Global Refugee Crisis

The headlines we saw over the past two years were European. Indeed, the word “crisis” was first attached to refugees when the refugees showed up in Europe.  But this is not a European issue, or even a Western one.  The numbers of refugees reaching Europe fell in 2016 to about one third the 2015 levels from 1 million to 300 thousand thanks to the constraints on transit imposed by Turkey as part of the EU Turkey deal.

The Syrian war was plainly a humanitarian crisis for the millions of persons displaced by the violence. The dangers of crossing the Mediterranean from Libya have not declined.  But for Europe, the secondary flow of refugees from Syria’s neighbors presented and presents not a demographic or economic crisis (the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe is about one-half of one percent of the continent’s total population). The crisis is one of governance, more specifically governance failure.

It represents a political failure of significant magnitude, both in the inability of the European states to manage and share the responsibility for the flow and to live up to core European values of human rights—respect for individual dignity and due process. It also threatens the political and social harmony of the EU experiment, with the future of free movement under the Schengen Agreement very much at stake.

But the political failure to govern is even more part of a wider contradiction in the global refugee regime. The heart of the refugee crisis is neither European nor immediate.  It is global and protracted.  Millions of refugees remain displaced for decades. And 86% of the refugees displaced are being hosted by developing countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Kenya.

The current problems facing the international refugee system are deeply rooted in the dual principles of national sovereignty and universal human rights embedded in the post-World War II global regime. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone has a right to leave a country. Yet the principle of national sovereignty holds that no one has a right to enter another country without its sovereign permission.

This tension is reflected in norms establishing the international refugee regime. While the Convention forbids the return of any such refugees to countries in which their lives are threatened, it contains no provision for the refugees to enter a country legally. And furthermore, any determination as to their refugee status need only be made once they reach the country of asylum. (Some, but too few, countries do overseas processing.) Here, we see an enormous invitation to, and an indirect funding scheme for, illegal border crossing and smuggling.

At the root of the problem for the EU is a fundamental contradiction in the EU migration regime itself. On the one hand, the EU guarantees freedom of movement and employment inside the entire union for nationals of its member states and eliminates border checks between countries that have joined the Schengen Convention. On the other, its Dublin Regulation leaves the task of asylum determination in the hands of the governments at the borders of the EU. Guarding the borders—determining refugee status and returning labor migrants—is difficult and costly. The governments tasked to do so had little incentive to do it well. They were well aware that the vast majority of the asylum seekers wanted to migrate to Germany, the UK and the Scandinavian countries. With the advantages of hindsight, it is now obvious that refugee reception and status determination was a function that ought to have been performed by the EU itself, with direct EU involvement in the Greek Islands, Italy and Hungary and with an adequately funded scheme of relocation.

The international community has committed itself to taking action. Well, almost. The World Humanitarian Summit, held this past May in Istanbul, was long on the “urgency of now” (translated into polite diplomatic verbiage) but noticeably short on any game-changing commitments or proposals. The non-appearance of leaders from the U.S., Russia and other major powers (save Angela Merkel), as well as the withdrawal of Doctors without Borders, let attendees know that not much could or would be accomplished. The refugee and migration issues were punted to an upcoming September summit to be held during the UN General Assembly.

The follow up global multilateral response to this crisis came in two September summits: one, UN; one US.  The fact that were two summits rather than one was indicative of a problem.

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At President Obama’s Summit on Sept 20, states and US corporations made valuable pledges to provide concrete assistance to refugees with $3 billion in funding, a doubling of resettlement assistance, and an increase in access to education for 1 million children.  Valuable as this was, it will not scale up to the manifest unmet needs of the world’s 21.3 million refugees and asylum seekers.

The day before, on Sept 19, the General Assembly affirmed an Outcome Document – the New York Declaration — that stood foursquare behind the 1951 Refugee Convention and defended the key principles of asylum for refugees — principles that have come under assault around the world – and they reiterated a commitment made in the SDGs to make migration “safe, orderly and regular.”

But the largest significance of the UN summit is arguably the promises made to do better by 2018 when the multilateral system has promised that it will produce two global compacts – one for refugees on responsibility sharing and one for migration. The New York Declaration called upon UNHCR to draft the Compact on Refugees, which could usher in a new, more comprehensive approach for responding to refugee emergencies and protracted situations. Crucial to that effort will be a stepped up role for development agencies and the World Bank to implement programs that promote refugee self-reliance and provide assistance to communities hosting large numbers of displaced persons.

Responsibility sharing was a central commitment in the New York Declaration on refugees and migrants (14 Sep 2016, Annex 1; para 1).  It also is a key commitment in the preamble to the landmark 1951 Refugee Convention.  Countries of first refuge are promised that their providing refuge will be met by international cooperation to share costs and provide resettlement.  Yet, just as the 1951 Convention failed to define what it meant; so too the New York Declaration is long on principles; and short on specific commitments.

Today, therefore, responsibility sharing, as Peter Sutherland[2] has so aptly characterized it, and as described above, is “Responsibility by Proximity.”  Neighboring countries such as Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan overwhelmingly serve as the refuge for Syrians who have managed to flee its devastating civil war. This means that globally the developing world, home to so many of the world’s armed conflicts, also serves as the refuge for 86% of the world’s refugees … and it does so without adequate international funding (40% of the UNHCR appeal for the region).

Asylum and a guarantee that refugees will not be expelled to countries in which they will be subject to renewed persecution is vital. But the first border crossed cannot be the exclusive principle of responsibility. We need genuine responsibility: responsibility by culpability and responsibility by capability.

First, culpability.

We should hold the perpetrators liable. [3] The Syrian Government and terrorist groups such as Daesh and al Nusra are victimizing the people of Syria. Salva Kir and Riek Machar in South Sudan allowed a personal battle to displace more than a million citizens, sending several hundred thousand refugees to neighboring states.

Some of this conduct may qualify for referral to the International Criminal Court, but in the interim, the UN Security Council would be justified in seizing the overseas financial assets of the Syrian state and any terrorist group with seizable assets and using them to pay for the maintenance of refugees on the Syrian border. No one should underestimate how politically difficult this will be to apply in many crises, including for Syria. But this may be an effective tool in dealing with crises created by perpetrators without super-power patrons.

Second, capability.

In an ideal world of solidarity and integration, we could apply the EU formula to the 40 richest countries, and determine each country’s share of the global responsibility to protect refugees. The EU criteria—population, GDP, unemployment, and past refugee loads—are appropriate criteria in determining each country’s responsibility. (Adjustments can be made to ensure that the outsized populations of China and India do not produce outsized responsibility.) Such a system could result in a broader and fairer distribution of the responsibility of hosting refugees. For example, together with Steven Nam, a colleague in the Global Policy Initiative and professor of law at UC Davis, we have calculated that the U.S. share of the current 480,000 Syrian refugees that the UNHCR has identified as in need of resettlement would be 29,000 individuals. China would have a quota of 26,000 and Japan, 15,300. All completely manageable numbers.

But following its collapse in the EU, this plan will not happen globally.

Other more modest proposals, however, may be politically viable. One approach would be something closer to the current climate model embodied in the Paris Agreements. Under current practice, each year UNHCR identifies the number of refugees in dire need of resettlement needs, and about two dozen countries let UNHCR how many refugees they intend to resettle. This process needs to be formalized and expanded, perhaps by way of an agreement among states.  Countries of potential resettlement would commit to pledging the share of the identified need they will cover, choosing either to offer a visa that brings a refugee family for resettlement or a cash voucher that would cover a refugee family for say ten years in a country of first settlement. (In Jordan or Lebanon, a Syrian family needs approximately $7,500 per year.) As with climate targets, each country would set its own level responsibility. Its sole commitment would be to set a level of responsibility and then explain why it chose that level of responsibility each year in a summit before its peers, the UN’s member states. The driver here is peer pressure.

Another proposal—which has received discussion over the past year—is to identify pathways other than through the formal resettlement process for refugees to gain residence in third countries. Countries could make that family, labor and student visas more readily available to refugees, by waiving numerical limitations and other requirements under domestic law.

Capability can also be enhanced by mobilizing the private sector. At the Private Sector Summit on September 20, 2016, organized by a team from Columbia University and Concordia in cooperation with UNHCR, IOM, Karen AbuZayd, OSF and SADC, participants presented numerous actionable reforms to meet the needs of refugees and vulnerable migrants. Many of these would fulfill national responsibilities for refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Measures include:

1.) Private sponsorship of refugee resettlement as is now being championed by Canada. Private persons, religious groups and other civil society actors identify particular refugee families or kinds of recipients that they want to support for resettlement. This provides better outcomes for refugee integration, supplements the public budget, and improves local attitudes toward refugees.

2.) Connecting all refugees with cell phones and create internet platforms that can help empower them to better protect themselves and identify opportunities for livelihood, education and productivity.

3.) Engaging in refugee matching and job matching. Municipalities can identify the number of immigrants they want and the skills they are looking for and refugees can list their preferences for the kinds of communities in which they want to live (where they might have relatives etc.). A sophisticated algorithm can match the preferences and much improve satisfaction all around.

4.) Lastly, private investment supported by risk sharing can address problems created in countries of first asylum by providing entrepreneurship and employment for both refugees and locals.[4]

All of these proposals seek to remedy a shortcoming in the 1951 Convention: the lack of binding commitments for responsibility-sharing. Over the past 65 years, the world has from time to time relied upon ad hoc arrangements to meet dramatic challenges—such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action which resettled more than 1 million Vietnamese in the 1980s and 90s. But the time is long overdue for the international community to establish a formal system for collective action.

This might take the form of a global platform that includes humanitarian and development actors, the private sector, and civil society, backed by substantial stand-by funding from donor states, the World Bank and foundations. The central task would be to provide incentives for comprehensive planning and implementation and to establish action groups of states committed to solving protracted refugee situations. (The latter task, inexplicably, has not yet been taken up by states or UN agencies in dealing with the Syrian crisis.)

The platform might take on additional functions as well. It could create an impartial research organization, on the model of the International Panel on Climate Change, with the credibility to assess the effects of migration flows and recommend well-supported measures to protect refugees and promote orderly migration. It could also sponsor an international “clearinghouse” that could match the needs of refugees and humanitarian organizations with innovators and entrepreneurs interested in helping but having no avenue for putting good ideas into practice.

Thus a message: If refugees and vulnerable migrants are to recover lives of dignity, self reliance, and productivity; if the communities that host them are going to thrive, then new models of operation to share responsibility, provide assistance and empower refugees and the communities that shelter them must be found.

Michael W. Doyle is the director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative, and University Professor at Columbia University. Alex Aleinikoff is the Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School and former Huo Global Policy Fellow at Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative.

[1] We thank Emma Borgnas and Kelsey Clark of Columbia University and Tomoharu Nishino and Frank Plantan of the University of Pennsylvania International Relations Program for their helpful suggestions.
[2]  United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Migration and Development
[3] Guy Goodwin-Gill and Selim Sazak, “Footing the Bill: Refugee Creating States’ Responsibility to Pay,” ForeignAffairs, July 29, 2015.
[4]  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, “Jordan’s Refugee Experiment: A New Model for Helping the Displaced,” Foreign Affairs, April 28, 2016.
Header image ©️ European Union 2016 – European Parliament

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