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Intergovernmental cooperation on refugee flows

Clip: Intergovernmental cooperation on refugee flows

Originally published in Sir Magazine in May 2016.

In 2015, 1.2 million asylum claims were lodged in the EU, and according to the UN High Commission for Refugees there were 19.5 million in the world. Flows of displaced people haven’t been seen on this scale for decades. As the world scrambles for solutions, some strange bedfellows are emerging, as Western countries’ panic about the refugee influx gives some of their poorer neighbours an unusual degree of bargaining power.

In Europe, Germany and Greece have been at loggerheads over sovereign debt bailouts for years. But as two of the countries bearing the brunt of the crisis, they’re now united in calling for a continent-wide policy response while countries like Austria and Hungary are content to close their own borders and shift the burden. Even more striking is the EU's renewed cooperation with Turkey. With a no doubt mixed bag of motives – to discourage refugees from undertaking dangerous journeys across the Aegean and through the Balkans; to stop the panic-inducing spectacle of huge numbers of refugees marching across European borders; to head off the nationalist challenges of everyone from the Hungarian government to the far-right Alternative for Germany party – Europe and Turkey are now allied, working together to break up networks of migrant smugglers and block off the migration routes they make a living from.

On the other side of the world, the challenge is not so new. Australia has had fierce debates over refugees since the late 1990s. After an election in 2001, the country settled on the ‘Pacific Solution’, a policy in which refugees were either turned back to their last port or sent to a detention centre on the tiny island nation of Nauru. Since then, the details have occasionally changed – refugees have at times been sent to Malaysia or Papua New Guinea, as well as Nauru, for instance – but the heart of the approach has stayed in place. Refugees are kept away from Australia by any means possible. More recently, Australia has cooperated with the governments of Sri Lanka and Iran to send boat arrivals back to the countries they fled, and even bargained with people smugglers – buying their boats and, in one instance, directly paying a crew to turn back to Indonesia. These unlikely-sounding partnerships have, thanks to the politics of refugee flows, become widely accepted in Australian politics.

In Europe, the new alliance is an extraordinary step in a crisis; in Australia, these arrangements have become a regular, and depressingly bipartisan, feature of the immigration regime. But they have the same fundamental structure. Rich countries in the region face a problem in the arrival of many more refugees than their voters are willing to accept. They thus seek the help of other regional players to stem the migration flow, through a combination of law enforcement, deportation and resettlement, and (occasionally) the expansion of legal settlement programmes. For the wealthy nations much is seen to be at stake in securing this cooperation, so the otherwise poorer and less empowered regional actors take the opportunity to demand significant concessions in return.

They usually get them. In many cases this has led to a reversal in the traditional balance of power in international relations. Cambodia has taken nearly £30 million in exchange for the resettlement of just five refugees; much of Nauru’s economic activity is generated by the detention centres, and its government is largely funded by Australian money.

The EU is sanctioning Poland’s new government for undermining the rule of law; but in Turkey, President Erdogan’s stifling of the press and consolidation of his personal power are seemingly no obstacle to putting visa liberalisation and EU accession back on the agenda. Certain, geographically fortunate countries are finding the refugee crisis – and the pressure on rich countries it’s generating – is giving them much greater international leverage than they’d otherwise enjoy.

The rich countries, too, are mostly getting what they want. Pressure on Angela Merkel in Germany is showing signs of easing, while the most vicious and solidarity-threatening fights between EU states over refugees and Schengen look to have subsided. Conservative governments in Australia have reaped political rewards from their success at stopping refugee boats; before one arrival a few weeks ago, which was promptly returned to Sri Lanka, none had made the journey for nearly two years.

Taken in the broader context of their respective regions, these partnerships, in which wealthier states cut generous deals with poorer states which typically have very poor human rights recordslook difficult to make sense of. But they are generally working – both parties are getting what they want. If that pattern continues, and Australia’s experience suggests it could well, then we have a gold standard of positive-sum international cooperation on our hands. There are no losers – among governments, at least.  But empowering authoritarian governments like Erdogan’s has its costs, even if the victims are far removed from the arena of international power politics. And then, of course, there are the refugees.