In 1957 I took out my first subscription to a “small magazine”. I did so through my school, St Mary’s College in Crosby, Lancashire, which encouraged its boys to take the Times and magazines such as the Spectator and the New Statesman as first steps to becoming leaders of society. My English teacher, Mr Hughes, had never heard of the magazine I chose, however. It was called Crossbow, the house journal of the Bow Group, itself quite a new body of young Tory intellectuals who wanted to continue talking politics late at night despite having left university. Perhaps because so many Bow Groupers worked in the London media, Crossbow’s launch had been covered by the BBC news. It still exists, incidentally, though mainly on the internet, where a search for it may mis-direct you to a magazine for electric crossbow enthusiasts.
Mr Hughes eventually tracked down the magazine, and its first issue devoted to “An Expanding Economy”, arrived at school. It left me cold. I was too young for the charm of economics. And how could an economy expand anyway? Or, come to that, contract? But its second issue inspired me—and it went on to inspire the world too.
Four young Tory activists—Crossbow editor Tim Raison, celebrated British athlete Christopher Chataway, Picture Post journalist Trevor Philpott, and financial writer Colin Jones, then on the Economist—launched a campaign in Crossbow to make 1960 a World Refugee Year when governments and voluntary bodies would devote special efforts to clearing the backlog of refugees and DPs (displaced persons) living in camps mainly in Europe, the Middle East and Hong Kong. The idea caught fire, public opinion was aroused, US$92 million was raised in donations (a huge sum then), voluntary bodies were enthusiastic, an amazing array of celebrities from Clement Attlee to Dame Edith Evans endorsed it, the United Nations adopted WRY in a resolution, the Soviet bloc stayed aloof but passive, governments (many initially sceptical) got on board, national migrant quotas were expanded or special ones established, and by the end of 1960 the last refugee camps in Europe had been closed. It was an astonishing achievement for a magazine that probably counted its subscribers in the high hundreds.
All four architects of WRY went on to successful careers in politics and journalism. Raison, who hatched the original idea following a visit to Palestinian refugee camps, served in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet. All four were awarded the UN’s Nansen Medal for service to humanitarian causes. All four are now dead. Shortly before Chataway died last year, he told CNN: “In my old age, thinking of the various things I have done, bad and good, on the whole seconding Tim Raison in this venture is about the best thing I have done.” He probably spoke for all of them.
Even in 1960, however, the refugee problem was not entirely solved. The refugee camps in the Middle East were kept in being—to strengthen the case for Palestinian statehood rather than from necessity—and people continued to escape from communist China into Hong Kong camps. Fifteen years later the Vietnamese boat people again put refugees on the front pages and into Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. And today there are refugee crises in Europe, Africa and Asia that make the situations of 1958 seem very modest challenges. UN agencies estimate that there are more than 50 million refugees worldwide and a further 31 million IDPs (or internally displaced persons) uprooted by wars, government oppression, and the anarchy that flourishes in failed states like Libya. These estimates may be exaggerated, or swollen by economic migrants falsely claiming refugee status, but no one doubts that the overall refugee problem is genuine and massive.
Does WRY offer any pointers to solving it? To discover that, begin with the reasons for WRY’s success. In the first place, everyone knew that the refugees and DPs were genuine hard cases. The Second World War had ended only thirteen years before, and they were its last visible victims. They enjoyed great public sympathy. No one thought they were disguised “economic migrants” who anyway in 1958 were welcome in many countries, including Australia. Second, they were limited in number and largely passive. Unless another hot war broke out, there was unlikely to be many more of them. No one imagined that there was a limitless “pool” of refugees who might overwhelm national borders if governments relaxed their entry rules. Refugees were no kind of a threat. Third, we had just had the successful experience of resettling the Hungarian émigrés of 1956. All the Western countries had co-operated in an international effort to take in the “Fifty-sixers” in numbers appropriate to the population size of each recipient country. Austria wasn’t left to handle the exodus for itself simply because it bordered Hungary. And we all felt, slightly smugly perhaps, that our co-operation had benefited the Hungarians and reflected well on ourselves. All these things fostered an international mood that was receptive to Crossbow’s proposal.
Admittedly, the Soviet bloc did not join with most other countries in supporting WRY. Its diplomatic posture on Europe’s refugees was that the best solution to their plight would be voluntary repatriation rather than re-settlement elsewhere. Many DPs were from Soviet bloc countries and were particularly determined to resist voluntary repatriation. Some had done so to the point of suicide a decade earlier. So this wasn’t good ground on which Moscow might take a stand. Two years after Hungary the Soviets decided not to obstruct WRY.
They were even an accidental supporter of it. Though self-consciously revolutionary, the Soviets were strong upholders of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states in practice. It was their defence against criticism of their record on human rights.
WRY, like the resettlement of Hungarian exiles, was ultimately an exercise in inter-governmental co-operation. Public opinion, voluntary bodies, celebrities and Crossbow all pushed the project forward with money, endorsements and arguments. UN and other agencies ran camps, kept refugee lists, certified their status, and arranged transfers. But governments negotiated the terms and numbers of refugee resettlement among themselves and they had the power to implement their decisions.
WRY could happen because governments and citizens both felt they could offer sanctuary to refugees without endangering their own security, identity, national cohesion, or other interests and values.
Many things have changed since 1960. The world refugee crisis is now much greater in numerical terms. Refugees are not the only people on the move. Economic migrants in their millions want to leave places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Burma and settle in the welfarist West. Enjoying fewer rights than refugees under international law, they seek either to pass as refugees or to break into the West and establish a modern legalistic version of squatters’ rights. Unlike the passive DPs of postwar Europe, they come from a potentially limitless pool of future migrants. Given both their numbers and their willingness to override our immigration and other laws, they plausibly threaten our security, identity and national cohesion, especially under a multiculturalism that treats all cultures as equal, or that (in reality) privileges the culture of the Other.
It is not impossible in principle to devise policies that would reduce, ameliorate and eventually solve this problem despite its scale. They would include: making and enforcing a clear legal distinction between refugees and other migrants; establishing centres outside “target” countries to establish whether would-be immigrants had refugee status; negotiating a worldwide inter-governmental agreement to set national quotas for the admission of refugees; refusing entry to non-refugees in excess of the numbers determined by domestic law; and deporting illegal immigrants swiftly and without appeal. Such policies don’t happen because governments have lost control of migration policy to global agencies, NGOs and international lawyers.
That is the biggest change since 1960. International human rights law, UN treaty compliance rules, and the influence of NGOs internationally are now among many constraints on national policy-making. An alternative structure of law, regulation and political authority competes with national governments in refugee policy and human rights law. In 1960 there was little dispute that governments had the right to control how many people of what kind might enter their country and become its citizens. Today all human beings irrespective of citizenship are said to have rights that are enshrined in international law, policed by global agencies and NGOs, and adjudicated by international courts. Citizenship, borders, democratic decision-making—these are all subject to external supervision. Lawyers and activists even assert that governments have no right to control their borders because migration is itself a human right.
Migrants don’t benefit from this protection. Faced with legal uncertainty, governments become risk-averse. They avoid any refugee initiatives lest they end up having to accept more migrants, including illegals, than they or their voters think prudent. European governments neither stop illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats nor distribute them across Europe in an agreed and orderly way. They try to confine them to border states or to pass them on to their neighbours. Migrants of all kinds, sensing weakness, keep coming. More drown. The problem gets bigger. And worse.
Nations can only be generous if they feel secure. That was the lesson of World Refugee Year. Australia has learnt it. The international community … not so much.