European politics have been roiled over the past few years by the question of how the EU as a whole and its individual member states should deal with refugees seeking asylum from the ongoing wars throughout the Greater Middle East. Most attention has been focused on the stream of unfortunates coming across Turkey and the Aegean from Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria. Their stories have tugged at European heartstrings, even as some have worried that the crowds of apparent refuges could also include potential terrorists.
Germany in particular has chosen to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confident proclamation “Wir schaffen das” (We can handle it) has earned her praise from humanitarian groups but also brickbats from analysts and political critics who claim she has undermined national security in quixotic pursuit of moral redemption for the German people’s historical sins.
At the root of the debate has been the question of German and European responsibility for helping the victims of wars on Europe’s periphery—wars in which Europe has been unwilling or unable to take an active role—and the potential danger such migrants pose to European society. Critics of Merkel’s policy point to recent terror attacks as proof of the dangers of unchecked immigration, and argue for robust interdiction and higher fences. Supporters of a more open policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, have argued the opposite, that accepting refugees will allow Europe (and the United States as well) to display their commitment to human rights, counter Islamist assertions that the West is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the well-being of Muslims, and thus actually enhance both the reputation and the security of the West.
So far, neither side in the debate has scored an undisputed victory, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. But the discussion of migration and asylum, so focused on the actions of European governments, often leaves out the actions of the migrants themselves. Although one will occasionally see discussions of the need for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to integrate into European culture, the primary policy question for Europeans has been framed as “do we let them in or not?”
The closer one looks, however, the more one sees that it is not just a matter of who comes in, but how they come and go once they have found asylum, and the political activities they choose to engage in while enjoying the protection of that status.
All of which leads us to the saga of Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is a Yemeni activist, the brother of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, currently involved in a bitter civil conflict with the government of Yemen. That conflict has developed into a proxy war between Shiite Iran (which backs the Houthis) and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government.
[For those interested in more detail, the conflict in Yemen was the subject of the February 2015 episode of FPRI’s “Geopolitics with Granieri,” which addressed its local, regional, and global complexities.]
Al-Houthi’s exploits have recently been the subject of a two-part summer series in the print edition of the Saudi news magazine Majalla (available in English as well as Arabic). The series highlights the significant questions about German capacity and willingness to hold political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay, and the implications for this case for future asylum policy.
Although even less well known to American audiences than the Syrian Civil War, the war in Yemen has entered its second year with no clear end in sight, and is producing its own flow of displaced refugees. Its wider implications have also increased the significance of Houthi activists abroad. Al-Houthi himself fled Yemen more than a decade ago, and found political asylum in Germany. Far from staying out of the politics of his homeland, however, al-Houthi has been an active supporter of the rebel cause, appearing on a variety of media outlets (including the Arabic service of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the Voice of America), meeting with Iranian representatives and other supporters of the Houthi cause, including Hezbollah, and even traveling back and forth to Yemen to participate in the rebellion.
Such activity stretches the legal meaning of asylum, and poses a difficult political problem for the Germans. There is of course historical precedent for rebel groups and self-styled “governments in exile” to set up shop abroad. Usually, however, such actions depend upon the formal approval of the foreign host. The Germans have extended no such formal support to al-Houthi and his compatriots, but at the same time they have not acted to shut down his behavior either. Either decision would bring political challenges that Berlin appears to prefer to avoid. The resulting ambiguity, however, is not only embarrassing for the German authorities, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the broader responsibility of even the most welcoming governments for the political activities of those whom they chose to shelter.
In this atmosphere of increasing tension about how to deal with the challenge of integrating political migrants and asylum seekers, European policy discussions should include an understanding of this particular case. So far, it offers no satisfying solutions, but many questions well worth pondering.