Calling it a “humanitarian crisis” may have unintended consequences

Declaring a “humanitarian crisis” at the border might only harden the roadblocks to treating migrants humanely.

Everyone, the Administration and Rick Perry alike, is discussing the influx of unaccompanied minors at the border as being some kind of emerging “humanitarian” situation. Portraying these children as refugees of a sort may seem to offer a way of talking about this immigration problem in a less heated and more sympathetic way than the normal, security-fixated tone of the immigration debate.

FRONTEX, the EU border agency, has increasingly emphasized a humanitarian role in rescuing migrants at sea -- with the result of more security resources (FRONTEX image)

FRONTEX, the EU border agency, has increasingly emphasized a humanitarian role in rescuing migrants at sea — with the clearest result being more security resources (FRONTEX image)

But we should be wary of accepting declarations of “humanitarian” emergencies at the border. That’s because the practical reaction to a “humanitarian crisis” isn’t really that different from the reaction to a security crisis, playing into the hands of those with ever-escalating border security demands. Further, associating a border “crisis” with the “humanitarian” only further threatens to bring the border security debate to the topic of how we deal with refugees and asylum seekers, which up to this point the US has been fortunate to mostly avoid. It may not be able to be helped, but sensationalist talk of humanitarian crises or emergencies should probably be avoided, supplanted by a more prosaic discussion of problems, needs and facts on the ground.

Less sympathy toward refugees

One of the clearest differences between immigration politics in the US and Europe is the extent to which asylum and refugee issues are front and center in the latter, while in the US immigration immigration controversies have been focused elsewhere. I see it as fortunate that US politics hasn’t suffered from occasional acute panics about “bogus asylum seekers” that have warped asylum policy in many European countries. It may seem that by putting the children showing up at the southwest border under the protective “humanitarian” umbrella, we are insulating them from the ferocity of border-security politics. Instead, we might just be bringing the ferocity of border-security politics into the way we deal with those seeking refuge in our country.

As nativist protests erupt in some places where unaccompanied children or mothers and their children arrive after being used from Texas, what the “humanitarian” label has accomplished is not the creation of some alternative mode of politics for dealing with these children and their mothers, but rather skepticism and panic towards those seeking refuge. This may not be avoidable, but it is ugly, and a political tone about refugees more similar to what has become dominant in Europe is a worrying possible result.

A “humanitarian crisis” and a “security crisis”: Less different than you might think

Discussion of “humanitarian crises” at borders have a way of only adding fire to ongoing security arguments. A “humanitarian crisis” is actually well equipped to play into the hands of border hawks with seemingly unlimited desires for security resources: Successfully argued “humanitarian crises” at the border seemingly result in more security resources for security organs.

The reason for this is that, in a “humanitarian crisis,” the key word isn’t really “humanitarian” but is instead “crisis.” The situation brings forth an “emergency” way of dealing with things that tends to reinforce security organizations’ way of doing business, rather than actually changing the orientation of policy toward a more “humanitarian” mode. So, in trying to get attention and sympathy for child migrants by talking about a “humanitarian crisis,” what’s inadvertently being emphasized is the element of “crisis.” The clearest response to this is more security, rather than the conversion of security organs into humanitarian organizations — and when more security is proposed, that’s difficult to counter, because it’s a crisis, right?

FRONTEX, the European Union’s border agency, offers an example. FRONTEX has increasingly argued that it has a humanitarian mission in rescuing migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, which has won it more resources but not resulted in a very substantive change from before in how policy approaches the issue of migrants dying at sea. My University of Edinburgh colleague Nina Perkowski discusses this in a very good unpublished working paper, the title of which — “The role of the exception in the EU border regime: from security to humanitarian emergencies?” — captures the gist of this observation. What’s gone on with FRONTEX and migrants to Europe dying at sea may shadow what the eventual response to the current “humanitarian crisis” is going to be in the US: More security, piled on top of the already-record levels of security, well beyond diminishing returns, but perhaps no more hope for the migrants arriving at the border, and no real way of addressing the underlying problem.

How do you avoid the political bind?

If Texas's John Cornyn is more than happy to talk about a "humanitarian crisis", that says all you need to know. (JohnCornyn flickr photostream)

If Texas’s John Cornyn is more than happy to talk about a “humanitarian crisis,” that says all you need to know. (JohnCornyn flickr photostream)

The only apparent way to avoid this discussion of a “crisis” is to treat the fact that there are unaccompanied minors as not justifying exceptional changes in the way that border security operates — as, basically, something to be dealt with, but not a “crisis.” The media is unlikely to cooperate on this, particularly as Fox News has relished talking about this in crisis dimensions. To be sure, there are more unaccompanied minors than the system was built to handle, but whether this constitutes a policy problem to be dealt with swiftly or a “crisis” is another matter. The increase in unaccompanied minors has been visible for a couple of years, so arguing that in the past few months it has not suddenly become a “crisis” that the normal order of border security is totally unequipped to deal soon with is not far-fetched. The White House seems to very carefully be using the term “humanitarian situation” rather than “crisis” or “emergency”, but that language might not be un-charged enough.

Meanwhile, the Administration’s request for “emergency” funds to build the infrastructure needed to deal with more unaccompanied minors from countries with which the US does not share a land border seems likely to be hijacked by the secure-the-border crowd.

The fact that some of those crowing loudest about a “humanitarian” crisis at the border are border hawks who are using the developments to push for meeting their previously favored policy of endless security ramp-ups on the border shows it pretty clearly: Talking in sympathetic tones about a “humanitarian” crisis can have unintended political consequences.


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