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Time to reform the international refugee regime

Europe is currently scrambling to cope with the arrival of over one million asylum seekers. Responses have ranged from building walls to opening doors. European Union countries have varied widely in their offers to resettle refugees and real concerns have been raised about the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. Not much thought has yet been given to the longer-term challenges of integration.

Overall Europe is on an emergency footing when it doesn’t need to be. Just as many people were displaced across Europe during the mid-1990s from the Balkans. Other countries – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey – are hosting far larger numbers of refugees. Europe has a population of over 500 million people and the EU is the world’s wealthiest single economy. And Europe needs workers to plug the demographic gap and ensure future prosperity.

While the current European response may work in the short term, it is unlikely to achieve the desired long term goals of reducing asylum flows, managing migration to Europe’s benefit, and properly assisting and protecting those in need. This is because Europe is responding to the symptom not the cause of the current crisis, and the cause is a failing international refugee regime.

The cornerstone of the international refugee regime is the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Some commentators argue that the Convention is so dated as to no longer apply to the current realities of those in need of international protection; it was drafted in the specific historical and geographical context of post-World War Two Europe. In my view the Convention should remain. Revising it may jeopardize the rights, principles and standards it enshrines. In the current political climate, states would likely be more inclined to negotiate a more restrictive Convention. It would take decades to ratify any new Convention as completely as the current version.

Europe is responding to the symptom not the cause of the current crisis, and the cause is a failing international refugee regime.

But where reform is required is in how the Convention is implemented. Its implementation is failing states, and refugees.

One of the main concerns about the 1951 Convention from the point of view of states is the obligation it places on them to consider any application for asylum on their territory. Yet there is no censure on states from which refugees are fleeing, and no obligations on them concerning the return of refugees. What is more, an increasing proportion of asylum seekers are not actually refugees. This is because more and more people are on the move for a variety of reasons, and asylum provides one of the only legally-guaranteed channels to access richer countries.

One implication is that states are spending far more resources on processing perhaps one million asylum applications each year, than they contribute to supporting the tens of millions of refugees worldwide; their number is the highest for at least 25 years. Another implication is that conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in poorer countries are deteriorating, and an unintended consequence has been the growth in people smuggling, which in turn exposes asylum seekers and refugees to risk and vulnerability. It is estimated that at least 2,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year trying to reach Europe.

The international refugee regime is not fit for purpose in the 21st century and needs to be reformed.

What might a reformed system look like? First and foremost, it must guarantee the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. Second, it should strive for accountability and impose sanctions on states that cause displacement. Third it should seek to reduce the need for long-distance asylum seeking. A more systematic response to protecting and assisting people displaced within their own countries would be one way to anchor them close to them. Better regional protection mechanisms should also reduce the incentive to pay smugglers to travel distantly. Fourth, a renewed international protection system should reduce the asylum burden on destination systems, by conceiving a form of burden sharing, streamlining criteria for refugee status determination, and implementing robust offshore and transit processing.

All of this is controversial, and none of it is easy. It would necessitate closer collaboration between the international refugee regime and other international regimes, for example governing peace and security, development, and climate change. It would have funding implications. It would also almost certainly entail a review of current institutional responsibilities.

But the time has come at least to launch a thorough review of the current regime. Europe’s refugee crisis also presents an opportunity to make a sustainable difference, in the interest of states and refugees.

Featured image credit: Crowded refugee boat on Lake Tanganyika by © Guenter Guni, via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. […] might also be interested in this article on the OUPblog by the JRS’s Editor Khalid Koser, which was published to coincide with the […]

  2. Thomas Volmert

    “Europe is currently scrambling to cope with the arrival of over one million asylum seekers.”
    Europe? Are Poland, Hungary or Great Britain European countries? How many “asylum seekers” have “arrived” there? Ergo: These countries do (should) not belong to Europe (anymore) …
    But seriously: Mr Koser is right. But where is the institution, which is able to implement the four postulations? The UN have been sytematically weakened by some of its most important members! The European Union has – in the eyes of most of its members – become a system for distributing subsidies and releasing nonsense regulations. The US (the Bush administration) have played the major role in causing the catastrophe in Irak and the Middle East.
    I hope that at least Chancellor Merkel keeps her word: “Wir schaffen das.”

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