Monday, August 26, 2019

Refugee Resettlement: Humanitarian Governance vs the Politics of Refugee Protection

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By Jacob Thamarapally

The term ‘Refugee’ is one that is often misrepresented in political discourse. As per the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is a person fleeing armed conflict or persecution. The situation in this person’s country of origin is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries. These people have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group. As per this definition, there are currently more than 21.3 million refugees worldwide. Out of these, more than 1.4 million refugees need resettlement right now. These refugees still in need of resettlement mostly come from Syria. In fact, two-thirds of all refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.

Although all countries are obligated by the UNHCR to take in refugees seeking asylum, in reality, the distribution of refugees is highly skewed. The countries that host the most number of refugees are Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda. It is also interesting to note that 80 per cent of all refugees are hosted in developing regions, and a third of all refugees, i.e. 6.7 million people are hosted by the world’s poorest countries. Only 16 per cent of all refugees are settled in Europe. Once a refugee is resettled, the status provided by the resettlement state ensures protection against refoulment and provides a resettled refugee and his or her family with access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals.

The rights that refugees are entitled to today came about as a result of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Convention clearly spelt out who a refugee is, and what kind of legal protection and other assistance and social rights he or she should receive from the countries who have signed the document. Initially, it focused mainly on European countries, but the 1967 protocol expanded the scope of the Convention. As of July 2014, there were 145 parties to the Convention and 146 for the Protocol. It should be noted that several groups have built upon the 1951 Convention to create more objective definitions. For instance, the Cartagena Declaration was signed by 14 Latin American countries, which broadened the definition of who a refugee is.

The equal intake of refugees by different countries is an important part of the refugee resettlement and the resolution of the refugee problem. Common policy in the field of asylum, migration and borders should be based on solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility including its financial implications and closer practical co-operation among member states. According to Astri Suhrke, a researcher at Michelsen Institute, refugee protection has important public good characteristics. A public good is a good that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous; for instance, the air we breathe. She argues that the increased security that comes from refugee resettlement can be regarded as the principal (non-excludable and non-rival benefit), as accommodation of displaced persons can be expected to reduce the risk of them fuelling and spreading the conflict they are fleeing from. However, this makes it possible for free riding to occur; i.e., some countries might benefit from other countries taking in refugees, despite not taking in any themselves.

However, Suhrke has further expanded the scope of her model arguing that refugee protection provides a spectrum of outputs ranging from purely public to private or country-specific outputs. What is often regarded as a public good has, in fact, excludable (private) benefits to a country. “The joint product model” suggests that a country’s contributions to the provision of refugee protection (with its public and private characteristics) will be positively related to the proportion of excludable benefits occurring to that country. Thus, a market-based sharing mechanism needs to be explored further and that such market-driven policies when combined with policy harmonisation and quota-based initiatives are likely to contribute to a more equitable, efficient and effective refugee burden-sharing system.

However, with the rise of right-wing populism in many European countries, the unequal intake of refugees from these countries has been especially prominent. While local conflicts involving newly arrived refugees break out in European countries, many commentators jump to a declaration of an existential threat to Europe. This erases the fact that Europe has long been a secular continent and moreover, Europeans in the past have been one of the largest populations of economic migrants.

(Jacob Thamarapally was a Research Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author is personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research)

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