Is global citizenship the answer to the ‘refugee crisis’?

Published on 20 June 2019

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

The TV images of refugees being rescued from flimsy boats in the Mediterranean, or never making it are all too familiar. World Refugee Day is another reminder that on a daily basis, refugees are making treacherous journeys to find security, safety and peace. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 1.8 million migrants have made perilous journeys to Europe since 2014, with thousands dying in the process.

Migrants and refugees arrive by dinghy behind a huge pile of life vests after crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos Greece, Sept. 10, 2015.

Shifting the burden of responsibility

For those who reach southern European shores, their dream is often to restart their lives in northern or western Europe. In reality, though they are left to languish for months or years in camps or rendered vulnerable, criminalised and in situations that deny them dignity and agency, with their basic rights often violated. Despite all the media hype of the “refugee crisis” in Europe, it should not be forgotten that only a minority of the world’s refugees reach Europe; about 85 per cent are given refuge in countries in the global South. The EU response has been shocking and ad hoc. National governments have descended into acrimonious disputes about how to respond and the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and the Dublin Agreement have been undermined.

Europe’s emphasis on deterrence, offshore processing and non-recognition of asylum claims has increased the vulnerability of refugees to human rights violations on their way to and in Europe. European courts and institutions have behaved in inhumane ways with non-European refugees and migrants, legal provisions and practices at odds with European ethical human rights standards and commitments.

The current system has not only failed those seeking asylum but has also imposed a burden upon countries that are the sites of first entry. Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees; approximately a quarter of its entire population or even more if one takes into account those not registered with UNHCR. By contrast, around 0.25 per cent (one-quarter of a per cent) of the UK’s population is made up of refugees. In Norway, it is significantly higher at about 4 per cent.

Cities of sanctuary and light

Despite restrictive national and global policies, cities around the world have been providing safe havens to refugees. In the UK despite the Government’s politicised and racialised discourse around the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, cities like Brighton and Hove and Manchester which are part of the Cities of Sanctuary movement, have sought to welcome refugees under various government and city council schemes as well as community initiatives.

Many US cities in New York state (e.g. Buffalo and Utica) have been welcoming and integrating refugees and asylum-seekers into their communities. This is significant given the resistance of the Trump administration to immigration and refugees since 2017 and Trump’s policies are actively resisted by authorities and community groups in these spaces. Such “cities of light” and cities of sanctuary work actively at refugee integration through the provision of work opportunities and housing, leisure and sports activities as well as the protection of their rights. In many ways, they are offering experiences of citizenship for refugees beyond the formal realm.

A refugee passport?

Despite these few positive examples, most people would agree that the current refugee system, especially in the global North, is deeply flawed and characterised by poor systems of accountability and gross human rights violations. But there are examples from earlier forms of refugee protection and contemporary practices that offer some lessons and ways forward. After World War I, about 2 million refugees, fleeing war were stranded in Europe. Instead of being turned away or left to languish, many of them were issued Nansen passports, named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who later became the High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations. By 1942, 450,000 refugees were using Nansen passports which were ultimately recognised by about 52 countries.

Clearly, many social groups were excluded from the Nansen passport and it also did not provide for full citizenship. Still, it granted some fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement, the possibility to find work, and a place to live. The Nansen passport is today often confined to a footnote in the history of refugee protection. But it allowed for the first time a new form of international protection, over and above the authority of the state. While it was available only to recognised refugees (e.g. Armenians, Russians, etc.), it represented a degree of creativity that is missing in today’s world of mass displacement. Its emphasis on enabling mobility stands in sharp contrast to the current global and European emphasis on deterrence, that is keeping refugees in their country of origin, in the country of first asylum or creating a ‘hostile environment’ for asylum seeker and refugees.

Towards global citizenship?

Recent calls in the media and elsewhere to revisit the idea of the Nansen/refugee passport, complement discussions at the EU level focusing on the need for safe and legal routes for refugees including humanitarian visas (pdf). Indeed, there is a need for fresh thinking on issues concerning the mobility, the right to work, entitlements to protection, integration and ultimately citizenship of individuals forced to leave their countries of origin. These are sorely lacking today.

As Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights argued, refugees should be considered to be the original global citizens, given that their own states have failed to protect their rights and their consequent need to turn to the international community. Global citizenship for refugees at the formal level could mean a return to a Nansen type of passport where refugees could be free to travel to certain countries in the global North and that governments respect the basic right of all individuals to a nationality. At the informal level, it could be an increasing presence, a multi-layered sense of belonging and rights claiming in global institutions. As the cities of light and sanctuary show, this is already happening in some ways, and displaced individuals already experience and ‘live’ these multiple citizenships.

On World Refugee Day, I hope for a future where the movement of people will be recognised and celebrated, not just for upper-class expatriates but also for the millions of displaced people around the world who are desperately seeking protection and recognition of their rights as global citizens.


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