Protecting refugees or protecting states – is there a choice?

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund.

UPF travelled more than 3000 kilometres to visit Beirut, Lebanon, and learnt that local politics, to a large extent, is global and that sometimes what happens in the outskirts of Malmö has everything to do with what is happening in the Middle East.

Having read about the difficult refugee situation in Lebanon, I was eager to join the UPF Travel Committee to learn more about the crisis and what, according to Lebanese civil society organizations, could be done to solve it. Returning home, I realised that the the answers to the questions that had brought me to Lebanon were, at least in part, to be found back home.

In Kirseberg, just a stone’s throw from where I live, the Swedish Government intends to turn a former prison into a detention centre for immigrats. Innocent migrants proven guilty of fleeing from war, destruction and poverty will be sentenced to imprisonment awaiting their deportation. Last year about one million people undertook the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. 160 000 of them applied for asylum in Sweden. Here, volunteers and the slogan Refugees Welcome” greeted migrants at train stations across the country. Now, however, only a few months later, the Swedish Minister of Internal Affairs, Anders Ygeman, states that half of them face the possibility of deportation (Sydsvenskan, 2016). With or without their consent, and with coercion and violence if necessary, they will be returned, according to the Minister. After having put everything at stake and risking their lives to get here, the Swedish Government is of the opinion that refugees have outstayed their welcome.

The recent developments of a common European asylum policy reflect a shift from protecting refugees to protecting states. It is a policy based on set targets – both to reduce the numbers of asylum claims and to increase removals of asylum seekers. The creation of, what Liz Fekete, head of the European research program of the Institute of Race Relations, calls, “[…] a conveyor belt system of removals designed to meet government targets” results in recurrent breaches of human rights when refugees that have reached Europe are detained and sent back to their country of origin where their life and health may be at risk

It is impossible for the EU countries to assess individual asylum claims objectively and protect refugees displaced by war and conflict if the setting of quotas is to predetermine how many refugees are to be rejected and accepted into Europe. When Ygeman predicts that 80,000 people will be deported in the close future, he actually does not know on what grounds the people that has fled here are applying for asylum. This is because many out of the 160.000 refugees are yet to have their first interview with the Swedish Migration Agency (SR, 2016).

In Beirut, UPF met with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which informed us that in Lebanon – a country no larger than Skåne and a population half that of Sweden’s – there are 1 million officially registered Syrian refugees. That amounts to as many refugees as all the European states has received together. The UNHCR in Lebanon, however, believe that 1,5 million is more accurate (not counting the 450 000 Palestinian refugees already in the country). This uncertainty with numbers is produced by a law that was introduced last year and requires all Syrian refugees to pay $200 for a six-month or annual residence permit, and provide proof of sponsorship by an individual or company. Those registered with the UNHCR are not required to find a sponsor which is why the Lebanese government has instructed the agency to stop registering new arrivals. There are for the same reason no formal Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon since that would impose obligations on the government.

The conditions experienced by displaced Syrians in Lebanon are very poor. Syrian refugees are not allowed to work, they have limited access to healthcare and thousands of Syrian children are not going to school. Many families depend on the teaching assistance that NGOs (such as Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom that UPF had the honor of meeting) provide in the refugee camps. Politically instable Lebanon is on its knees financially and there are no money in the treasury to deal with the refugee situation. The country does not receive any funding from the EU, as Turkey does for implementing the paradoxical and potentially unlawful, deal to prevent unchecked arrivals into the Union. Due to Lebanon’s geographical position, only killometres away from the terror of the IS, the country can not – unlike the European member states – legislate the refugees away.

Refugees displaced by war and terror in the region will keep crossing the Lebanese border because they must. What has been called the Swedish export approach to human rights” (and refugees) can not be adopted by the Lebanese Government.

What must not be forgotten is that, according to international law, states have responsibilites and duties towards refugees. The drafters of The 1951 Refugee Convention recognised that it is need – not numbers – which characterises a humanitarian approach to asylum policy. Lebanon can no longer take its full responsibility whereas Sweden – one of the richest countries in the world – has a duty to do so.

Numbers and quotas, that result in the creation of the Kirseberg prison-turned-immigration-detention-centre cannot become the Swedish asylum policy norm. As it is not for Lebanon, it should not be a choice for European states whether or not to provide refuge for those in need. It is a must.

The purpose of this article is not only to shed light on the fundamental fault of the quota-based asylum system in Europe from a Lebanese perspective. It also aims to highlight the absurdities of the Swedish immigration debate; if Sweden is experiencing a refugee crisis and a welfare collapse – what words are to be used describing the situation in Lebanon? Or in Syria, for that matter? We must not forget for whom it is a crisis in the first place. Asylum policies should not be set in place to protect states but to protect people.

Disa Janfalk



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