In the early hours of Monday, April 4, 2016, over 130 people were deported from the Greek island of Lesbos on ships chartered by Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. Most were Pakistani or Bangladeshi, but Sri Lankans, Indians, Syrians, and one Iraqi were also on board. This was the first enactment of the deal struck between Turkey and the EU on March 18, by which all new “irregular migrants” crossing from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey as a “temporary and extraordinary measure.” As the two ferries left the docks in Lesbos, protestors roared their disapproval and raised banners with messages such as “Refugees Welcome” and “Shame on EU!” Amnesty International condemned the deal as the start of “Europe’s potentially disastrous undoing of its commitment to protect refugees,” while Human Rights Watch warned that the deal threatens the rights of refugees and undermines the EU’s principles. In this burgeoning crisis, where European values and principles appear to have been abandoned or to offer little guidance for the EU’s actions, perhaps the emerging Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm offers the EU a route toward a more coherent and responsible policy.
The EU has had something of an ambivalent relationship to RtoP, but it has been suggested that a proper engagement with this evolving norm has the potential to help EU states navigate their moral, political, and legal responsibilities with regard to refugees. As Jason Ralph and James Souter argue, RtoP’s concentration on the responsibility to assist and protect those suffering in Syria “surely implies guaranteeing a form of asylum” for those who have fled to protect themselves. Ralph and Souter therefore suggest a potential evolution of the norm in this direction. For others, such an evolution is unnecessary, claiming that there would be “no easier way” for states to fulfill their RtoP than through the provision of asylum. In this article I argue against such a position for two reasons. First, the EU already proclaims a long list of values that it asserts both contributed to its founding and continues to guide its actions. Consequently, the addition of RtoP, which crucially contains no obligations to protect refugees in other territories, would add little. Second, when the logic underlying the EU’s and RtoP’s politics of protection is examined, a similarity emerges that would make such supplementation redundant. Although the EU is an apparently sui generis normative power, and though RtoP seems a substantial normative innovation in international society, what the refugee crisis reveals is that both are deeply conservative. The politics of protection underlying both RtoP and the EU’s migration and asylum policy primarily entail a solidarity with, and a bolstering of, the sovereign capacity of the modern state. Neither Europe’s ethos nor RtoP can therefore provide the firm ethical grounds on which to build a deeper commitment to the protection of the figure most clearly failed by modern states—the refugee.
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