Migrants walking across Hungary, facing disdain and abuse even from journalists reporting on their fate. Refugees amassed on makeshift boats desperately seeking—and failing—to reach the shores of Europe in search of a better life. Dozens of people asphyxiated in trucks and on ships. Unaccompanied minors traversing Mexico at great risk to cross the US-Mexico border in droves. These forms of mass exodus have been a constant source of tension, with peaks and valleys for years, indeed, decades. But over the past few weeks, the immigration and refugee flows have burst upon the world stage as never before in recent history.
In reality, of course, forced displacement has affected millions of people for many years. Wars, conflict and generalized violence, but also political persecution and human rights violations, are important causes for flight. In 2014, the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR placed the number of those forcibly displace worldwide at an unprecedented 59.5 million—up from 51.2 million people the year before.
The Mediterranean has long been a route through which migrants and refugees have attempted to enter Europe, in search of stability, safety, and opportunities. Their journey, however, has been far from safe. The International Organization for Migration reports that in 2015, 2,748 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean (of a total of 3,776 deaths of migrants worldwide).
Flows of migrants and refugees have undoubtedly increased because of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIL and the resulting unrest in the region. At the same time, global political authorities have failed to resolve the underlying causes of these crises or to coordinate urgent measures—such as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission—that might at least halt hostilities.
As acknowledged by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, Europe’s leaders have consistently failed to provide comprehensive, structural solutions to these issues. Instead, they have appeared satisfied with a muted response that leaves the burden on the countries bordering the Mediterranean. The reaction from the United States to refugee crises in our hemisphere has been similarly unconvincing, as has been our refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of the current crisis in Iraq and Syria.
Remarkably, this bleak pattern of inaction has started to change considerably in recent weeks. A few highlights:
- The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) announced that it would no longer apply the Dublin Protocol (which requires that asylum applications be processed by the E.U. country of entry) to Syrian refugees and declared it would be processing all asylum requests itself. Moreover, it stated to expect to receive some 800,000 refugees this year.
- Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, called for the adoption of a common European asylum and migration policy, and announced that EU countries should agree to receive the 160,000 refugees who are currently in Italy, Greece and Hungary.
- The Obama administration announced that the US will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming fiscal year, which starts on October 1, 2015.
- US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will increase the number of refugees it takes in on a yearly basis, from 70,000 to 100,000 a year.
- The United Kingdom announced that it would receive 20,000 Syrian refugees in the next five years.
- On a smaller scale, but nevertheless symbolically important, the Finnish Prime-Minister has opened his (private) home to asylum seekers.
Impressive indeed. Still, these steps alone will not end the Syrian refugee crisis, much less provide urgently needed relief for the millions of persons forced from their homes each year. But these are important measures and, taken together, they may represent a significant global shift in policy. To what do we owe this change? Last week, I (Jim) wrote about the image of a lifeless Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey. That image, which rapidly went viral, ignited a global outcry that has prompted bold actions from many States across the Globe. Social media and other forms of public pressure have leveraged this image and others to demand authorities address the refugee crisis by applying criteria based on ethics and compassion, rather than ‘national interest’ and political expedience.
Lawyers and legal scholars, take note. The incipient but meaningful changes in state policy and practice that we are observing today have not materialized because of the adoption or modification of legal norms or standards. In fact, international conventions on migration and refugees have existed for decades. Rather, it has been the groundswell of popular engagement on this matter that appears to have prompted decisive action from political leaders.
This should be a lesson to all engaged in public policy. Certainly, the establishment of laws and related norms can provide important frameworks for action. But it has been public mobilization that has proved decisive in effecting change. Still, there is no cause to celebrate yet. Real, structural solutions to the global refugee crisis will require a comprehensive political response from leaders worldwide. But that is a response that we know how, and must continue to demand.
Professor James Cavallaro is the founding director of Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Human Rights Center. For more than two decades, he has engaged with the Inter- American human rights system, promoting the advance of human rights through representation of victims, as well as through critical reflection on the system and means of enhancing its efficacy- including opening and serving as director of a joint office for Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law in Rio de Janeiro and founding the Global Justice Center, a leading Brazilian human rights NGO. In 2013 he was elected to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Mirte Postema is the Fellow for Human Rights, Criminal Justice and Prison Reform in the Americas. Prior to joining the Stanford Human Rights Center, she led the Judicial Independence Program at the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) in Washington, D.C., an NGO working on human rights and rule of law issues in Latin America.