I came across the banner picture for this post in a Tweet from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) the day after a boat carrying 600 people sank off the coast of Egypt, killing over 150 of those onboard. It resonated with me for a number of reasons. The first is that a few days prior to this, the United Nations General Assembly convened a high-level summit in New York ostensibly to further the goal of creating a new Global Compact on refugees and migrants, but which turned out to be as characteristically toothless as might perhaps have been expected. Reading through the Declaration issued after the summit concluded was a depressing exercise: strong on principles/ideals, weak on obligations, as these Declarations often are. Talk is easy. Action is what matters. And this relates to the second reason why the cartoon resonated with me.
I’m currently writing the first chapter of my book, International Political Theory and the Refugee Problem. The chapter (an edited version of a previously-published article) examines the archives of the League of Nations and United Nations between 1921 and 1951 to chart the development of a distinct “refugee problem discourse” which forms the foundation for how we understand and approach “the refugee problem” today. Essentially the chapter argues that treating the refugee as “the problem” in need of a solution has been the dominant way of conceptualising the refugee problem from the very beginning of international concern with forced displacement, and isn’t simply a tool of political rhetoric, or a lamentable betrayal of the refugee regime’s origins, that has only arisen since the end of the Cold War. Reading through meeting minutes, letters, reports, resolutions, conference proceedings, and so on, turned out not just to be a fascinating excursion into an earlier time, but a sobering reflection on the present as well, as illustrated by this entry in the minutes of a League of Nations Council Meeting in October 1927, which could just as easily have been from the minutes of any of the meetings at the New York Summit:
Every member of the Council was filled with the most humanitarian feelings, and, if it were in the Council’s power to help all those who stood in need, he [the representative speaking] would be the first to propose that such assistance be given. After a decision had been taken, however, the states were called upon to pay the bill. When that moment came, the general attitude became somewhat more stringent.
While the Leaders’ Summit convened by President Obama the day after the New York Summit appears to have crow-barred some positive commitments from a handful of states to increase resettlement places (but by nowhere near enough), and pledging additional funds for humanitarian relief (although it remains to be seen if this money will actually materialise), refugee and rights advocacy groups have been almost universal in their criticism of the lack of leadership, solidarity, and genuine action on behalf of the global displaced population.
A similar refrain echoes through from the conference which drew up the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. A number of voluntary organisations were invited to observe the conference proceedings, submit memoranda on articles of the draft convention, and, on occasion, address the state delegates. On one such occasion, toward the end of the conference, a Mr Rees, Chairman of the Standing Committee of Voluntary Agencies (which represented 23 international and 9 national organisations engaged in relief work with refugees) offered the following observation:
It [the Conference] had […] to use the popular expression, thrown the baby out with the bath water. Its decisions had at times given the impression that it was a conference for the protection of the helpless sovereign states against the wicked refugee. The draft Convention had been in danger of appearing to the refugee like the menu at an expensive restaurant, with every course crossed out except, perhaps, the soup, and a footnote to the effect that even the soup might not be served in certain circumstances […] He would appeal to the Conference to ensure, at long last, that its deliberations sounded a note of generosity and liberalism, not one of fear and niggardliness.
In a decidedly un-scientific approach to scholarship – it’s OK, I’m a political theorist – a quick Google News search for “refugees” offers a series of extremely depressing stories which, in light of my current project, lead me to believe that perhaps Eugene O’Neill was right when he wrote that “there is no present or future – only the past happening over and over again, now.”
Or, in the words of Aerosmith – to complete those with which we began: “…it’s the same old song and dance”