International refugee protections were established in the aftermath of World War II when, for the second time in a generation, Europe was reeling from a large-scale conflict that displaced millions of people across the continent. Since this system was formalized, countries have colloquially been grouped into three classifications: origin, transit, and receiving countries. While evolving crises have forced some governments to transition between categories, we are now seeing a new trend in how countries treat receiving obligations in particular. Over the past 10 years, countries that have traditionally been viewed as receiving countries have implemented various policies that aim to discharge responsibility for and dismantle refugee protections. This would create a new standard whereby receiving countries no longer participate in the care of persecuted people.
A country’s role in a migrant crisis can always change. Whether a country becomes a point of transit depends on the location of the crisis. To play the receiving role, a country must be able to resettle large numbers of people efficiently. Countries can act in multiple capacities — for example, Turkey has served as both a transit and a receiving country during the Syrian crisis. Countries can also take on different roles in different crises. For example, Poland primarily acts as a transit country for Ukrainian refugees but is a receiving country for Syrians. Some countries, like Canada and Iceland, are more insulated, which allows them to act almost exclusively as receiving countries.
What scholars have referred to as “The Long Peace” has changed our view of these roles. The era since WWII has been defined by unprecedented peace among the great powers. When refugee protections were established in the initial aftermath of WWII, that peace was fragile. Refugee protections were seen both as a way to establish dominance in the new world order by demonstrating an economy that is strong enough to provide for a growing population and as a show of goodwill in the international community. They were also viewed as mutually beneficial should that fragile peace collapse.
As peace continued among the great powers, the international community began to view the absence of conflict among European countries as an eternal truce. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrated how precarious that peace could be. The immediate and strong condemnation of Russia’s actions reflected the fear from the international community that this invasion had broken the prolonged sense of peace.
The Long Peace also had detrimental effects on how the international community views refugee protections. Many established receiving countries now view refugee protections as a relic of times of conflict and a burden in times of peace. This viewpoint allows the international community to make exceptions for Ukrainians, as their crisis is seen as a rare exception to the Long Peace.
Recently, many countries have been implementing policies to deter, deny, and deport refugees and asylum seekers. The U.S. has effectively barred asylum seekers through Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42, which the Biden administration has only made half-hearted attempts to repeal. In Europe, Belarus, Greece, Denmark, and the U.K. have enacted policies to shift asylum seekers away from their borders. Japan, which accepts less than 1 percent of refugee and asylum applications, has proposed legislation that would expand the use of detention and limit access to appeals for asylum seekers. Australia has been forcing asylum seekers into informal refugee camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for almost a decade to deter future migrants.
Political instability, natural disasters, and violent conflict continue to force people from their homes. However, receiving countries have settled into the misconception that they are immune from their own humanitarian crisis. They can only see themselves as a receiving country, unable to succumb to a crisis that would designate them as an origin country. These countries think they have already “done their part” after resettling large percentages of the refugee population each year. They have placed a metaphorical timer on how long countries need to care for their neighbors in times of crisis.
This pattern of anti-refugee policies has closed off traditional migratory pathways but has also spurred other countries to build out their immigration infrastructure to fill the gap. For example, Colombia has not only welcomed almost 2 million Venezuelan migrants but has given them Temporary Protected Status, which allows them to live and work for 10 years freely. Germany hosts the largest population of refugees in Europe, and Rwanda seeks to expand its immigration infrastructure to accommodate asylum seekers relocated by Europe. However, these countries could follow in the footsteps of others and dismantle their systems when they decide they have done enough.
There are currently more displaced people than ever before and fewer places for refugees to be efficiently resettled — and we should be prepared for more movement in years to come. There is an urgent need to hold governments to the promises they made to ensure that we have the necessary infrastructure to provide for these people. If we allow governments to decide that they no longer have to uphold the commitment to care for refugees in times of duress, we undermine the premise of protecting those most in need.
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