Flight is Not Always an Option: A Reply to de Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic

by Dr. Phil Orchard

One way that mass atrocities end is through flight and asylum, argue Alex de Waal, Jens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic in a recent article for The Fletcher Forum and in a follow-up New York Times editorial, “How to End Mass Atrocities.” In particular, they write that, “the target population gets itself out of harm’s way, or is evacuated.”

There are two problematic assumptions embedded in their work. The first is that flight is a reaction to violence, rather than a deliberate goal on the part of the perpetrating regime. The second is that the articles misconstrue the ability of affected people to actually receive asylum. I will cover both these points in turn.

Traditionally, it was assumed that most refugees fled from individualized state-based persecution. This is the definition of refugee status embedded in international law, particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention. Yet the notion of “flight” has changed dramatically in the last few decades; increasingly, individuals flee not just from persecution by the state but also by non-state actors, as well as from generalized violence. Further, though, are the numbers who cannot get out of their own state. While global refugee numbers have remained relatively steady over the past 15 years with 10.55 million refugees falling under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2010, the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continue to grow. That number grew to a new high in 2010 of 27.5 million people displaced within some 54 countries.

In addition, there is an important – and growing – fourth category of flight: mass displacements deliberately engineered by the regimes in power, or what has become known as regime-induced displacement. Such actions themselves may constitute crimes against humanity, and frequently, the level of coercion and the tactics used cross the threshold into ethnic cleansing and genocide. Further, these actions are quite commonplace. Of the 103 situations of mass displacement (involving the creation of over 100,000 refugees or IDPs) between 1991 and 2006, regime-induced displacement was a factor in sixty percent of the cases.

A major cause of this is regimes targeting populations believed to support insurgencies. But while there is a high correlation between civil wars and regime-induced displacement – 40 percent of the cases had both causes present in the same year – it is neither invariably linked nor is the causal linkage clear. This is a phenomenon that de Waal himself has pointed to in relation to Darfur. He argued in a 2004 piece that the “atrocities carried out by [the Janjaweed] are systematic and sustained; the effect, if not the aim, is grossly disproportionate to the military threat of the rebellion.” These actions are frequently instrumental: perpetrators of regime-induced displacement can be motivated by regime preservation and security concerns, and equally, can be driven by more prosaic motives such as removing troublesome minorities or territorial resource transfers.

But what of asylum? While the authors point to the success of the Bantu people of Somalia in seeking long-term resettlement in the United States, they neglect the detail that actual resettlement did not begin until 2004, over a decade following their initial displacement. Even so, they were the lucky ones. Returning to the case of Darfur, of the over 2.5 million people displaced between 2003 and 2008, only some 260,000 became refugees and all but 20,000 of those were in neighbouring Chad. There, asylum afforded them little protection as they continued to face insecurity and attacks by the Janjaweed until the deployment of a European Union-led peacekeeping force in early 2008.

Whether we talk about Darfur, Libya, or Syria, flight from the country is not an option. Instead, the displaced remain trapped within their own countries where they may continue to be targeted by their governments. At the very least, this requires a sustained effort on the part of the international community to provide humanitarian assistance. At worst, it means the killings continue.

De Waal concludes his editorial by arguing that the proponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) incorrectly assume that, “all perpetrators of mass political violence are insatiable killers and that dictates who should respond (Western nations), how (with military intervention) and why (for justice and democracy).” I am not arguing that international military interventions are the only option in these cases; they are not. But the R2P doctrine acknowledges that states have the responsibility to protect their own populations from ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and that the international community has the responsibility to assist individual states to help protect their populations. To assume that this reduces down to a view that R2P equals regime change is a substantial misinterpretation of the doctrine. To assume that flight remains a viable option for populations targeted by their own state is simply to assume that inaction in the face of mass atrocities is not morally problematic.

About the Author

Dr. Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland and a Research Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. His primary research focuses on international efforts to protect civilians and forced migrants. He is currently completing a book titled ‘Refugees and the Construction of International Cooperation’ and, with Alexander Betts, an edited volume on ‘Implementation in World Politics: How Norms Change Practice.’

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