Axworthy: ‘We can’t simply leave refugee policy to border control’

Former Canadian minister of foreign affairs Lloyd Axworthy on the world’s flawed refugee system, why serious reform is needed, and his new project — the World Refugee Council. 

By: /
May 16, 2017
Refugees and migrants make their way at the Souda municipality-run camp on the island of Chios, Greece, March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

When Lloyd Axworthy was in grade 11, an inspirational talk by Canadian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson set Axworthy on a path that would lead him to serve under three Canadian prime ministers and earn his own Nobel nomination for his work on reducing landmines worldwide.

After an illustrative 27-year political career, in true Pearsonian tradition, Axworthy is turning his considerable international star power to one of the biggest issues facing us as global citizens: The displacement of millions of people around the world, driven from their homes by war and disaster.

To help address the lack of coordinated response to the issue, this week, Axworthy and several other leading voices from Canada and other countries are launching the World Refugee Council (WRC), an initiative led by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). The WRC will develop and promote strategies for more effective, humane, predictable yet innovative global cooperation on refugees through open dialogue and debate.

In this interview, Axworthy discussed the current barriers to better responding to the refugee crisis, how technology can make a huge difference and why Canada is well-positioned to lead on initiatives like the WRC. [For the full audio of the interview with Mary Ambrose, listen to CIGI's podcast here.]

I found a lovely phrase that you wrote that frames refugees not as a charity concern but as a human rights issue. If you'll allow me to read it, I'll ask you to explain it: “The right to asylum is one of the oldest human rights, and one of the original expressions of our shared humanity.”

Well, it's true, because if you go back into biblical texts and look at the historical records of Greek city states or Rome you'll find that in so many cases, they provided special places and spaces in the cities for people fleeing persecution, where they could be immune from attack and victimization and the harassment of those pursuing them. The whole idea of belonging somewhere, actually having a place in which you feel protected, to me is the foundation for human rights. If you don't have that fundamental protection, then the rest of the rights can't be built. 

As a global community, we have a track record of doing a somewhat better job than this historically, though there were less people on the move. Why do you think we're now getting this so wrong?

I think partly because we're in a period where there is a frontal and sidewise attack against the whole notion of sanctuary and refuge, and [also] an attempt to restore some outmoded version of sovereignty where states and nations are built around some notion of purity, authenticity or culture.

It's become a political football that's kicked in by the worst teams in the world, but they are also providing entertainment, and as a result the crowds kind of support [them]. We're finding the opportunity for people to make choices based upon their rights is being extinguished, because if you don't belong, if you don't have a piece of paper, if you're not certified to vote, if you're not given engagement or commitment from a state, an entity, then you become invisible, and I think that's really part of the problem. We've over-mystified the notion of refugees and forget that they're people who are escaping calamity for them and their families. 

You were in Germany when the Syrian refugees began to arrive there, and one of the things that you've mentioned is that you were struck by the amount of misinformation swirling around that may have contributed to this atmosphere. Tell me about that.

The experience in Germany was really instructive. I was there as a fellow of the Bosch Foundation to primarily talk about the Canadian model for refugee acceptance, because we are seen in the world as a country that has worked hard at public policy, at effective means of bringing people here and settling them.

I arrived at a time just shortly after Chancellor [Angela] Merkel had opened the gate and a million people who had been fleeing their own crises of various sorts poured in. All of a sudden you saw this very big, very important, very democratic country wrestling with what it believed in…[and you saw] those who began to restore those old arguments about 'Germany for the Germans' and that we 'can't risk terrorism,' and it became part of that pantheon of fear and of threat.

As a result, it really did create the political debate that is now being seen around the world, certainly in the neighbour to the south of us, certainly seen now in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. And it's spreading — this idea that you can define yourself through a limited set of choices. Part of the job of the council is [to look at] how we get back to that liberal world order in which people are given the right to make choices about their lives because they have a degree of human security, but also have been given the right to be able to use it in a way that represents their interests. And right now we're treating the refugees as some kind of sub-species or criminal species and not giving them the full respect that they require. 

"[Refugees] are not being given the kind of support that an organized, responsible and just community should provide."

You were raised in a very multicultural neighbourhood of Winnipeg, you were part of an active church community, you went to Princeton, where you were active in the civil rights movement — is the treatment of refugees the big social issue of our time?

It is a social issue of our time, it's going to be the social issue in the very short future, because the causes, the sources of people fleeing and leaving their home state, their homeland, are becoming even more severe. Conflicts continue to force people to seek some kind of protection; the changing environment in climate means that your ability to survive is again threatened. It doesn't matter to me, and I don't think it matters to people [in general], if your high risk is from some 14-year-old kid with an Mk47 peering at you or drought that has lasted 48 days and you no longer have water or food for your children. Same thing. They are not being given the kind of support that an organized, responsible and just community should provide. And that's where I think the international community must take more responsibility, must become more involved. We can't simply leave this to border control or internal political cycles — we have to really begin to build some longer-term institutions, practices, and maybe norms and beliefs. 

A lot of what's happening is because of a lack of understanding, a lack of education — we don't work very hard anymore really at explaining what makes a plural society work. We've talked about being multicultural, and the prime minister of Canada has declared that that's our motif, that's our talisman as a country, but to understand how it works is confusing these days, because we're changing our own demographic pretty dramatically. 

How do you hope the World Refugee Council will contribute to this education?

One of the hopes I have for the refugee council would be that it provides a forum within which those voices could be heard. There aren't many places today where there's a serious debate going on. There's a political debate, which is all about terrorism and security, [but] the whole debate about the responsibility we bear, even in our own country, has not taken place in a significant way.

Yet, I think there's a real appetite in the public for learning more, for understanding more, for finding out what happens when you become a refugee, what the loss is that is carried in your psyche [when] you no longer have an anchor that you can say is home. Those are the things we have to begin to open up and welcome. Part of the problem…is that we are criminalizing refugees. There's a very nasty attempt by certain political right-wing groups to sort of say, these are the enemies at the gate, and we have to build the wall higher. You can draw [your own] conclusion what wall we're talking about, but it's happening everywhere, and I think the only way you break down walls is by opening up the gate. 

I think the beginning point is that the governance system has broken down internationally. Going back to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was designed as a response to a large movement of refugees in Europe, and the definition of a refugee, and all of a sudden you're finding that sometimes those definitions don't work. How do you define a refugee in the world today — is it somebody who's escaping the secret police who are going to arrest you if you go back, escaping a bombing situation or the threat that a warlord and militia are going to grab your kid and turn them into a child soldier? Or are you also escaping famine and drought and a breakdown of the sustainable community that you live in? 

You went to Silicon Valley looking for new ideas — can you give me an example of something that could really help refugees change or improve their lives?

A group of us, through the sponsorship of the Aspen ministerial group, met for about a week with the, I like to say, ‘28-year-old billionaires’ from Silicon Valley, who were all talking about how new digital technology affects the social contract — the contract that we have related to our responsibilities to each other. Some interesting pilots are already underway where you can use smartphones to deliver direct economic assistance to refugees so that they can purchase their own goods and services and set up their own businesses and not be reliant or become dependent on large scale humanitarian assistance.

We've seen some new technologies where you can register virtually every refugee in the world and build their historical records so when somebody starts yelling and screaming from a political platform that they're all ‘full of terrorists,’ you can say wait a minute, we've got a ledger that shows exactly where Mr. A and Ms. B come from, and what they've done, and who they are. And not only that, we can do it in nine or 10 days, not 90 days or 100 days.

And a third thing, the whole idea of virtual reality…we had the experience in the Facebook lab where they gave us one of these little helmets that they wear where we were able to visit a refugee camp in Jordan for seven minutes and just watch what was happening. If you're able to make that available in movie theatres, or just as you can buy an Apple TV and plug into Netflix and all the rest, that technology is available right now; you can bring this live for people to understand. 

I don't think we've had enough dialogue and discussion between the high tech digital inventors and the policy practitioners and the public, so that we can begin to see if we can find some effective cost-saving solutions to refugee issues. If we can provide a much cleaner tablet of identity, then you're going to take away a lot of the mystique of those who are using anti-immigration platforms; it disappears, because all of a sudden you're creating evidence to the opposite.

You helped persuade 162 countries to creat a legally binding treaty against the use of landmines. That’s a lot of persuasion. Do you think the World Refugee Council is going to be a harder sell, to get people on board?

It's probably too early to tell, but certainly not for a lack of trying. I think we're just really at the beginning of our process. I think [for the landmine treaty] the role that Canada played was to bring the different players together — the NGO community, the Coalition Against Landmines, the International Red Cross, different countries, middle-sized countries to begin with — it did take some emulsion to bring those pieces together. That kind of partnership is part of the new politics of the world that we live in. What Canada did was provide some leadership. Somebody has to hire the hall and open up the dialogue, certainly [with the WRC] we start already with a recognition in so many parts of the world that Canada is one of the few places left where this dialogue is taking place and where it can provide that leadership, because [Justin] Trudeau's government has said that pluralism and openness is part of what makes our democracy work. Not something to be feared — something to be welcomed. 

Given your background, it seems like you’re just the guy for this.

I hope so, but there are others — it’s really important to bring together a cluster of well-known and active people who have either been in politics, diplomacy, government, academia or business together. Each brings a different legitimacy and a different set of concerns with them. This is not a one-person show or a 10-person show; I think we've been able to recruit some really incredible world leaders to come together around this issue.

If the right combustion takes place — and that's the job of the council, to encourage all that — then I think we can provide real service to policymakers, the public and the media about what's really going on in the world and how we have to start taking much more seriously some of the issues that right now are under the rug. We don't talk about, as I said earlier, how do you share the burden? Why is it that Jordan, one of the poorest countries in the world, has four million refugees, and there aren't enough people donating to make sure they all get fed, that they have a home?

There are different points of view. You've got a system where some European countries are paying off dictators in order to restrict the flow of refugees. That's against the law, totally against international standards and mores. That's one of the real advantages to having this kind of a council; it has got good, experienced practitioners and idea people, but it's independent, it's not subject to the briefing notes of a bureaucracy. 

"If we try to simply row by ourselves, then we're going to sink. If we row together, then we can move."

If you could get one thing from all these countries, what would it be?

It’s hard to ask an ex-politician and ex-academic to come up with one idea... I think that really, the area that is almost invisible for lack of attention is the idea that we're going to have to take a look at serious reform at the international level — reform of the institutions and practices by which we collaborate and cooperate on global issues. What we've learned is that if we try to simply row by ourselves, then we're going to sink. If we row together, then we can move. And that's what really concerns me right now, is that I think the advent of very large numbers of people fleeing from fear is going to overcome and swamp so many of our practices, and there will be panic and there will be retribution and there will be pushback, and that's going to lead to a very unpleasant world. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.