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We Must Redefine Vulnerability in the 2018 Refugee Compact

With the U.N. refugee summit ending with no measurable commitments, political economy professor Behzad Yaghmaian breaks down the global compacts on refugees and regular migration – the main goals of the 2018 meeting – into a plan he says can be achieved in two years.

Written by Behzad Yaghmaian Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
An Afghan girl counts the numbers on a wall during a lesson at a refugee camp in the western Athens suburb of Schisto. Most of the roughly 60,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece face “immense and avoidable suffering,” according to rights group Amnesty International.AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

Despite being a highly anticipated meeting, the U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants ended with a vague public declaration, a list of lofty commitments by participating states and a plan for another intergovernmental meeting in two years’ time. There were no measurable or concrete plans of action.

To start paving the road leading to 2018, work on the global compacts proposed for that meeting must remain focused on a small list of tangible, concrete and achievable commitments.

The 2018 conference is tasked with finalizing a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration, as well as a compact on refugees. The compact on refugees will be an international agreement about resettlement, shared responsibility between states, finance and other matters of refugee protection.

The first part of my op-ed focuses on the global compact on refugees by spelling out the principal components that should set the agenda of the 2018 gathering.

Formulating the Global Compact on Refugees

Years of conflict, authoritarian rule and an epidemic of failed and failing states have resulted in unprecedented humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Africa. Crisis at home and tight border controls set by reluctant receiving states have resulted in a pervasive protection gap for millions of displaced people around the world.

First, we must redefine vulnerability and protection needs.

Closing the protection gap remains a daunting task. Among other things, it requires designing a new protection regime capable of addressing the complexities and nuances of international migration in the 21st century. The new regime should redefine vulnerability and find practical protection for those escaping humanitarian crises around the world.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa served as useful instruments for saving lives and protecting the unprotected. They are, however, no longer adequate for dealing with the subtler but no less desperate forms of global population movements.

By creating a coerced separation between refugees and all other migrants, the 1951 Refugee Convention excluded from international protection anyone who could not demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The current migration crisis is partly a reflection of the inadequacies of the 1951 Convention in providing protection for millions of migrants who do not qualify as refugees but need protection nonetheless.

The lack of a broader and more inclusive definition of vulnerability and protection needs has resulted in arbitrary and often misleading impressions of displaced populations among various stakeholders.

Afghan migrants warm themselves at a fire inside a makeshift migrant camp near Calais, France, on Oct. 12, 2016. (AP/Thibault Camus)

Afghan migrants warm themselves at a fire inside a makeshift migrant camp near Calais, France, on Oct. 12, 2016. (AP/Thibault Camus)

For example, the continuing violence in Afghanistan, and the growing rivalry between the government in Kabul, the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State are producing a rising tide of displacement. Meanwhile Iran and Pakistan, the main host countries for displaced Afghans, are increasingly unreceptive. The newly displaced Afghans are joining others in search of protection in Europe. But while most of those escaping the civil war in Syria are received with sympathy by many states, Afghans are denied protection. A recent deal reached between the E.U. and the government of Afghanistan will result in the deportation of an unlimited number of Afghan refugees, including women, children and unaccompanied minors.

To avoid such limiting policies, the Global Compact on Refugees should design a new mapping of vulnerabilities based on the current realities of global population movements.

The new definition and ranking of vulnerabilities would serve as the basis for an alternative and broadened protection regime. While this does not undo the definition of refugees and the protection provided to them by the 1951 Refugee Convention, it will grant nonrefugee protection to a diverse and growing population of people escaping a myriad of humanitarian crises.

Second, we must set up a global quota system.

Proximity to leading conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia has made Europe the preferred destination for those seeking safety and better lives. It is an accident of geography.

Physical distance from migration-producing zones should not be enough to justify abandoning one’s international obligations. A new protection regime would require an equitable resettlement of vulnerable migrants among U.N. member states based on their population sizes, their labor markets and their wealth and income.

The Global Compact on Refugees would need to make every effort to design a global quota system that relieves the pressure on Europe and states neighboring major conflicts in the world.

Resettlement also requires opening foreign embassies in the neighboring states that have become de facto refugee camps. Applications for protection would need to be reviewed on the basis of the new ranking of vulnerabilities. But using embassies abroad should not lead to excluding from protection people who arrived in the countries on their own.

Setting up such a resettlement policy would reduce the need for migrants to risk their lives by traveling along hazardous land and sea routes. It would also severely weaken the smuggling industry by cutting the demand for its services. There would then be no need to launch military operations in the sea against human smugglers or traffickers.

Finally, we must facilitate the growth of “refugee economies” in countries close to conflict.

More than 80 percent of the world’s refugees currently live in urban areas in a handful of countries neighboring major conflicts. Millions live in dire conditions, rely on handouts from international donors and are prone to abuse. Few have any reasonable prospect of returning home in the foreseeable future. Wherever they are, the refugees are a part of the society, albeit existing on its margins.

Enhancing and facilitating refugees’ individual economies and developing their local communities will be a gain for the refugee families, the host state and the donors. Failure in this area is a primary reason for these men, women and children to risk their lives in pursuit of stability.

The right to work and engage in labor-market activities is central to enhancing refugee economies. Legalizing work for refugees may face opposition from citizens in host countries, who are also facing high unemployment. Such opposition can be tempered by promoting job-creating activities among communities that have significant numbers of refugees. For instance, helping refugees to set up small businesses, and to buy and sell, will create jobs and income for the host community.

Ultimately, increasing refugees’ participation in small-scale production and trade requires international financial assistance. Microlending, direct and sustained monthly cash payments modeled after the Basic Income Approach and other innovative practices can help refugee families achieve financial independence.
But tangible results will require actual financial commitments from other countries in the region and the world, based on their wealth and income levels. The Global Compact on Refugees should make every effort to replace promises with actual sustained payments.

The second part of this op-ed will focus on the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and how it can be achieved.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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