by James Souter
This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on Wednesday 29 October 2014.
When activists, politicians and commentators make a moral case for offering asylum to refugees in the UK, they very often do so in humanitarian terms, arguing that we bear a moral obligation to protect refugees from the awful situations they have fled. This humanitarian approach to asylum has been long-established, and is reflected in international law to which the UK has committed itself, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also morally compelling in its own right: asylum is indeed a vital way of saving lives and alleviating suffering.
Yet this humanitarian case for asylum, powerful though it may be, is incomplete as it stands. It pays no attention to the important question of who bears responsibility for causing refugee crises in the first place and, by effectively treating asylum as a response to other people’s problems, it seems to assume that we are not connected to the refugees we may go on to protect. A purely humanitarian approach to asylum also tends to frame asylum as a matter of charity rather than justice: that is, as something that it is good for us to do, but which is not required if what we see as more pressing domestic problems make themselves felt.
It is important to recognise that the UK is, in some cases, linked in very direct ways to the refugees whom we may or may not go on to offer asylum, and that our obligations towards them go beyond purely humanitarian imperatives. Some refugees have collaborated or served with British forces; others have been caused to flee in the first place by interventions and foreign policies in which the UK has been deeply involved; while others flee from countries with strong historical connections to the UK. Iraqi and Afghan refugees are among the refugee populations which are linked to the UK in these kinds of morally important ways.
The UK’s special obligations towards Iraqi and Afghan refugees have been most readily recognised in the case of those employed by British military forces. Just as a high-profile campaign called for members of the Nepalese Gurkha regiment to be granted residence in the UK, interpreters and translators who have worked alongside British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been put at risk of reprisals as a result, have been thought to deserve residence in the UK. This special obligation has often been expressed in the language of patriotism and valour. For instance, a petition calling for the admission of Afghan interpreters was delivered to Downing Street by Winston Churchill’s great-grandson, Alexander Perkins, in 2013, who asserted that “these interpreters are brave men, they stood up and helped us … and now it’s a case of us doing the same for them”. It even appeals to those who take a very strongly anti-immigrant line, who have held up the commitment of Iraqi employees to ‘British values’ in contrast to the masses of ‘bogus’ and work-shy immigrants supposedly swamping the UK.
Yet some of the UK’s equally weighty special obligations have been less often recognised, not least because of the strong challenge they present to public hostility towards refugees and migrants and to the UK’s self-image. The UK does not only nobly respond to other people’s problems in its asylum policies, but has a great deal to do with creating them in the first place, and so at times bears an obligation to offer asylum as a form of reparation to refugees. For instance, the UK has been heavily implicated in Iraq’s massive refugee crisis of the last decade: as one of the main coalition members alongside the US which invaded Iraq in 2003, it sparked a chain of events which has generated huge numbers of refugees. Military operations and post-invasion policies to which the UK gave its full support are documented as having contributed to the emergence of sectarian civil war in Iraq.
Yet, although the US has taken some steps to recognise its special obligations towards Iraqi refugees by creating Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan employees, and committing itself to resettling larger numbers of Iraqi refugees, parallel developments have not occurred in the UK, and the majority of Iraqi refugees still languish in neighbouring countries within the Middle East or have received asylum in states which were not involved in the invasion, such as Sweden.
Moreover, recognising a further kind of special obligation towards refugees involves doing something which the British public seems to have little appetite for: reckoning with its colonial past in currently refugee-producing states such as Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the modern Iraqi state owes its very existence to British colonial policy of the 1920s; an entity which cobbled together different communities and arguably can only be held together by the use of force. This kind of view has been expressed, relatively unusually, in the UK by the Church of England, with one bishop recently viewing the UK’s limited response to Iraqi refugees as a ‘betrayal of Britain’s moral and historical obligations’.
There are, however, a number of moral and practical complications to this picture. Firstly, what if Iraqi refugees prefer to be protected not in the UK, but elsewhere? There is some evidence that some Iraqi refugees have not wanted asylum in the states which invaded. Forcing Iraqis to reside in a particular state would scarcely be a form of reparation in the first place. However, if Iraqis do wish to seek protection elsewhere, then this does not require the UK to abandon its special obligations, for it may offer compensation directly to the refugee, and to the state for the costs of protecting him or her.
Secondly, it might be argued that asylum is not necessarily the best form of reparation for the harms suffered by Iraqi and Afghan refugees. Surely the most preferable option would be to create the conditions to allow Iraqi refugees to return home? This, however, is far from being achieved for now, as the spectacular and brutal rise of Isis in Iraq shows. While the UK and other states seek to respond to Iraq’s continued volatility, asylum is clearly required as an interim measure.
The UK has certainly not met its special obligations to Iraqi and Afghan refugees fully. Even at the height of Iraq’s civil war, 83 per cent of Iraqi refugees had their asylum claims refused in the UK between 2006 and 2007, and the UK has spearheaded the deportation of Iraqi asylum seekers in recent years. The Iraqi refugee crisis is at present far from resolved, and is now being greatly exacerbated by the rise of Isis throughout parts of Iraq. We clearly have a long way to go if we are to act on these special obligations fully.
In contrast to the humanitarian case for protecting refugees, framing asylum in terms of special obligations has the potential to strengthen calls for refugee protection. Whereas humanitarianism asserts that refugees have a right to protection somewhere, from someone, and in some form, special obligations stem from a direct link between refugees and a particular state. Moreover, claims based on reparation can have a stronger psychological pull than charity-based approaches: unlike humanitarian duties, we have an obligation to offer reparation to those we have harmed even if this imposes a significant cost to ourselves. Where reparation is at stake, claims that we must prioritise our ‘own’ lose much of their power. Campaigners for refugee rights would do well to explore this potential as they seek to build public and political support for asylum in such a hostile climate.
James Souter is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ at the University of Leeds. With broad research interests in political theory and human rights, his current research focuses on the implications of reparative justice for asylum, refugee protection and migration, and on the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine in relation to the current crisis in Syria. He gained his DPhil at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, in 2014.