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New refugee compact will struggle to live up to lofty rhetoric

Some states are likely to be cast in the role as perpetual host, while others can basically buy their way out by being a distant supporter.

Photo: Flickr/Elisa Finocchiaro
Photo: Flickr/Elisa Finocchiaro
Published 28 Mar 2017 

The Lowy Institute recently held an expert workshop on the Global Compact on Refugees as part of its research collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This is the first in a series of posts from workshop participants.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees chose a language reserved for a most important historical occasion. The Declaration, he said:

marks a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance. It fills what has been a perennial gap in the international protection system – that of truly sharing responsibility for refugees.

The Declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September last year. It sets out principles to guide state responses towards migrants and refugees, accompanied by a framework for developing a compact among states for dealing with contemporary mass inflows of people.

The New York Declaration, as it has come to be known, reiterates core principles of international law relating to the rights of migrants and refugees and obligations of states towards them. Many UN members are already bound by legal instruments or political commitment to observe these laws and norms. The new test, therefore, lies in the nature of the Compact that is to be negotiated between now and 2018. Will it have concrete guidelines of 'unprecedented force'? Will it usher in a global system of 'truly sharing' responsibility for refugees?

A critical reading of the framework document adopted in New York reveals a different vision. This is not a blueprint for structural change that entails global, collective action to truly share responsibility for the world’s refugees. Rather, the signs are more of the same response to mass movements of refugees that we have seen during the past few decades.

The framework establishes a clear division of labour. Hosting states will provide first asylum, and supporting states will aid with resources to ensure protection and assistance. Much of the text in the framework is devoted to outlining what kind of economic and technical assistance supporting states should provide. From a hosting state perspective, such aid seems designed to finance and otherwise facilitate a protracted refugee presence on its territory. Some states are likely to be cast in the role as perpetual host, while others can basically buy their way out by being a distant supporter. The framework only briefly mentions the desirability of resettlement, alongside repatriation and local integration, as a durable solution.

The text’s pattern is reflected in  the present distribution of refugees.  Of the current 22.3 million refugees registered with UNHCR, about two-thirds are in the Middle East/North Africa and elsewhere in Africa. Last year, only 115,000 refugees were 'off-loaded' from the total refugee population to be resettled elsewhere.

This is not an exceptional pattern. For the past several decades, most of the world’s refugee population have been concentrated in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Some countries have been host for hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees for many years (Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Zaire, Tanzania, to mention only the most well known).

Only one case of truly large-scale resettlements from areas of first asylum has occurred in contemporary history. Approximately two million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were resettled, mostly in Western states, after 1975. An additional 620,000 were allowed to resettle directly from Vietnam to other countries under a separate program. The unusual Indochinese story owes a lot to the particular interest and driving force of the United States. Organising a global coalition to assist and resettle Indochinese refugees was thought to bring closure, of sorts, to the US role in the Vietnam war.

Other contemporary refugee crises have been met with ad hoc responses that allow long-term accumulation of refugees in countries proximate to the conflict. We see this in the present crisis-complex in the Middle East as well. Governments of prosperous countries further afield have pledge financial assistance and individual national resettlement numbers. There has been no agreement on a process of responsibility-sharing through resettlement that would reduce pressure on the region and provide a measure of certainty and predictability for states and refugees alike. Even the European Union could not agree on binding quotas for its member states.

So, why is it so important to have a relatively certain off-loading mechanism? Why has the idea of global responsibility-sharing through established processes and quotas for resettlement been around since the end of World War II?

Given the uncertainty of repatriation, and the difficulties of local integration in hosting states already providing first asylum, resettlement is a safety-valve in the refugee protection system. It is essential to help prevent large, protracted refugee situations that will breed resentment and radicalism, generate recruits for the conflict in the country of origin or related wars, spur further irregular migrations and cause massive human misery. Absent a reliable off-loading procedure, a humane and orderly system of protection and assistance in first asylum in areas proximate to the conflict will erode. Those affected will – like water – seek their own way out, be it by walking from the Middle East to Europe, or by getting on boats towards Australia.

International order and humanitarian values are thus joined in the argument for organised, large resettlement. At present, the resettlement refugees organised by UNHCR ('quota refugees') expresses the idea of global responsibility-sharing, but it exists in only a skeletal and highly imperfect form.

In the long run, it is obviously in the interest of all UN members to move from ad hoc crisis response to the development of stronger collective action mechanisms that can manage large, forced migrations in a manner consistent with international law and order.  Short term interests of a different kind, however, now seem to prevail in states that previously have been key supporters of an international refugee regime, including through generous intake of people fleeing violence.

With populism on the right and narrow nationalism on a forward march in the United States, Europe and Australia, what are the implications for supporting states and their populations? Keeping the focus on long-term interests by embracing a countervailing narrative of international order based on law, rights and collective action to address global issues is of fundamental importance. Meanwhile, generous resettlement quotas for more than a few thousand of the world’s 22 million plus refugees would help.

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