Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

West shouldn’t use ‘root causes’ to ignore refugee crisis

Andy Lamey is the author of Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What to Do About It.

Of Canada's federal parties, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been the slowest and most reluctant to embrace the public outpouring of sympathy for Syrian refugees. Where the Liberals and New Democrats were quick to call for dramatically increased admissions for people seeking refugee status, Mr. Harper has argued that refugee policy alone is not an adequate response to Syria's agony. "We are also doing what we have to do to fight the root cause of this problem, and that is the violent campaign against millions of people by [Islamic State]."

Mr. Harper's disagreement with the opposition is a Canadian incarnation of a global debate. When large numbers of would-be refugees appear, calls to take them in frequently meet the response that we should address the root causes of the refugee crisis in question. While few could disagree with this thought in principle, appeals to address root causes have too often historically functioned as an excuse to do less on a humanitarian level. It is better to view the humanitarian and military options as separate issues. Canada should offer a sustained humanitarian response to Syrian refugees, whether or not we contribute to fighting Islamic State.

Story continues below advertisement

The root-causes approach became popular in the early 1980s, when the United Nations debated how to respond to Vietnam and Cuba after both countries encouraged mass outflows. The root causes of political instability were originally understood to include poverty and the lingering effects of colonialism. These and other causes required international aid and co-operation with developing states. Addressing root causes was something to do in addition to accepting refugees, not a replacement.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Western states grew less welcoming toward those who, unlike the refugees resettled from camps, arrived under their own power to seek asylum. Asylum-seekers were seen as "bogus" claimants or terrorists. The root-causes doctrine was reformulated as a dubious substitute for asylum. In the European Union, British analyst Channe Lindstrom observes, "root causes policies have been reactive and defensive." The EU has invoked root causes to justify such measures as containing refugees in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other distant countries less able to ensure protection. It is this version of the root causes approach that Canadians are being asked to accept: as an alternative to taking in the most refugee seekers possible, not a supplement.

On a military level, the root-causes approach provided a rationale for the 1999 bombing of Kosovo, which sought to prevent an influx of migrants into the EU. Outside Europe, the doctrine justified the 1994 U.S. occupation of Haiti, which Bill Clinton launched to "protect the integrity of U.S. borders" from the arrival of Haitian asylum-seekers in Florida.

The Kosovo and Haiti campaigns both stopped international refugee flows (although Kosovo still saw internal violence). But neither precedent supports Canada's current response to Syria. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, during the first seven months of this year, IS killed 1,131 people, compared with 7,894 deaths caused by government forces. IS could disappear tomorrow and would-be refugees would keep coming. As for the Assad regime, continuing support from Russia means it would be harder to dislodge than its counterparts in the former Yugoslavia and (especially) impoverished Haiti.

Very well, a root-causes proponent might say. That just shows Canada and its allies should wage all-out war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This approach, however, can backfire. Consider the Khmer Rouge, one of IS's few rivals in horror. In the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge resembled IS in being the rebel party in a civil war. After the U.S. heavily bombed Cambodia, ostensibly to strike Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong forces there, Khmer Rouge ranks quadrupled in size.

"The bombing may have helped create a climate conducive to extremism," Pol Pot biographer Philip Short notes. The Khmer Rouge told people that Cambodia's government had sold them out to the United States, which was bent on their destruction. "'What they said was credible because there were just so many huge bombs,' one [Cambodian] remembered, 'that was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rogue to win the people over.'" Genocide and countless refugee seekers soon followed.

This still leaves open the possibility of limited military involvement in Syria, such as enforcing a no-fly zone. But limited interventions take time, and millions of refugees need help now. Clearly, striking Syria's crisis at the root is easier said than done. If our goals are truly humanitarian, we will not use root causes as an alibi for failing to immediately save every person that we can.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to