Refugee reform must become a global project

When I think of the broken state of the world’s refugee system, I readily recall the resigned words of Aisha, a refugee from Sudan’s troubled South Kordofan state. I met Aisha, along with her two young children, during an Amnesty International research mission in May 2015. All three of them had languished in exceptionally difficult conditions in a refugee camp in an isolated corner of war-torn South Sudan for nearly three years at the time.

Aisha’s journey out of South Kordofan had been perilous and dangerous. The situation she faced in the burgeoning Yida Refugee Camp was tense, with occasional security concerns and constant pressure from UN agencies to move to a different camp location. Armed conflict in South Sudan, which had erupted in late 2013, had become particularly intense in Unity State (where the camp was located) and drew closer with every passing month.

We spoke of her options. Returning to South Kordofan was impossible, with indiscriminate aerial bombardment continuing unabated, and Sudanese forces having cut off opposition-controlled areas from UN and humanitarian assistance. Yet the situation in South Sudan, whether she stayed at Yida or agreed to move, was also volatile and distressing.

Inevitably our discussion turned to the possibility of seeking safety further afield. That would have been a daunting prospect for a woman travelling alone with two young children in any circumstances. But our conversation did not even go that far—it was clear to Aisha that there were no further options that would bring her greater safety. “There is nowhere to go,” she said to me. “I know that other governments would prefer that we stay in this dangerous situation rather than try to find somewhere safer.” And no doubt about it, Aisha was right.

Aisha’s feeling of pointlessness is also reflected in the staggering Syrian refugee crisis. It resonates with the harrowing tales of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar desperately seeking safety in Southeast Asia.  Essentially, Aisha’s despondence speaks to the impossible choices refugees face the world over.

Amnesty International (All rights reserved)

Refugees from Sudan’s South Kordofan State at Yida Refugee Camp, South Sudan.

While wars and grave abuses rage on, return home is impossible. Conditions in overcrowded, underfunded, insecure refugee camps, frequently in remote and desolate locations, are grim and full of despair. So the choices come down to accepting that reality, pinning hopes on the infinitesimal possibility of being one of the exceptional few who are chosen for UNHCR-arranged resettlement, or setting off on the perilous journeys across deserts, through mountains or across seas, in search of greater safety and a brighter future—journeys that have claimed the lives of thousands of refugees in recent years.

Surely that is not the vision that inspired governments when they came together to draft and adopt the UN’s Refugee Convention back in 1951. But it is undeniably where we stand in 2016.

And thus the need for reform.

Reform does not necessitate dumping or rewriting the refugee protection treaties and laws that already exist. While improvement and strengthening is certainly possible, those international obligations are relatively strong and clear in stating who is a refugee and the rights that flow from that status.

The more pressing reform needed now is new understandings and commitments among governments with respect to how states will share the responsibility for protecting refugees in ways that are equitable, manageable and sustainable. Most crucially, of course, we need an approach that maximizes human rights protection.

We should reject the likely proposals to respond to current and emerging refugee crises by regionalizing refugee protection.

Key to a reform agenda is that a new approach to sharing the responsibility of protecting refugees must truly be global. James Hathaway makes this point explicitly in his article, and he is surely correct to caution us regarding regional solutions. We should reject the likely proposals to respond to current and emerging refugee crises by regionalizing refugee protection. Yet we know that, based on past history, governments will focus on regional solutions. Look to Australia’s Pacific Solution of warehousing refugees in grueling and inhuman detention centres on Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru. Witness the efforts underway to head off the continuing attempts of Syrian refugees to move into Europe and bolster frontline refugee protection in already over-extended Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

In that vein, imagine an eventual proposal to draw conflict-riven South Sudan, impoverished Chad, the war-torn Central African Republic, repressive Ethiopia and over-stretched Kenya (already home to Dadaab, long the world’s largest refugee camp) into a regional arrangement if the flow of refugees out of Sudan were to accelerate.

Regional approaches have always been motivated by an overarching determination, led by governments with the financial resources and enforcement muscle to make it happen, to keep refugees confined as close to home as possible—regardless of the hardship and even danger for the refugee population, or the strain and volatility for neighbouring states. It is an approach that at best barely keeps a lid on a refugee crisis, at far too high a human rights cost.  

Regional approaches also fundamentally ignore the fact that refugee protection is a shared, global responsibility. In fact, in its opening words the Refugee Convention stresses the fundamental importance of international co-operation. That was obvious to governments 65 years ago and remains so today, with very good reason.

Refugee flows represent a breakdown in universal human rights protection and thus merit a universal human rights response. This breakdown often arises from a complicated web of national, regional and international political, economic, security and other forces that are by no means confined only to neighbouring states. A wide array of states is inevitably implicated in the wars and human rights violations that provoke refugee crises, which means they must be part of the response and solutions to those crises.

There will be much debate about—and competing proposals for—reforming international refugee protection at the upcoming, first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, set for Turkey in June 2016.  What emerges must work towards a more equitable and sustainable system. It must be strongly grounded in international refugee law and human rights obligations. And it must acknowledge that all world states must work together, predictably and consistently sharing the responsibility of protecting refugees in ways that go beyond writing cheques and keeping refugees at bay.

The goal should be to assure Aisha that there is indeed somewhere to go, be it across the border in South Sudan, a bit further afield in Uganda or even halfway around the world in Canada—somewhere to go that is fair and equitable to states and offers real safety to refugees.