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The State and the Transformed International System in Relation to the Refugees

The State and the Transformed International System in Relation to the Refugees 

1.0 Introduction

The word asylum comes from the Greek word sulon (pillage) meaning a place in which plunder is prohibited. Asylum is also related to sanctuary which is derived from a Latin word sanctuarium meaning sacred or consecrated place. Refugee has therefore over time developed in such an understanding and was very much practiced in Greece as well as Rome. In contemporary time, the right to asylum is often referred to as right to refuge. Or what can be termed the universal right to sanctuary. There have been traditions of asylum for millennia: both the histories of traditional India and Jewish tradition indicate that this institution was widely understood and respected.  Judaism indicates the allocation by God of specific cities as places of refugee. So too are the traditions of Islam in which refugee is actually one of the foundational ideas as it is attested to by the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina which is associated with the concept of protection from persecution (Marfleet, 2006, pp. 97-98).

The existence of refugees in modern time is a result of direct acts of sovereign states and their political decisions. However the consequences of such acts transcend the national state boundaries because in reality the phenomenon of refugees is transnational; by the very definition of the term refugee it implies a cross border issue. Those people who have been displaced but are still within the borders of their state nation are referred to as internally displaced persons (IDPs) whereas all those people who through persecution or through serious threats whichever they may be, go beyond their home countries to seek asylum in foreign countries are actually referred to as refugees. According to refugee convention article 1,
the term refugee shall apply to any person who as a result of events occurring before January 1951 and owing to well funded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such a  fear is unwilling to avail himself to the protection of that country; or who not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or owing to such fear is unwilling to return to it, (Hathaway, 2005, pp.96-97).

The genocide in Rwanda led to the refugees in Tanzania and Congo, the conflict in Sudan led to the refugees in Kenya and Uganda, the conflict in Darfur led to refugees in Chad and currently the conflict in Somalia has led to the largest refugee camp in Kenya. These are just but few examples pointing at the fact that the reality of refugees is never internal but by its very nature transnational.

It will be in the very best interest of this paper to examine whether sooner or later the transformation of the international system which broadens the narrow frame of the state can bring a true solution to the problem of refugees in the world. In order to lay a solid background to such examination, there is a need to look into the causes of refugees.

2.0 Causes of Refugees

Apart from natural disasters, and activities of non-governmental actors like terrorists, all other major causes of refugees are actually based on both the acts of governments and political decisions undertaken by sovereign states. This is partly owing to the fact that states are one of the most important actors in the international system. According to the Westphalia definition, the state constitutes territory, population, government and sovereignty; these are perhaps some of the factors giving the state a very central role in the system.

On their freedom to pursue their own ends states are subject to unavoidable reliance on self preservation and self help because the system is anarchic. Political engagement in such a society is characterized by elements such as diplomacy, international law, great powers and superpowers, hegemonic struggle, balance of power and of course war (Hurrell, 2011, p.87). With the inclusion of war in these interactions, the existence of refugees is almost inevitable. For example according to Peter Marsden “the bombing raids on Kandahar, led hundreds of thousands people to flee toward Pakistan” (2006, p. 122).

2.1 Acts Undertaken and Political Decisions by Sovereign States

Acts and political decisions of sovereign states are major causes of refugees in the  world These include acts such as war, chaos, deprivation, group based persecution, and defeat in civil war among others (Lischer, 2005, p. 19). States are undeniably major actors in the international system because of their major characteristics. Despite the modern day challenges such as terrorism and globalization which seem to defy certain factors, states enjoy sovereignty, command territories, have citizens and engage in high politics for instance diplomacy and war and such qualities make them still the major actors in the global system and their acts and political decisions are the main causes of refugees.

The world has had a good taste of this for example in Burundi, there has been a political conflict that has lasted for over thirty years causing many Burundians to become refugees. By 2003, some 750, 000 Burundian refugees were living in Tanzania (Forbes & Hiddleston, 2006, p. 15). The most recent case in point is Kenya’s decision to enter into Somalia in pursuit of the Al-Shababab which has led to an influx of refugees fleeing war in the southern part of Somalia.

The Ethiopian case could aid in the comprehension of what is being presented here from both the resiliency and fragility of Ethiopia’s people in the face of terror. The socio-political factors that led to the overthrow of the regime of Haile Selassie and the take-over by the dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1974 feature prominently. Mengstu was also to be ousted by the guirilla leader Meles Zenawi in 1991. In the face of such political turmoil in Ethiopia and the interaction with other factors for instance environmental tragedy, refugees and IDPs have been created (Van Arsdale, 2006, pp. 41-41).

2.1.1 Oppressive Regimes

There are many refugees who flee because of direct persecution or oppression rather than general chaos. As Lischer argues this type of refugee population escape ethnic cleansing, genocide or other oppressive policies that target them on the basis of ethnic, religious, linguistic or political identity (2005, p. 10).

There seems to be always a political dimension of each and every refugee crisis, for instance there is a political explanation to every civil war. Also there is the issue of socio-economic variables in the situations leading to the emergency of refugees. In this regard therefore, there are refugees who flee targeted persecution but there are also those who flee upon defeat in civil wars (Lischer, 2005, p. 18). 

2.1.2 War

War remains the major cause of refugees. It is only states that can legitimately declare war. Sovereign states are always at the center of any war and all wars in the world involve states because war always occur somewhere and states are the only units which legitimately command territory in the international system. There have been a number of civil wars in Africa, military coups and incursions with the recent being the current incursion in Somalia. Many armed conflicts in Africa involve organized rebel groups fighting governments for instance the M23 in DRC, LRA in Uganda, Tuaregs in Mali and many others.

The state has its own stake because the way it reacts to such rebels and the measures it takes for instance fighting to root out the rebels often leads to refugee situation. Recent civil conflicts in the region and Africa in general, “typically involve a relatively small number of rebel combatants armed with small arms and light weapons (African development report, 2008/2009).

These are however not unique to Africa, similar situations are witnessed all over the world for example Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-5, Somalia (92-3), Rwanda (1994), Haiti (1994), Albania (1997), Kosovo (1998-9), East Timor (1999) and Sierra Leone (1999-2000) and the list can continue. As Adam Roberts has Theses conflicts have led to massive numbers of refugees and Adam Roberts has clearly illustrated them (2011, pp. 220-226).

Also there are the modern time wars for example the US led military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Maryanne Loughry “an anticipated consequence of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the displacement of a proportion of the Iraq population” (2010, p. 169). Side by side with Adam Roberts one can argue that refugee flows are therefore a deliberate consequence of military action. He asserts that “whether or not it is publicly acknowledged by the power concerned, some military actions have as their basic purpose the eviction of inhabitants from their homes” (Roberts, 2011, p. 216). 

2.1.3 Insecurity

In some instances the governing regimes have become one of the greatest sources of insecurity for citizens for example Williams as cited by Milner argues that:
Africa’s people have long been the victims of a powerful and warped version of regime security, such an understanding and a desire to escape this condition has given rise to the notion of human security. Such an approach takes the individual as the focus and emphasizes two characteristics of security: safety from chronic threats such as disease and repression and protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the pattern of daily life, (2009, p 73).

Forced displacement of the population according to UNHCR is a clear indication that the web of rights and obligations that link individuals with the state has been broken down (2009, p 73). Looking at these facts carefully, there emerges a realization that indeed the role of the state its independent acts and the political choices made by the same state affect greatly the human security of its citizens.

When human security is threatened, there is normally instability and conflict which often take the violent dimension uprooting the people from their homeland and forcing them to seek residence elsewhere thus refugees. Milner (2009) argues “the plight of refugees in Africa has been one of the most visible consequences of the conflicts that have plagued the continent for the past fifty years,” he further holds that this was especially true in the 90s as millions of African refugees fled both conflict and state failure in many regions of the continent for instance, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Somalia (Milner, 2009, p. 1).

Many of the civil wars that have been fought all over the world and Africa in particular majorly owe to the acts of the state and its policies. The number of refugees streaming from areas stricken by civil wars is unacceptably big. Also other factors like the post election violence in Kenya which caused some of the local population to cross to Uganda is a case in sight.

It is the responsibility of the state to provide for its citizens and to ensure that none dies or suffers from hunger. When states fail as is the case in many African states, they are to blame for the humanitarian crisis arising from such situation.

2.1.4 Unequal Distribution of Resources

Most violent conflicts in Africa are based on resources. Africa is a continent that is endowed with immense resources, unfortunately, the areas with most resources are the ones most hit by the conflicts for instance in Liberia, Sierra Leone, DRC, Angola and Nigeria to mention but a few. This has led to the coinage of the term resource curse. Conflicts regarding who gets what and how much they get tend to be intractable. The unequal and often exploitation of resources by the central government and foreign states without much benefit to the local communities has always led to the rise and demand situation by the local communities.

The emergence of warlords in Africa is mainly a phenomenon directly linked to the availability of resources and the need to control them for selfish ends. At the end what is experienced are protracted and often violent conflicts leading to an outpouring of refugees.

3.0 Transformation of the International System and Refugees

3.1 Transformation of the International System

The post cold war world has reflected a more need and closer move towards collaboration, integration and a growing interdependence between state nations. There are more and more international organizations coming up always propelled towards cooperation for instance as witnessed in the proliferation of regional blocs. All these are perhaps attempts to construct an international system that broadens the frame of the state. Globalization has also led to the death of distance and rendered the territorial reality of state nations almost irrelevant.

In ideology one could imagine that the formation of such world organizations and even the formation of the world government, if at all is possible, could lead to eradication of the problem of refugees in the world but the technicality to this lies in the very fact that even at this level with the UN and other international organizations, there is still a big influx of refugees in the world. Again how could one account for the reality of the IDPs? According to UNHCR statistics by 2004 there were nearly 25 million IDPs in the world (2006, p. 17).

The transformation of the world system leaves a lot to be desired in the search for remedy to refugee crisis. The same international system may tenably stand accused of contributing to civil wars. For example through military and political aid to combatants, pressures to allow receiving states to allow militarization, and pressuring of humanitarian aid agencies to assist militants, feeding of rebels, succor dependants of militants, support to the war economy and legitimization of militants (Lischer, 2005, p. 32).

3.1.1 New World Order

The term New World Order is used loosely to refer to any tendency and anyone involved in the efforts made with an aim to create a one world (fascist) government stripped of nationalistic and regional boundaries for instance Paul Warburg, the Zionist banker held that: “we will have a world government whether you like it or not. The only question is whether that government will be achieved by conquest or consent” (US Senate, February 17, 1950). However, the study on the exact meaning and who makes up this group is complex and intricate.

During the early 1990s leading western politicians declared the beginning of the new age world harmony and prosperity. George Bush senior identified changes of biblical proportions announcing a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in a common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind. Warren Christopher is on record as having said that “we stand on the brink of shaping a new world of extraordinary hope and opportunity” (Merfleet, 2006, p. 23).  The promise of the new world was linked to an assertion of values of the so called old order, especially to the principles of free market and liberal democracy which were the hallmarks of American capitalism upon triumph over socialism (Marfleet, 2006, p. 23).. The enthusiasm and prospect of the new world order was a bask in the glory of the defeat of the Soviet Union by the US and its collapse in1991.

Such prospects had their impact on analysis of forced migration according to Suhrke. She argues that with the end of the cold war refugees movements in general had become less problematic. This was informed by her believe that recent conflicts may produce major refugee flows but since they are not structurally related the probability that they will occur simultaneously is rather low. She further argues that the crisis that struck the international refugee regime in the period up until the end of the cold war is unlikely to occur again. In agreement with these views Adelman concludes that “the crumbling of the Soviet Empire and the emergence of new zones of economic growth such as the Asian Tiger economies, had had the effect of easing refugee crises worldwide” (Marfleet, 2006, p. 24). 

Unfortunately not everything has gone as expected, may be the expectations were too high. Fukuyama argued that “the twentieth century which had begun full of self confidence in the ultimate triumph of western liberal democracy was ending where it started with the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism and the total exhaustion of viable systemic alternative to western liberalism” (Marfleet, 2006, p. 23). Furthermore, this globalist optimism has been under severe challenge in contemporary time. On the contrary, “the vision of a stable world market has been shaken by successive economic crises, numerous political upheavals and accumulation of evidence that hundreds of millions of people remained at the margin of survival” (Marfleet, 2006, p. 24). The begging question is whether the envisioned new world order and its promise for the solution of world troubles and perhaps the elimination of refugee problem is a myth or a reality.

Theories of globalization became current during the early 90s as the visions of the new world order became widespread with its key idea that capital liberated from political constraints was already bringing a novel and benefits  from the integrated political and economical structured worldwide (Marfleet, 2006,  p. 23).

3.1.2 Globalization

Globalization and globalizing processes are stamping the transformation of the world system. This reality has led to migratory movements which are seen as one expression of the powerful forces shaping world affairs. Forced migration is directly related to systemic changes at the world level (2006, p. 21). Spybey for example as quoted by Marfleet (2006) argues that “globalization is encompassing, political, economic and cultural institution” p. 21). Today there is virtually nobody who can participate in the social life without reference to the globalized institutions and refugees and the factor leading to their existence are not exceptions.

Ideas about globalization are notoriously diverse and often elusive. Interestingly there is a lot of literature in globalization today but in agreement with Weiss that the theory of globalization is flawed (Marfleet, 2006, p. 22). Weiss as quoted by Marfleet in the same vain argues that globalization is a big idea resting on slim foundations. He points out that “there is mounting evidence to suggest that core theories of globalization conceal much of the reality of economic and political relations worldwide including the processes which stimulate forced migration” (Marfleet, 2006, p. 22). And forced migration ultimately leads to refugees.

Unfortunately elements of globalization do not produce a world system integrated by the rationality of the market but on the contrary, they produce a system which crisis is more general and in which dislocation and conflict are more widespread. Globalization is creating a world with uneven development that gives rise to repeated crisis of mass displacement (Marfleet, 2006, pp. 22-23).

Globalization has definitely led to high levels of interdependence and integration with the creation of many regional blocs in the world today perhaps confirming the idealistic worldview. However, even with such integration, the end of refugee situations still remains remote and unlikely because globalization can as well stand accused of integrating and enhancing the factors which cause refugees such as crime, war and terrorism. With globalization war and crime become more organized and systematic and terrorism becomes extremely sophisticated making the world more vulnerable to conflict and war.

3.2 Could this Transformation Lead to Eliminations of the Problem of Refugees in the World?

The post cold war world with its elements of globalization has led to different but more complex and exciting phenomena. The emergency of information and communication technology and its fast growth, the proliferation of international organizations and construction of more tools to deal with human rights could seem remedial to the problem of refugees. However, the seeming part of it may not necessarily crystallize into any positive reality. It is in the same period that the world has witnessed very new security challenges especially as posed by terrorists. These are non state actors but their impact is left for all to see, their activities are even targeting civilians and the principle of deterrence doesn’t seem relevant to them after all they are not afraid of death.

The emergence of more states through secession for instance Southern Sudan counts directly against the possibility of a world government. Idealists believe that there can be such a government but in reality the world is witnessing emergence of more states instead of unification. 

Furthermore there are other factors which make it unlikely that this transformation could affect the end of refugee crisis in the world. One of such factors is massive displacements unleashed by ethnic conflicts especially in the post Cold War period (UNHCR, 2006, p. 9). The transformation of the world focuses so much on the state and neglects ethnic issues when in reality most of the conflicts are ethnic based for example genocides and ethnic cleansing. 

4.0 Conclusion

Factors which lead to the possible voluntary return of refugees often rhyme with the factors that caused the emergence of refugees in the first step. Lischer for instance identifies peace and stability as a remedy to the refugees of war, chaos and deprivation, credible guarantees of protection as a remedy to the refugees of group based persecution and new government or military victory as a remedy to the refugees of defeat in civil wars (Lischer, 2005, p. 19). Other ways to end the refugee crisis could be, withholding assistance from the rebels in case of civil wars, help in securing territorial integrity of the nation, for instance as AMISOM forces are doing in Somalia and help in the demilitarization process.
The transformation of the world system with the emergence of international organizations, globalization and the universal observation of human rights and the principles such as that of non indifference and responsibility to protect may go long way in addressing the problem of refugees although they may not offer exhaustive solutions. However, since the subject matter is human beings there is always need to be sensitive to the fact that human behavior is quite unpredictable and at times it defies theoretical predictions and prescriptions.


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The State and the Transformed International System in Relation to the Refugees The State and the Transformed International System in Relation to the Refugees Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on December 24, 2015 Rating: 5

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