Introducing openGlobalRights’ newest debate: The future of refugee protection

What new approaches to meet a growing crisis? This week’s guest editor, David Petrasek, introduces openGlobalRights’ newest debate.

David Petrasek
29 February 2016

This week on openGlobalRights we are launching a new debate on the future of refugee protection. The UN says there are almost 15 million refugees in the world, the highest number since 1993. Continued instability in the Middle East and North Africa suggests this number will grow. The international regime governing the reception and treatment of refugees was put in place at the end of World War II. Does it remain ‘fit for purpose’?

The chaotic and tragic images of Syrians fleeing across the Aegean are repeated (though less reported on) on the other side of the world, as Rohingya refugees from Myanmar flee across the Indian Ocean. In both cases, and many more, states eschew orderly reception and resettlement plans for the refugees, and show little solidarity with first asylum countries.  How can states be convinced to co-operate to provide the protection all agree is necessary, rather than compete to impose ever-harsher barriers to entry?

There will be important UN conferences in 2016 where states will recommit to humanitarian principles and to international burden sharing. New ideas and innovative policy proposals are urgently needed to reinvigorate a truly global commitment to refugee protection.

Operated by UNHCR, the Zataari Refugee camp in Jordan houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees.

Operated by UNHCR, the Zataari Refugee camp in Jordan houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees.Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection (Some rights reserved)To kick off this discussion, we’re publishing today proposals for reform by Prof. James Hathaway, a leading scholar in the field. Hathaway argues reform can be done within the framework of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees (the “Refuge Convention”), the basic legal standard underpinning the current regime. He makes 5 proposals: reform must address the circumstances of all states, not just the powerful few (meaning you can’t just let the EU reform the regime to meet its present crisis); plan for, rather than simply react to, refugee movements; embrace common but differentiated state responsibility towards protecting and supporting refugees; shift away from national, and towards international, administration of refugee protection; and the protection offered should only be for the duration of risk, (not necessarily permanent immigration).

The first authors in this debate were all asked to consider and comment on one or more of these proposals. On Tuesday, we publish a piece by Alex Neve of Amnesty International endorsing the point that global solutions are needed, and pointing to the dangers of regional ‘reform’ efforts. On Wednesday, Tim Finch, a British refugee rights advocate, takes up the point on better planning, and offers his ideas on doing this in a way that would dramatically increase the resettlement of refuges from abroad, and decrease spontaneous arrivals. On Thursday, James Milner of Carleton University in Canada argues that Hathaway’s proposals on international administration of refugee protection won’t be welcomed by states, and he argues the way forward is to get refugee protection out of its ‘silo’ and better integrate it with development and peace building.

On Friday, Emily Fernandez, who leads a global refugee advocacy group, argues that whatever global reforms are offered, winning local support for refugees is crucial, and to do this we need to massively increase local NGO capacity to lobby on this issue, especially in the developing world. The following week, Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch will draw attention to the difficulty of getting states to support any greater international control of where refugees receive protection, and he doubts the viability of any effort to limit protection to the duration of the risk – as in most cases this persists for many years, and refugees have put down new roots. Also next week, Jean-Francois Durieux, who had a 30-year career at the UN’s refugee agency, will endorse a number of Hathaway’s points, including an enhanced role for UNHCR, but will warn against the temptation of expecting that supra-national administration will work. He puts forward his own ideas for enhancing international co-operation to more fairly distribute the responsibility for hosting and supporting refugees.         
Over the next weeks we will continue to publish pieces that consider the future of refugee protection, including by renowned scholar Upendra Baxi, and that examine the question of reform from ethical, sociological and other perspectives.


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