The number of forcibly displaced people escaping conflict and persecution set a world record at the end of 2015. The historic total of 65.3 million displaced people, 21.3 million of whom were refugees, was the largest figure recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since its inception in 1950. In the same year, even amid a massive crisis, just 107,100 refugees were accepted for resettlement under official resettlement programs, while 3.2 million individuals asked for asylum globally.
Refugees coming into Europe from Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Global South have confronted European politicians and policymakers with their most difficult issue since the economic crisis. An estimated 97,000 refugees and migrants landed in Europe between January and August 2021, a 95% increase over the same period in 2020. This pattern is expected to continue in 2022.
People are held in the Global South until their physical or intellectual labor is needed in the Global North. This exploitation of physical and intellectual labor perpetuates oppressive, colonial behaviors and works to maintain a system that favors the Global North. Europe continues to enact legislative systems to keep asylum-seekers and refugees from the Global South out of the country.
In addition, these regimes function as means for weaponizing generational trauma, as a technique that continues to lock and frighten vulnerable groups into submission, and to keep these populations in the South until their labor is necessary to care for a diminishing and aging European population.
Moreover, even though the vast majority of the world's refugees are hosted in Europe, the central theme in the global media in 2015 was the "unauthorized" arrival by sea of almost 1 million asylum-seekers in Europe. Furthermore, the arrival of refugees has demonstrated that refugees were meant to be confined in their camps in the Global South, preventing them from accessing the territory of the Global North.
Significantly, recent trends in South-North migration are becoming more selective and reliant on individual initiative, as opposed to prior decades, when it was virtually entirely based on bilateral agreements between governments and was coordinated collectively.
Understanding the refugee issue highlights the involvement of nations in the Global North and their reluctance to meet their international duties to refugees, as stated in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Instead of providing refugee protection, governments in the Global North have reduced their commitments to refugees by establishing governance frameworks aimed primarily at containing refugees in their areas and discouraging them from reaching Global North territory.
Refugees who resist deterrent border policies are driven into illegality and occasionally abandoned to perish due to governments in the Global North's efforts to deny access to their territories. Current refugee protection methods demonstrate how, despite their shortcomings, international systems and conventions such as the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol have been disregarded and further evaded by alternative strategies such as externalization, confinement and deterrence.
It will take a collaborative rethinking and reconstruction of legal systems at the local, national and international levels to redress the uneven balance of power created by the Global North over the centuries. While international migration and refugee law are still rooted in post-colonial interpretations and a post-World War II attitude to what "refugee" means, they will continue to be reflected in every aspect of our societies and enhanced by the language of our discriminatory legal frameworks and migration policies. Powerful governments, in particular, have minimized fulfilling their commitments to refugees.
The Global North is attempting to avoid confining refugees in their home regions, notwithstanding the dangerous conditions of displacement there. This reluctance to accept migrants is strongly linked to the official conception of refugees as a burden. This attitude is described as a "schizophrenic approach," in which governments in the Global North are hesitant to respect their commitments to refugees while attempting to keep the global refugee system in place
Notably, the refugee regime, on the other hand, was first designed to serve the interests of Europe when the region was threatened by millions of European refugees wandering the territories in the wake of World War II. Then, during the Cold War, the dictatorship also supported the interests of Western powers. However, when migrants from the Global South arrived in the territories of the Global North, they were subjected to representational alterations.
They were considered victims with no agency in need of charity or humanitarian help or a possible danger to the Global North's state order. This political act of representation impacts refugee policies and develops the view of refugees from the Global South as "others." As a result, the rejection of refugees from the Global South has become normalized in nations in the Global North.
Refugees are increasingly unwelcome in areas of the Global North, where they may face restrictive measures aimed largely at rejecting and returning them to their home countries. Refugees fleeing wars in their home countries are subjected to insufficient protection practices in their regions, and then when they put their lives at risk in search of safety in the Global North, they are trapped in new locations where protection is short-term, and opportunities for building new lives are limited.
Most importantly, this Western perspective contributes to the decontextualization of refugee crises in general, as it reframes the crisis narrative while ignoring historical contexts and conditions of instability and inequality due to the western nations, which are the primary causes of refugee migration.
The West portrays conflicts and wars as arising from local political or social issues, generally neglecting the power dynamics of political and cultural subordination and the economic inequities imposed by the Global North on the Global South.
Those in the Global North persuade states in the South to accept more refugees as part of their global obligation to refugees, effectively limiting refugees within the area. Northern nations, in this process, instead of developing different techniques to regulate refugee mobility to dissuade them from entering the territory of the Global North.
The U.N. should facilitate a forum to address the truths that colonial structures created the environments in the Global South that resulted in the hemorrhaging of refugees for the EU to establish refugee and economic migration policies as reparations for European countries' past and ongoing subjugation of the Global South.
*Academic at Riphah International University, Pakistan, Ph.D. holder of media and communication studies