Almost sixty years ago, four young Tory activists – Tim Raison, editor of a small conservative magazine; Christopher Chataway, a famous British athlete; Trevor Philpott, a journalist on Picture Post; and Colin Jones, a financial writer on the Economist – launched a campaign in Raison’s magazine, Crossbow, to make 1960 a World Refugee Year. The idea was that governments and voluntary bodies would devote special efforts to clearing the backlog of refugees and DPs (displaced persons) living in camps mainly in Europe, the Middle East and Hong Kong.

It was an idea that caught fire: public opinion was aroused, US$92 million was raised in donations (a huge sum then), voluntary bodies were enthusiastic, an amazing array of celebrities from Clement Attlee to Dame Edith Evans endorsed it, the United Nations adopted WRY in a resolution, governments (many initially sceptical) got on board so that national migrant quotas were expanded or special ones established, and by the end of 1960 the last refugee camps in Europe had been closed. It was an astonishing achievement for four young men.

All four were awarded the UN’s Nansen Medal for service to humanitarian causes. Shortly before Chataway died last year, however, he told CNN: “In my old age, thinking of the various things I have done, bad and good, on the whole seconding Tim Raison in this venture is about the best thing I have done.” He probably spoke for all of them.

Even in 1960, however, the refugee problem was not entirely solved. The refugee camps in the Middle East were kept in being – to strengthen the case for Palestinian statehood rather than from necessity – and people continued to escape from communist China into Hong Kong camps. Fifteen years later the Vietnamese boat people again put refugees on the front pages when heading to Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. And today there are refugee crises in Europe, Africa and Asia that make the situations of 1958 seem very modest challenges. UN agencies estimate that there are more than 50 million refugees worldwide and a further 31 million IDPs (or internally displaced persons) uprooted by wars, government oppression, and the anarchy that flourishes in failed states like Libya. No one doubts that the overall refugee problem is genuine and massive.

What lessons does WRY offer for solving it? First, everyone knew that the refugees and DPs were genuine. The Second World War had ended only thirteen years before, and they were its last visible victims. No one thought they were disguised “economic migrants” who anyway in 1958 were welcome in many countries. Second, they were few in number and largely passive. Unless another hot war broke out, there was unlikely to be many more of them. No one imagined that there was a limitless “pool” of refugees who might overwhelm national borders if governments relaxed their entry rules. Third, we had just had the successful experience of resettling the Hungarian émigrés of 1956. All the Western countries had co-operated in an international effort to take in the “Fifty-sixers” in numbers appropriate to the population size of each recipient country. Austria wasn’t left to handle the exodus for itself simply because it bordered Hungary. All these things fostered an international mood that was receptive to the idea.

Admittedly, the Soviet bloc did not join with most other countries in supporting WRY. Its diplomatic stance was that the best solution to the plight of DPs would be “voluntary” repatriation rather than re-settlement elsewhere. Many DPs were from Soviet bloc countries and were particularly determined to resist “voluntary” repatriation. Some had done so to the point of suicide a decade earlier. This wasn’t good ground on which Moscow might take a stand. Two years after Hungary the Soviets prudently decided not to obstruct WRY.

They were even accidental supporters of it. Though self-consciously revolutionary, the Soviets were strong upholders of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states in practice. It was their defence against criticism of their record on human rights. And WRY, like the resettlement of Hungarian exiles, was ultimately an exercise in inter-governmental cooperation. Public opinion, voluntary bodies, and celebrities all pushed the project forward with money, endorsements and arguments. UN and other agencies ran camps, kept refugee lists, certified their status, and arranged transfers. But governments negotiated the terms and numbers of refugee resettlement among themselves and they had the power to implement their decisions.

WRY could happen because governments and citizens both felt they could offer sanctuary to refugees without endangering their own security, identity, national cohesion, or their other interests and values.

Many things have changed since 1960. The world refugee crisis is now much bigger. Refugees are not the only people on the move. Economic migrants in their millions want to leave places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Burma and settle in the welfarist West. Enjoying fewer rights than refugees under international law, they seek either to pass as refugees or to break into the West and establish a modern legalistic version of squatters’ rights. Unlike the passive DPs of post-war Europe, they come from a potentially limitless pool of future migrants. Given both their numbers and their willingness to override our immigration and other laws, they plausibly threaten our security, identity and national cohesion – especially under a multiculturalism that treats all cultures as equal or that (in reality) privileges the culture of the Other.

It is not impossible in principle to devise policies that would reduce, ameliorate and eventually solve this problem despite its scale. These policies would include: making and enforcing a clear legal distinction between refugees and other migrants; establishing centres outside “target” countries (i.e., in the Middle East or North Africa) to determine whether would-be immigrants had refugee status; negotiating a worldwide inter-governmental agreement to set national quotas for the admission of refugees; refusing entry to non-refugees in excess of the numbers determined by domestic law; and deporting illegal immigrants swiftly and without appeal.

But such policies don’t happen because governments have lost control of migration policy to global agencies, NGOs and international lawyers.

That is the biggest change since 1960. International human rights law, UN treaty compliance rules, and the influence of NGOs internationally are now among many constraints on national policy-making. An alternative supranational structure of law, regulation and political authority competes with national governments in refugee policy and human rights law. In 1960 there was little dispute that governments had the right to control how many people of what kind might enter their country and become their citizens. Today all human beings irrespective of citizenship are said to have rights that are enshrined in international law, policed by global agencies and NGOs, and adjudicated by international courts. Some lawyers and NGOs even assert that governments have no right to control their borders because migration is itself a human right.

Migrants don’t benefit from this protection. Quite the opposite. Faced with legal uncertainty, governments become risk-averse. They avoid any refugee initiatives lest they end up having to accept more migrants, including illegals, than they or their voters think prudent. European governments neither stop illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats nor distribute them across Europe in an agreed and orderly way. They try to confine them to border states or to pass them on to their neighbours. Migrants of all kinds, sensing weakness, keep coming. More drown. The problem gets bigger. And worse.

Nations can only be generous if they feel secure. That was the lesson of World Refugee Year. Some nations, Australia for instance, have learnt it. And it is the theme of three major articles in our current issue.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email