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The Agony and the Exodus

BRUSSELS – The tragic exodus of people from war-torn Syria and surrounding countries challenges the world’s reason and sympathy. Since 2011, some four million people have fled Syria, with millions more internally displaced. Syria’s neighbors – Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – currently house the vast majority of the externally displaced. But, as the crisis has progressed, hundreds of thousands of refugees have headed toward Europe, with most taking the extremely dangerous marine route.

The nature and scale of this exodus have rendered all previous legal and political assumptions about migration obsolete. In the past, the chief motive for migration was economic. The debate to which economic migration gave rise was between liberals, who upheld the principle of the free movement of labor, and those who wanted restrictions on movement among countries in order to protect jobs, culture, and/or political cohesion.

As the world filled up with nation-states, and empty spaces filled up with people, restriction triumphed over free movement. Controls on immigration became widespread after World War I. All countries developed population policies.

But there has always been another, much smaller, group of asylum-seekers – those individuals forced to flee their home countries by persecution, often on religious or ethnic grounds. The 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees recognized a right of asylum for those unable to return to their country of origin owing to a “well founded” fear of persecution.