Refugee Crises and Humanitarian Aid: Making Temporariness Permanent

Dr. Elisa Pascucci

In the contribution that started the discussion in this forum, Konstantinos Tsitselikis, Ilke Şanlier Yüksel, Kerstin Schmidt and Mustafa Aksakal analyse the refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU reached during the European Council meeting of March 2016. The authors rightly highlight how, through the deal, the externalization of border control and humanitarian protection has reached unprecedented levels of legal exceptionalism. “Temporariness”, they write, “is transformed and extrapolated through rigid legal thresholds of acceptance.” In other words, the temporary inclusion until recently provided by the EU asylum system is being replaced with frameworks in which access to basic rights is increasingly foreclosed. Their argument resonates with anthropologist Didier Fassin’s recent analysis of the hot spot system, the network of screening centres imposed by the EU on Italy and Greece in order to identify asylum seekers among incoming migrants. “A summary human triage with the aim of massive rejection” – this is how Fassin describes the hot spots.

While the critical legal analysis proposed by Tsitselikis et al. is timely and highly relevant, understanding the role of the temporary-permanent axis in EU asylum policies also requires that we place the agreement with Turkey into its broader, transnational governance context – well beyond the territorial borders of Europe. In particular, it is worth considering how this last attempt at externalizing asylum – or, more accurately, keeping asylum seekers outside of European borders – intersects with global policy trends aimed at stabilizing and immobilizing displaced populations in countries of origins and transit. While the condition of asylum seekers and refugees in the Western world is made increasingly exclusionary and temporary, that of displaced people settled in camps and cities across Africa and the Middle East is one in which temporariness is assuming a permanent character.

Recent research has shown how the merging of humanitarian aid into the political agenda of international development and security plays a crucial role in these changes. Susan Ilcan and Kim Rygiel, among others, have looked at the actions undertaken by the United Nations since 2005 in order to reform humanitarian aid targeting refugees and internally displaced people. Re-organizing assistance through a system of partnerships and outsourcing, the UN “Cluster Approach”, they argue, reframes refugee communities from mere aid recipients to actors that are expected to take responsibility for their own protection. Rather than emergency aid, the approach promotes refugee entrepreneurship as a way of achieving economic self-sufficiency, with the aim of reducing dependency on humanitarian assistance and curbing secondary migratory movements. In the process, the camps where displaced people find a first, temporary refuge are recast as more permanent and self-sufficient kinds of settlements. Although informed by seemingly progressive concepts such as community, empowerment, innovation and resilience, however, these policies are showing their growing inadequacies. Economic self-sufficiency in highly precarious security and material conditions such as those of refugee camps proves elusive. “Resiliency humanitarianism”, as Ilcan and Rygiel name it, with its partial withdrawal of direct assistance, is thus met with growing contestation and resistance by the refugees themselves.

My own research in Egypt confirms these insights, and shows how they apply also to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) policies towards refugees living in urban areas. Today, forced migration is an increasingly urban phenomenon. A vast majority of displaced people seeks refuge in cities, both because of the over-crowded conditions in camps and the better opportunities for sociality and subsistence afforded by urban areas. UNHCR operational guidelines have acknowledged this trend and attempted to promote socio-economic integration into the urban fabric of developing countries. This has been done primarily through community-based development programs including training workshops, scholarships and psychosocial support. Egypt is today an ever more significant transit and destination country for migrants from Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, but also from the Middle East. Cairo, its capital, hosts refugees from Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea – to name but the largest national groups. Yet its case highlights mostly the limitations of the model of local integration promoted by the UN. Under General Al Sisi’s rule, Egypt continues to be my marked by harsh political repression, urban poverty and macro-economic instability – much as during Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Migrants are routinely criminalized and detained, and international organizations’ appeals to lift the legal restrictions to refugees’ access to work and property continue to be met with the stubborn refusal of local authorities. Local integration seems increasingly unfeasible, and yet UN resettlement quotas for refugees living in Egypt remain low. In several occasions, particularly after the crises precipitated by violent acts of xenophobia, refugee communities have publicly and vocally protested against these policies.

Efforts to integrate refugees locally and enhance their economic self-sufficiency in countries of the South can be important developmental projects that have the potential to also benefit hosting societies. Yet two major critical points should be considered when evaluating such policies. First, they compound a global condition in which the responsibility for refugee reception continues to be disproportionately put on states and societies of the global South. The case of Lebanon, a country of less than 5 million hosting over 1 million and 88, 000 refugees and asylum seekers, is emblematic in this regard. In spite of UNCHR’s efforts to guarantee cash assistance in winter months and essential health-care, protracted refuge in the geopolitically unstable Middle Eastern country is leaving too many without viable perspectives for a safer, dignified future. In 2015, only about 19,000 refugees in Lebanon were included in UN resettlement programs. Their temporary condition has no foreseeable solution.

Second, the developmental approach to refugee aid outlined above implies that shrinking donor budgets are diverted from relief and basic assistance in conflict zones, access to which is today already significantly restricted. Instead, major humanitarian actors promote psychosocial and – increasingly – technological innovation programs, whose actual impact remains far from clear. The World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul in May 2016, brought together governments, the United Nations, international NGOs, media and civil society groups to discuss new directions and emerging challenges in global humanitarianism. Themes like technological innovation, the role of the private sector, and the promotion of entrepreneurship and community self-reliance among displaced populations featured very high in the agenda. A few weeks before the summit was due to start, however, one of the most respected humanitarian organizations in the world, Doctors without Borders (MSF in the French acronym), announced that it would withdraw its participation. Alongside states’ failure to respect and implement international humanitarian laws, MSF was protesting precisely against the merging of humanitarian response into the political agenda of international development, based on concepts such as self-reliance and resilience. In doing so, it was urging the international aid world to recover its commitment to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence. For humanitarian organizations, delivering immediate and basic aid should be the first step in restoring conditions of dignity, stability and security, rather than resigning themselves to stabilizing refugees into conditions of precarity and temporariness that are bound to become permanent.