Erica Feller. Good democracy is challenged by mass migration.

Mass migration in a globalised world might well turn out to become, not least from the perspective of democracy, one of the overarching and defining challenges of our time. Syria and the exodus of millions of Syrians to neighbouring states and beyond is currently bringing this home in the starkest of ways.

The autonomous sovereign nation state is still the central feature of current political architecture, regardless of ethnicity, creed, religion or political philosophy. Borders classically mark it out. Political systems built around autonomy and sovereignty are increasingly becoming out of kilter with the changes wrought by globalisation.

Where a state fails, is deeply fragile or is run by a government unable or unwilling to ensure to its citizens the basic necessities for a safe and secure future, what flows from this can no longer be contained within the borders of that state.

Tens of millions of displaced-people in desperate situations.

Statistics can be difficult to grasp, but the recent image of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, was an emotional reminder that behind every number is an individual.

When it comes to safety, security, dignity, self-worth, realized potential and decent lives, divergences between people, within states and between countries are huge.   There are some 60 million persons in displacement situations at the moment, over 17 million of them refugees. Eighty-five per cent live in developing countries, most of which suffer human rights and governance issues of their own.

Less than one in 40 refugee situations are resolved within three years and many continue for 10 or more, with donor funds progressively drying up and millions of people left in sub-standard living conditions with no foreseeable future prospects. There are currently some 630,000 refugees in Jordan, 84% of whom live outside refugee camps. Two thirds subsist below the national poverty line, with one in six refugees living on less than $40 per person per month. Coping strategies include children dropping out of school to work or to beg, and women selling sex for survival.

Facilitated solutions are not on the horizon for most, with local integration not available, (with some exceptions) and with resettlement to third countries a possibility for no more than one per cent of the global refugee population. Flight has to be understood as people taking control of their own futures in the face of  grave danger or the impossibility of staying where they are.

Not all the displaced are refugees. Many leave for reasons linked to desperation and not to persecution or grave security risks. The forces fuelling departure are various. Insecurity and desperation are driving an increasing number of refugees to flee. Opportunity is enticing others to join the mass flows, with quality services, education and work possibilities in developed countries a strong incentive.

The prognosis on the horizon for future mass movements is not good. There is a high probability that patterns of displacement will be increasingly impacted by environmental factors such as population growth, declining resources and inequality of access to them, ecological damage and climate change. Conflict looks to be a constant, increasingly acting in combination with extreme deprivation and resource issues. Many refugees come from or find themselves in countries falling into the highest risk category for civil conflict, which also happen to be ranked amongst the world’s poorest nations and where endemic and cyclical ethnic and civil strife is compounded by low cropland and fresh water availability.

Ten Crisis Hotspots

In January this year the International Crisis Group released an analysis of the conflicts and crises likely to beset the world in 2015, identifying in particular ten to watch. Top of the list is the situation in Syria and Iraq.

The rise of the Islamic State was described as a “symptom of deeper problems that are not amenable to military solutions, including sectarian governments in Syria and Iraq {and} military strategies dependent on militias that radicalize local populations…” Then there is the Ukraine, which he said “may not be the world’s deadliest crisis, but it has transformed relations between Russia and the West for the worse”.   The “top 10” list also includes South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, the DRC, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and even Venezuela which, while no war zone, is presented as a country in crisis due to falling oil prices, an unpopular Government and weakened institutions.

What this means, among many other things, is that refugee and migrant exoduses are not solely a concern for the humanitarians. They can prove a huge burden on the economy, infrastructure, security and society of affected countries and a destabilising force for regions, and globally.

They can also be a positive force for social change and economic advancement. It is also increasingly clear that, in our globalised, tech-savvy and interconnected world, the ability of States to forestall or halt them is seriously diminished.   Germany is confronting the probability – to its credit as a management challenge, not a disaster – of over one million people seeking sanctuary or a better life over the next twelve months.

Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

One significant litmus test of the strength and resilience of the democratic system as we know it – meaning open and responsible government founded on tolerance, respect for human rights and the rule of law – is how global people movement will be managed.

Recent developments in Australia have brought home just how much the values and processes traditionally underpinning democracy in this country are being impacted by the growing capacity of people to take their fate into their own hands and move, sometimes long distances, in large numbers and mostly irregularly, across state borders.

Compassion and justice, international obligations and national due process requirements should frame the response in democratic societies to those who make a claim to their protection. The policies of recent Australian Governments designed to deter asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from coming by boat to lodge their protection claims are not built on such a foundation. The country whose accession brought the 1951 UN Refugee Convention into force has migration control provisions bearing directly on the treatment of refugees from which all reference to Convention arrangements has been removed.

Australia has long and rightly prided itself on promoting and respecting internationally agreed human rights instruments. But it has put in place an arbitrary detention regime for boat people, doing some of them immeasurable physical and psychological damage. The country which has taken a strong stand internationally on fundamental civic rights like freedom of expression has put a cloak of secrecy over its contested boat policies and has even threatened legal retribution for release of information by health workers concerned about conditions in immigration detention centres.

New thought about how democracy and government needs to be recast in Australia and beyond, to deal with the displacement in the context of globalisation is urgently called for. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it well when she says: “We live in a world in which the destinies of nations are closely intertwined with respect to goods and survival itself…..any intelligent deliberation about ecology –as also about food supply and population – requires global planning, global knowledge and the recognition of a shared future”.

Erika Feller, former Assistant High Commissioner, UNHCR; Melbourne School of Government

This article was co-published with DemocracyRenewal

Mass migration, conflict and democracy will be under discussion at the ‘Democracy in Transition’ conference, Melbourne, December 6-8

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