During 2015, the global news cycle was overwhelmingly devoted to the influx of migrants and refugees into Europe via the Mediterranean. But 2016 was different. This was the year when the world’s attention turned to the West. Humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Africa were transformed, in both Europe and the United States, into moral and existential crises for the liberal arbiters of international norms. In many ways, the past year demonstrated that headline-grabbing issues like the migration crisis were less about the migrants and more about the countries willing or unwilling to receive them. The past year in many ways revealed to us the real selves of our nations – and with it the delicate state of the union of our communities.
For humanitarians, the two dominating human tragedies – the migration crisis in Europe and the conflict in Syria – have given way to a two-fold threat to the international humanitarian architecture. An increasingly obvious outcome of this threat is that the protection of civilians, not only in conflict zones but also, paradoxically, in the places where they seek refuge, has been seriously undermined.
In 2016 a record 5,000 people died in the Mediterranean on the perilous trek to asylum. This collective protection failure has been compounded by the political distortion of aid. Political prerogatives – as dictated by deals like the agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey signed in early 2016 – rather than need are determining aid distribution in key displacement hotspots. In Turkey, where I have worked with refugees and migrants for the past two years, over €3 billion in European aid for refugees is almost exclusively accessible only under the so-called ‘temporary protection status’ granted to Syrians, excluding hundreds of thousands of other migrants in desperate conditions. Further along, in Greece and Italy, nationality-based rather than need-based relocation procedures leave thousands stranded in limbo.
At the same time, the conflict in Syria has become the hallmark of the collective international failure to protect civilians trapped inside a warzone. It is beyond doubt, and well-documented, that international humanitarian law is being flouted in Syria on a daily basis. Attacks on medical facilities, civilians and rescue workers are the norm. In Aleppo, 2016 has come to a close with a shameful compromise by the UN and Security Council members entailing the forcible displacement – under threat of deadly force – of the city’s people.
Humanitarians worry that state practice along these lines may soon upturn international customary law, leaving huge gaps to fill in all the places where states have either shirked or outsourced their responsibilities. Underlying this fear is a series of negative trends that have been eating away at the foundations of humanitarianism for over two decades. On the one hand, political and economic interests have diluted the ethos of humanitarianism – neutrality and impartiality. These essential principles have been progressively corroded by the infiltration of a financially and politically motivated development sector and militaries into humanitarian efforts. The conflicts in Syria, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq, speak volumes about the scale of this problem. On the other, two key post-war principles governing humanitarian work and the protection of the vulnerable, namely the protections afforded under International Humanitarian Law in conflict zones and the right to asylum under the Refugee Convention, have both been fundamentally undermined.
The crisis of protection is exemplified by UN Security Council members targeting or enabling others to target hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. The crisis of asylum is manifest in the inability of unprecedented numbers of forced migrants, including millions displaced by climate change, to become refugees as states increasingly interpret asylum as a favour rather than a right. The responsibility for addressing these crises, ironically, lies with some of the original architects of these norms, including the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
For humanitarians, the past year’s events across conflict zones and in their home bases in the capitals of Europe served as a stark reminder that the liberal world order which forms the foundation on which modern international humanitarianism stands is in jeopardy. It is an irony then that the values and customs that are the essence of the liberal order are being renounced by its own flag-bearers in Western democracies for the appeasement of those among them that openly decry it. One must then mourn the political demise of liberalism in Europe above all, because it is here and within this political milieu that the foundations of modern humanitarianism lie.
Whatever happens in Europe, due to its foundational place in the history of the liberal order, will be potently symbolic. A Europe that might soon shun the right to asylum for all but a chosen few, and espouse illiberal norms for the paradoxical end of saving its liberal values, is bound sooner or later to confront the untenable logic of this course. When open societies give way to xenophobic ones, we will surely remember that we all saw it coming – in the distant silhouette of a migrant at the border – but by then it will be too little, too late.
Talha Jalal (@RTJalal) is a writer and humanitarian worker based in Turkey.