverty, injustice, authoritarianism, radicalization and the lack of effective political leadership has led to a crisis of epic proportions for Europe and the world with the largest mass of forced displaced and asylum seekers since the Second World War — nearly 60 million persons, according to the latest data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These daunting and growing numbers are not just a product of the Syrian conflict and the impressive stream of souls looking to survive far away from a home country unable to offer them shelter, food, dignity or hope of a future. The situation in other parts of the world such as the Great Lakes of Africa or the Bangladeshi-Myanmar border has been and remains quite the same.

What is at stake is not just a political or economic decision. Much more than that, what is at stake is a profoundly moral and even legal question. The gap between the obligation to protect established by the UN Convention of Refugees and the Dublin Convention and actual compliance is simply unacceptable and endangering the global order. It requires an urgent call for mutual accountability, beyond the interests of any nation, government or institution.

Are the latest political decisions responding to the urgency, substance and significance of the situation? The recently signed UE-Turkey agreement seeks to reduce the “incentive” for migrants to board on the life-threatening trip to the Greek Islands. Is this agreement the best answer to the problem? In other words, will it honor Europe’s moral responsibility and legal obligations of guarantying the refugees’ status? It still remains to be seen.

UNHCR has raised serious doubts about Greece’s capacity to “accommodate people decently and safely pending an examination on their cases.” Likewise, there is the question of how returned asylum seekers will be “decently and safely” accommodated in Turkey, taking into account that the country is already hosting more than two million Syrian refugees. Neighboring countries alone cannot bear the strain of this humanitarian crisis. There needs to be a comprehensive, long term solution engaging the international community as a whole and a sharing in resettlement and relocation efforts. The current—not only European, but global— responsibility-sharing system needs to be, at a minimum, fine-tuned in order to ensure effective solutions. Countries must honor their financial pledges but also their commitments on relocation numbers. Extra efforts and resources must be urgently allocated to conflict prevention, peace-building and early political action, as well as to the care and relocation of refugees and forced displaced.

Let us not delude ourselves: these measures, and any action plan including the integration of large numbers of refugees in their countries of adoption, will face stern reactions. Growing xenophobia, prejudice and discrimination are intoxicating the political atmosphere of many of our societies. At a time when populist and anti-immigration parties are rising, parallel to high unemployment rates and a mainstream agenda focusing on security and border-protection, the big question is: how can we break the “race to the bottom?”

A counter-narrative that presents refugees as an asset and an opportunity is needed, one that effectively combats the instrumentalization of fear and prejudices. New arrivals—when properly managed—can bring substantial economic, fiscal and demographic benefits in the long run. As the former Prime Minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, has pointed out, “the EU can clearly accommodate a million or more refugees. This would amount to just .2 percent of the EU’s total population – far less than the number of people that member countries will need to admit in the coming decades to replenish their aging workforces.” Once again, education will be crucial. The EU is not just a community of nations or a common market, it is above all a community of values that must be spread through a school curricula that fosters and musters multicultural and anti-discriminatory contents.

The challenge is unprecedented in nature, scale and complexity. The political, social and economic measures that could help stop or even significantly diminish the flow are out of reach, at least in the short and mid-term, and some of the trends spurring the current crisis such as the globalization of jobs, inequality, climate change, food insecurity and resource scarcity are likely to increase in the years to come. Civilians will keep fleeing from violence and seeking international protection scaling up resettlement needs. Alternative safe and legal admission channels need to be put in place in addition to increased resettlement.

The possible ways out are on the table. The UNHCR high level meeting, taking place today in Geneva, will focus on and showcase innovative measures for the dignified admission of Syrians asylum seekers such as humanitarian pathways like private sponsorships, humanitarian visas and medical evacuation, all of them designed to provide protection to refugees with compelling needs. Protection through admission of relatives, academic scholarships and labor mobility schemes will also be on the table.

While these are all practical measures being analyzed as a result of the Syrian crisis, they should be also be considered on a global basis for many other similar situations. Our values should also be scaled up. Technical measures and billions in aid will not stop people from fleeing Syria and other countries. A just and peaceful country, providing its citizens reasonable living conditions and human rights standards that only democracy can provide would help. The refugee crises around the world are measuring not only our political abilities but also our moral stature. In 1951 the UN Convention on refugees said “no” to mass expulsions. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights reiterated this “no.” Let’s not backtrack. Let’s remember our fundamental values and reassure the world that democratic governance is the answer, the only answer. This is neither about the next elections or our latest cynical excuse. It’s about our management of an increased diverse globalized society in a smart and mutual beneficial manner, our moral response to the four thousand people drowned in the Aegean Sea last year, or the four million Syrians forced across the border during the last five years of this atrocious war.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga President of the Club de Madrid, former President of the Republic of Latvia

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