The World's Refugee System Needs to be Made Responsible

June 20, 2021

Italian navy rescues asylum seekers in the Mediterranean off the coast of Africa, June 2014.
CREDIT: Massimo Sestini/Polaris (CC).

The world has become less welcoming to refugees. Today, we are faced with an unfair and ultimately unsustainable refugee system that simultaneously increases human suffering while unfairly placing the burden of hosting refugees on poorer nations. The sad reality is that unilateral and voluntary obligations of individual states and actors have proven ineffective in addressing the global refugee crisis.

In addition to a number of systemic issues, the refugee crisis has also been exacerbated by certain political factions and members of the media, who aim to label refugees as burdens to society. In the U.S., Senator Tom Cotton has claimed that an increasing influx of refugees would put American jobs at risk and last year former President Donald Trump passed an Executive Order granting state governors a right to refuse refugees. Both Senator Cotton and former President Trump failed to realize the economic benefit of refugees. However, Mayor Robert Palmieri of Utica, New York, nicknamed "the town that loves refugees," has emerged as an advocate for the economic power of refugees in municipalities.

This World Refugee Day, it is time to get to work on behalf of the over 26 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. To begin, we need to address the current imbalance between wealthy and poorer countries by aiming for a more equitable distribution of refugee protection.

So how can we achieve a refugee system that shares the responsibility for refugees equitably? What will it look like? To start, we need to make sure that "proximity" does not remain the almost exclusive principle of refugee protection. It is time to add "culpability" and "capability" in order to ensure equitable responsibility-sharing.

First, responsibility by proximity misconstrues the definition of responsibility-sharing, as Peter Sutherland, the former United Nations (UN) Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Migration and Development, warned. For instance, Syria's neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—overwhelmingly serve as the places of refuge for Syrians fleeing the devastating civil war. Globally, the developing world—both relatively poor and home to so many of the world’s armed conflicts—hosts 86 percent of the world’s refugees, without adequate international funding (in 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] reported a funding gap of 51 percent). All states need to accept additional responsibilities, in particular to uphold the fundamental guarantee that refugees will not be expelled to territories in which they will be subject to persecution—but that burden should not simply fall on those nearest to the crisis.

Second, culpable perpetrators should pay for compensation. There is persuasive evidence that government officials (and associates) of home countries have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and violated international human rights by causing a subset of their people to flee to another state. In the case of Syria, this was even confirmed in a verdict of the Higher Regional Court of Koblenz (Germany). Another notable complaint was filed in Paris in March 2021, directly targeting high-level members of the Syrian government, including Bashar al-Assad himself.

Consequently, the culpable governments should compensate those who have been harmed. Indeed, there are clear precedents in international law speaking in favor of financial compensation for refugees. But how does one extract financial compensation from a civil war-torn home country? In other words, how could one legally acquire the money from Bashar al-Assad, his family, and his associates to help pay for Syrian refugees? We have identified four mechanisms to access the assets of perpetrators: i) freezing of assets through Security Council Sanctions; ii) taking action in domestic legal systems (based on the mentioned example of Germany), as well as freezing and distributing funds abroad (see e.g. the U.S. Magnitsky Act, and proposals from advocates in Canada); iii) acting at the European Union (EU) level under the human rights sanctions regime adopted in December 2020; and iv) concluding tripartite agreements, as between Switzerland, Nigeria, and the World Bank.

Third, responsibility by capability rests on the idea that the world's richest economies are capable of making a significant impact on reducing the number of refugees worldwide—and they have a moral obligation to do so. The preamble to the 1951 Refugee Convention includes a commitment to international "cooperation," irrespective of fault. To find an equitable measure, the Model International Mobility Convention (MIMC) has calculated an ambitious yet modest system for redistribution based on four criteria—population, GDP, unemployment, and past refugee loads. The MIMC model relies on voluntary agreements by states, which is politically feasible. Just like with carbon emissions, each state will set its own level of responsibility. Moreover, MIMC grants states a choice between funding and resettlement.

There is clearly a viable option to restore dignity for many refugees. What is needed is not only political will, but political action. UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said his challenge to the international community was to "put him out of a job." This was a rallying call to address the root causes of conflicts in war, climate change, and generalized violence. In the meantime, we must support the millions who have fled conflict.

Michael Doyle is a University Professor at Columbia University and Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, directing the Model International Mobility Convention initiative.

Janine Prantl is an LL.M. candidate at Columbia Law School and doctoral candidate at the Department of European and Public International Law at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Mark James Wood is a Research Fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, working on the Model International Mobility Convention.

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