Colonialism and International Law made refugees inevitable – Britain can’t ignore its responsibilities now

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In this post, Sean Madden, a PhD candidate at Birmingham Law School, discusses connection between colonialism and modern problem of refugees

The entirely avoidable and tragic loss of life in the English Channel represents the culmination of almost three decades of failed refugee policy that emphasises increased border patrols and a greater security presence over the provision of a safe, official route through which asylum can be claimed from outside the UK. It is a policy that not only endangers lives and emboldens people traffickers, but has, of late, led to potential breaches of international law.

There is a bitter irony to the fact that, in the aftermath of World War II, Britain played an integral role in crafting international humanitarian law and the refugee system it now veers close to flaunting. Whilst it can be argued that recent British foreign policy has contributed to migration flows, it is also the case that the system of international law created by former colonial states of the Global North has played a huge part in instituting a global dynamic that increases the likelihood of conflict, impoverishment, displacement, and migration.

International Law and the Colonial Legacy

There can be little doubt that recent military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, amongst others, have contributed to regional upheaval and led to an increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East. Given its position as a founder and signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, coupled with pre-eminent role in these conflicts and the support offered to British forces by Afghan nationals, calls for the UK to assist those fleeing impoverishment and persecution should come as no surprise, and are fully justified.

To focus on recent events, however, is to ignore the depth of Britain’s involvement with countries of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. To fail to account for the ways in which the UK and other European states have shaped international law and international relations is to misconceptualise the historical underpinnings of today’s events.

Over the course of several centuries, European empires were complicit in the annexation and exploitation of countries throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The initial colonial encounters of the 16th century instigated an extractive and exploitative relationship between European and Non-European states, as the British, Dutch, French, Belgians, Spanish, and others sought to profit from the resources of other continents. In order to achieve this with the minimum of European bloodshed the imperial powers would often operate in concord, through which the resources of colonised lands would be shared without recourse to conflict. These exploits led to the accumulation of tremendous wealth amongst the imperial powers and catalysed the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

By this time, a deep power imbalance between European and Non-European countries was established. The history of subjugation and exploitation is reflected in the list of predominantly post-colonial states which makes up the primary countries of origin of those seeking asylum in the UK even today.

The legacy of this encounter, however, goes further than conquest and the subsequent plunder of natural resources. Since the earliest ingress of European empires, attempts were made to formulate a theory of international law that codified their asserted superiority and solidified their rights to the land, people, and resources of non-European states. Britain utilised international law – deliberately crafted by colonial powers – in order to legitimise the annexation of states such as present-day Nigeria, Somalia, and Sierra Leone in Africa, and Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine in the Middle East. Each of these colonies was subject to either direct or indirect British rule, as the Empire extracted resources such as oil and minerals.

European states, self-imbued with a sovereignty that was never, and by their metric, could never be, proffered to those whom they had conquered, had developed and industrialised completely at the expense of colonised peoples, who were rendered impoverished and disenfranchised, and whose living environments were severely depleted. Moreover, the epistemologies shaped by this encounter continued to form the basis of international law over the intervening centuries. Inclusive first of all of the ‘civilising mission’, and later of overtures towards ‘economic development’, it has acted to maintain the power imbalance between colonists and former post-colonial states, driving continued exploitation, violence, and destitution.

Partition, Borders, and Mandates

The colonial system undoubtedly left large swathes of the non-European world devastated and impoverished. Further, in both the creation and dismantling of empire through the latter part of the 19th and into the mid-20th century, the needs of European nations were often prioritised. As a consequence, culturally and historically insensitive, and ultimately incredibly harmful partitions were created in and between post-colonial states.

In deconstructing empire, the principle of uti possidetis was politically expedient for the former colonial powers, but was reckless and immensely damaging for those upon whom it was inflicted. Across Asia, conflict arose between states newly-created and then abandoned by the British Empire and led to a series of migrations to the UK. The ramifications of this are felt even today, particularly in Bangladesh, where persecution and violence has forced many to flee.

At the earlier Berlin Conference of 1884, European empires had consciously divided Africa according to their own needs and diplomatic sensitivities. The consequences of this act resonated throughout the 20th century and are still felt today, as conflict over land and resources between the independent states established after the fall of empire – again under the principle of uti possidetiscontinues to flare and lead to further displacement.

By the 1920s, European colonialism had been superseded by the League of Nations’ system of Mandates and Protectorates. As post-colonial states were assigned levels of ‘civilisation’ and ‘backwardness’, categorised, and allocated a former colonial overseer notionally in order to facilitate their ‘progress’, the system of international law that had subordinated them since the 16th century continued to reinforce the dynamic of ruled and ruler – albeit with the use of different rhetoric, and through newly-created supranational institutions dominated by European powers and the USA.

Once again, artificially and insensitively-created borders provoked tension and conflict in post-colonial states. Mandates operated by Britain and France in the Middle East encompassed large areas of the former Ottoman Empire, including Syria and Palestine, and despite the prohibition of official annexation, former colonial parties continued to benefit economically from these arrangements at the expense of those purportedly under their protection. These events only served to deepen inequalities between European and Non-European states, weaken institutional structures and increase the propensity for violent conflict to erupt.

Over the course of the 20th century, the ‘civilising mission’ was replaced by the now ubiquitous narrative of ‘economic development’. In keeping with the prevailing dynamic of international relations, it was once again the former colonial powers who dictated the nature of development.

Economic Development: New Term, Old Dynamic

It was in the aftermath of World War II and in the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI) that the transcendence of economic considerations above socio-political became firmly entrenched in the global system. Their creation effectively codified the primacy of economic interests, and inducted conceptions of development that maintained European and American economic influence. In this way, international law was able to legitimise and justify continued intrusion into post-colonial states on the basis of providing developmental assistance. This system was enforced through the creation of a number of international financial institutions (IFI) including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Charged with the delivery and regulation of loans and investment in the nascent ‘developing world’, these bodies were made responsible for the continued transplantation of Northern capitalist interests into former colonies.

As a result of this protracted period of economic interference, transnational corporations and IFI led and created by states of the Global North, with very little input from post-colonial states, became inextricably enmeshed with governance in the Global South. The nature of this extractivist, subordinating relationship between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ states was thrown into sharp relief by the 1950s as former colonial states campaigned for Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources (PSNR) and a New International Economic Order (NIEO). That developed states of the Global North were both empowered and emboldened to resists attempts by the Global South to control their own territory was indicative of the level of control international law allowed them to exercise. With the interests of transnational capital emerging victorious, wealth, knowledge and expertise, poured out of post-colonial states and into the Global North. The attendant, deepening economic inequality had a further destabilising and self-perpetuating effect and has been implicated in exacerbating displacement.

The Dominance of Neoliberal Governance

The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s and the subsequent dominance of a form of economics that championed privatisation, free markets, and the free movement of capital only served to further entrench the dominance of international finance in shaping international law, and with it, the world. Enforced by IFI, the delivery of development loans was predicated upon a state’s willingness to engage in programmes of ‘structural adjustment’ that were frequently socio-politically and culturally inappropriate, and involved the mass transfer of resources and wealth from states to the private sector. The deleterious impact of these changes to governance and polities cannot be overstated, as the borders of post-colonial states were forced to open further to the unencumbered needs of transnational capital. The move toward deregulation and structural adjustment has allowed conflict, violence, land-grabbing, and environmental depredation to proliferate in former colonial states of the Global South, as the natural resources of countries are extracted and utilised for the continued enrichment of transnational capitalists in former colonial states.

British interest in former colonial charges such as Iraq and Nigeria is well-documented, with even the process of rebuilding in the aftermath of the second War in Iraq dominated by developers from Europe and the USA, and contracts frequently awarded without tender, and without consideration for the needs of local populations. The environmental depredation wrought by British corporations in the Niger Delta significantly impacted those local populations dependent on the land and river to survive, acting to further displace inhabitants.

Once again, it is worth reiterating that this is a dynamic established, institutionalised, and perpetuated by international law and IFI created and managed by former colonial and imperial powers.

The economic imperialism inherent within the new approach to international governance has also established, via the dominance of capital from the USA, the primacy of English as the world’s lingua franca. As such, it should come as no real surprise that those seeking asylum would choose a country with a common language.

Climate Change and Refugees

As the worsening impacts of anthropogenic global heating are felt most acutely across post-colonial states of the Global South, and the largest historical emitters – those who derived the greatest benefits of colonialism, empire, and the Industrial Revolution – abdicate responsibility for a crisis predominantly of their making, it becomes increasingly likely that a new form of refugee will emerge. The capacity of those displaced by extreme weather events, flood, desertification, or disease to adapt to and mitigate these effects is, by virtue of impoverishment, extremely limited.

It is at the expense of those inhabitants of former colonial states that Britain’s pollutive and extractive Industrial Revolution was able to take place and its prosperity was ensured. It is in the creation of a system of international law that prioritises economic growth and development, legitimises incursion into post-colonial states, and places no hard limits on emissions from fossil fuels, agribusiness, and transportation, that the interests of Britain, other former imperial powers, and transnational corporations continue to supersede those of the Global South. For as long as this dynamic persists, forced displacement and the creation of refugees are inevitable.

The policy of the UK government singularly fails to acknowledge the role played by European states in creating a system of international law and governance with such historic and institutionalised power imbalance as to render issues of asylum and displacement an inescapable reality.

Whilst the causes are multi-factorial, and this piece by no means provides an exhaustive account of the causes of displacement, there is clear linkage between inequality and impoverishment, conflict, and the legacy of colonialism. As one the former imperial powers to have benefitted greatly from this dynamic, Britain is both legally and morally obligated to render assistance.



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