Peace, prevention and asylum


World peace. An end to hunger. A cure for cancer. Who would dispute that wish list? But faced with the hard-edged reality of war and famine and disease such wishes lose their meaning, exposed as no more than beauty contestants’ empty aspirations. Such wishes don’t come true.

Similarly, in an ideal world – that peaceful, prosperous tomorrow – there would be no refugees. But humanitarians and politicians must deal with the present. A present in which European governments use tear gas to repel small children seeking sanctuary at their borders. A present more easily ignored than solved. Which is why it is alarming to see a turn towards talk of tackling “root causes”.

Worse still: the United Nations High Commission for Refugees appears to be joining the chorus, ready to reintroduce the idea of “preventive protection” as an antidote to in-action. An idea that for many observers is irrevocably haunted by the ghosts of Srebrenica’s safe zone.

This year’s annual UNHCR High Commissioner’s Dialogue – Antonio Guterres’ last as High Commissioner – will focus on understanding the “root causes” of refugee crises. This means a focus on solutions, but also on the “prevention” of refugee movements in the first place. But UNHCR should not be leading the charge away from talking about asylum and resettlement, however great the political failures of states.

“Prevention” and “root causes” are ideas resurrected from the 1980s and 1990s. Former High Commissioner Sadruddin Aga Khan was talking about ‘Root Causes and Prevention’ back in 1983, in the light of the Indochinese crisis. A decade later, the push to repatriate refugees at the end of the Cold War was framed as the defence of a new “right to remain”. And while I’m the first to argue that there are many lessons in refugee protection to be learnt from a past too easily forgotten, there are also many ideas worth forgetting. “Prevention” is one of them.

Why? Because a return to focusing on “root causes” and “prevention” risks abandoning the urgent need to look for solutions now. Because it implicitly peddles the convenient fallacy that repatriation can work as the solution to refugee crises, forgetting that even when you solve world peace you will still be left with millions of hungry bellies. Because it also ignores the large body of evidence – and the near-unanimous conclusions of respected scholars – that “preventive protection” in the 1990s was an ignominious failure, ill-conceived and ill-executed. Bosnia and Sri Lanka are gruesome reminders of what may happen when people can’t move in the face of danger.

UNHCR is at pains to distance Preventive Protection 2.0 from its predecessor. The concept note for the Dialogue stresses that UNHCR doesn’t want to prevent people moving, just address the ‘factors that trigger displacement’, so that refugees ‘are not obliged to move’. And some may detect a note of despair in the document – a defeated admission that UNHCR is ‘painfully aware of the limits of its own actions’, as the number of refugees and displaced persons keeps rising.

No one could disagree that it would be better if conflict were prevented in the first place. And of course UNHCR cannot solve refugee crises without assistance from a multiplicity of actors. But analysts are equally united in concluding that the causes of flight are complex: and the process of building a lasting peace still more complicated. And ultimately, UNHCR’s job is not to solve refugee crises – it is find solutions for refugees. This may look like a small distinction, but it’s an important one.

For while UNHCR may have the best of motivations in pursuing “root causes”, it isn’t hard to imagine that many states see the attraction of “prevention” as a means of redirecting refugees away from the borders they have closed. The line between prevention and containment is a thin one: UNHCR should absolutely not start to reframe ‘protection activities for internally displaced persons or other affected populations’ as work on “prevention”.

Similarly, the line between early repatriation and constructive refoulement is also a thin one. History suggests that many governments display a quite literally incredible optimism when determining that refugees’ countries are now safe for return. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Congo, Burma, Iraq: there is a long list of places where recent refugee “solutions” have floundered thanks to premature declarations of peace.

So what should UNHCR do? I believe that there is a role for UNHCR in tackling “root causes” and building “preventive protection”. But it is the same role it has always been assigned: to act as the guardian and protector of asylum rights. For the best way to prevent a future refugee crisis is to avoid sending back millions of men, women and children to smouldering ruins and scarce resources – a move all but guaranteed to re-ignite past conflicts and set new ones alight.


How do you use refugees to build peace instead? You offer secure legal status in a country of asylum, followed by socio-economic support for return when refugees judge the time is right. And should the worse happen again, ex-refugees who can travel back to their former host countries as permanent residents do not have to risk their lives rushing border fences, and do not have to depend on humanitarian aid.

Asylum doesn’t have to be just an emergency. It can be an opportunity: to learn new skills, build new social networks and political movements, increase economic resilience. Here’s an alternative history lesson: the Guatemalan refugees who spent a decade in Mexico in the 1980s learnt Spanish, founded political organisations and negotiated the terms of return directly with the Guatemalan government. They could do so because they had found safety. Asylum is part of the solution.

So ultimately: you want to solve refugee crises? You want the refugees to go home? Well first let them in, and let them earn. Even better, give them a passport. Accept that peace may take years, and reconstruction longer still. That even when refugees go home, you will need to admit migrants whose remittances will rebuild homes and schools and businesses. Because migration is part of how you prevent refugee crises and how you develop a more equal, more peaceful world.

That is not the answer Europe wants to hear. But it is still the right answer.