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Sharing refugees -- a 'good idea' that's gone nowhere

September 20, 2012 |  5:00 am

Malta

As a teen fleeing a forced marriage in Mali, Ali Konate hopscotched between countries before taking his chances on a boat leaving Libya. He spent two nights at sea, fearful of being tossed into the water -- all the more terrifying because he can’t swim.

He had never even heard of Malta before he ended up on its shores.

“I just wanted anywhere I could live my life in a safe way,” Konate said.

Konate is one of more than 16,000 people who have boarded boats and landed on Malta over the last decade, often by accident. The tiny Mediterranean nation is a refugee destination out of happenstance, as people fleeing North Africa aim their boats at the European continent and land on Malta instead.

These "accidents" have put new demands on Malta, a chain of islands of roughly 400,000 people with less acreage than Bakersfield. Malta hastily erected tents to hold more people and pleaded with other countries to take them in. Some did -- but not nearly as many as it had hoped.

“Malta is smaller than an American town,” said Joseph St. John, its policy development director. “We can only integrate so many people.”

Last year, it had the most refugees per square mile in the world, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency.

European Union countries are bound by an agreement that the first country someone sets foot in is responsible for them. But the drama on Malta is repeated across the globe under international rules. Countries on the fringes of conflict end up with the most refugees, with no guarantee of help.

Huge numbers pour into countries such as Pakistan and Kenya, stretching budgets and testing goodwill as supposedly temporary camps become fixtures. Refugee activists and governments have dreamed of countries sharing the load, but they say the idea is politically stagnant.

Many refugees didn’t really want to go to Malta, and they often feel Malta doesn’t want them. Malta detains people who come by boat for months unless they are deemed vulnerable, saying it must screen for terrorists. Refugee activists argue that the detentions are illegal and dehumanizing; one advocate called it “worse than prison.”

In one shocking case, two soldiers stand accused of killing a man who escaped from detention. Konate said he knew the man, who cheered others up by saying, “Don’t worry. You’re going to get papers.”

To avoid refugee problems, some countries try to stop them from reaching their soil. Italy turned away boats from Libya last year. Australia plans to hold boat people on Papua New Guinea and Nauru, to dissuade potential refugees from making the trip.

Even sharper tensions have erupted in Bangladesh, which has turned away thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing attacks in Myanmar. Yet even as they condemn Bangladesh for expelling refugees, some activists recognize that it already shelters thousands of Rohingya.

“It’s something that really gnaws at me,” said Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch. “We point the finger at Bangladesh and say, ‘You’re obligated to respect these rules -- but we’re not really obligated to help you.’”

All this could be different, James Hathaway believes, if the world made a radical change that guaranteed refugees would be protected -- but not necessarily in the countries where they land. Countries around the globe would divvy up responsibility for the displaced, no matter where they arrive.

No country would have to worry about single-handedly sheltering masses of people, reducing the impulse to turn them away, said Hathaway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan. Smuggling would be unnecessary. More than a decade ago, Hathaway gathered experts to imagine such a system. He's proudest of this work, he said. And it’s gone nowhere.

“Everyone thinks it’s a good idea -- until they’re asked to share someone else’s burden,” said Kathleen Newland, refugee protection program director at the Migration Policy Institute.

Scholars also call it “responsibility sharing.” It isn’t a new idea: Countries have cooperated in the past to resettle Vietnamese boat people, letting them resettle in France and the United States. But such partnerships are rare and have never been tried on a global scale.

Fewer than 100,000 out of more than 35 million people displaced worldwide are resettled by the U.N., most in the United States and Canada. To assist Malta, the European Commission launched a pilot program to relocate refugees, but fewer than 400 were transferred under the initiative. The U.S. accepted roughly 1,000 separately; other countries took in a few hundred more through other programs.

Even among refugee advocates, the idea is dogged by worries: Frelick fears that countries would be tempted to place refugees in temporary ghettos to keep them from putting down roots. Letting refugees be resettled anywhere could stop them from making logical choices about their future homes.

But the fatal flaw is that politically powerful countries that get few refugees stand to lose from the idea. Many are content with the idea that they don't have to deal with a Somalia or Syria next door.

“I think of this like catastrophic health insurance -- it protects you against a sudden increase in refugees,” said Peter H. Schuck, Yale University professor emeritus of law. “But most countries don’t view it that way.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Migrants rescued at sea off Malta's shores last month. Credit: Justin Gatt / Armed Forces of Malta  

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