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This Age of Migration: We Need a New Political Deal

Any success at the World Humanitarian Summit will require participants to admit that international refugee law is in crisis and to embark on reform of current humanitarian systems, says humanitarian operations expert Paul Currion.

Written by Paul Currion Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A child sits behind plastic sheets covering tents during a rainfall as a boy waves in a makeshift camp at the northern Greek border post of Idomeni, Greece, on Tuesday, March 15, 2016.AP/Vadim Ghirda

This series is called “This Age of Migration” for a simple reason – 2015 figures show that more than 1 billion people on this planet are migrants, and more than 60 million of those have been forcibly displaced. The U.N. secretary-general says that responding to these population movements is “one of the leading challenges of our time,” and addressing this challenge is a key part of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) that he has convened this May.

The visibility of that challenge has been raised in part because of the enormous displacement suffered by the Syrian people. While the focus is frequently on the 4.8 million registered refugees – and counting – who have fled the country, there were still an estimated 6.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs) who remained stranded as of the end of 2015. Core responsibility three of the Report of the Secretary-General for the WHS is “Leave no one behind,” and it’s telling that the first priority listed is to “Reduce and address displacement.”

The report starts promisingly with a commitment to reduce the number of IDPs globally by 50 percent by 2030 – but then it moves to discussing refugees rather than IDPs, and that’s when the proposals become increasingly vague. This is extremely disappointing, considering that the WHS consultations – an unprecedented worldwide series of eight regional consultations involving more than 23,000 people and more than 400 written submissions – expressed a clear need for “a new international cooperation framework on predictable and equitable sharing of responsibility to respond to large-scale refugee movements.”

The “predictable and equitable sharing of responsibility” is an area in which the E.U. has singularly failed to deliver, with its member states taking an ad hoc and insular approach to immigration policy rather than sharing the burden. But we mustn’t convince ourselves that there was ever a golden age of refugee law. Like most international law, refugee law was kludged together on the back of whatever political will could be mustered in reaction to the crisis.

The trauma of World War II led directly to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (usually referred to simply as the refugee convention), “originally limited in scope to persons fleeing events occurring before 1 January 1951 and within Europe.” With the European empires weakened by World War II, a protracted period of decolonization began, accompanied by conflicts that generated new refugees. A 1967 protocol (and several regional agreements) extended the convention to cover these refugees.

In a previous op-ed, I wrote about how the refugee was created by the very process of empires being replaced by nation-states, and that international refugee law is therefore a footnote to the final chapter in the book of empires.

But this footnote became the first chapter in a new story, as refugee numbers increased during the Cold War to reach a peak in 1990–91. For many years UNHCR was one of the main protagonists of this story, tasked with “the function of providing international protection … and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees,” although paradoxically the agency was created before the convention.

UNHCR’s reputation declined during the 1990s, particularly following failures in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda. An independent evaluation of its 1999 Kosovo response concluded that its performance “was in some respects weaker than it needed to be by not optimally utilizing the resources which it did control, or could easily acquire.” That sounds relatively mild, but, in the diplomatic language of U.N. evaluations, it was harsh enough to destroy UNHCR’s reputation. UNHCR has slowly rebuilt that reputation in the past 15 years, and now enjoys wider support – although not sufficient funding.

The main responsibility for dealing with refugees remains with nation-states, but unfortunately some of those states are increasingly quick to question the continuing relevance of the convention. Ironically, such criticism usually comes from richer countries, rather than the poorer countries that host the largest proportion of refugees. Professor James Hathaway points out that this is “a strategy that appeals to states that would prefer to avoid their international duty to protect refugees.”

Yet even Hathaway agrees that international refugee law is itself in crisis, and it’s hard to argue with the legitimate concern that the entire edifice of refugee law built on the convention is outdated in the post-Cold War world. At the WHS Global Forum in June 2015 the most popular recommendation was “to reform U.N. agency mandates and roles,” but it’s widely felt that the WHS has missed an important opportunity to call for such internal reform.

Unsurprisingly, the most conservative group during the WHS consultations “appear[ed] to be senior-level aid officials from donor countries” – that is, representatives of the rich countries who would rather outsource their responsibilities. The U.N. general assembly will hold a summit on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants in September 2016, but nobody holds much hope that large-scale systemic reform is possible. The political will at this time doesn’t favour such comprehensive reform – at least not reform that would put the interests of the refugees first.

Yet these discussions should be high on the agenda in the age of migration, and it’s hard to see how we can avoid having them. The displacement crisis in and around Syria has exposed the fact that the institutions we’ve established to deal with population movements can no longer take their weight, and observation of the refugee convention itself appears to be breaking down – including the principle of non-refoulement, an innovation (which prevents the return of people who have been persecuted to their persecutors) that is unique to refugee law.

The WHS consultations were entirely right. We do need a new political compact based on the recognition that migration is not only inevitable but necessary for the health of the international community, and incorporating strategies for dealing with migration based on evidence rather than prejudice.

The question is, will the WHS itself deliver what we need?

This article is part of an ongoing series produced by Refugees Deeply.

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

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