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Scaling the UN Refugee Summit: A reading list

The United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants will be held on 19 September 2016 at the UNHQ in New York. The high-level meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants is expected to endorse an Outcome Document that commits states to negotiating a ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework’ and separately a ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,’ for adoption in 2018.

Albeit implicitly, the Outcome Document acknowledges that the international protection regime is faltering. On one hand it reaffirms the centrality of the legal and normative framework that underpins the regime. On the other, it acknowledges that not enough has been done to reduce the need for people to flee in the first place, that many fall into the hands of people smugglers, that responsibility for protecting and assisting refugees is not being shared fairly, that too many refugees spend too long in camps, that they often face discrimination in the countries where they arrive; and that overall the protection regime is chronically underfunded.

The document also lays the foundations for significant reform. It recognizes that the distinction between migrants and refugees may not be as clear today as it once was. It envisages better protection for refugees closer to their homes. It links the protection regime with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it is explicit about the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and civil society, and acknowledges the need for more effective global governance on migration and refugees.

While the Outcome Document refers to periodic assessments to maintain momentum towards 2018, the risk will be that some states will retreat from some of the commitments made. What will be required quickly is realistic options based on credible research to help states scale the refugee summit.

This reading list is comprised of articles from Journal of Refugee Studies that may help inform changes to some of the most fundamental failings of the international protection regime.

Focus on the Forest, Not the Trees: A Changepoint Model of Forced Displacement by Justin Schon in Journal of Refugee Studies.

A criticism that is often levelled at the international protection regime is that it is reactive: it offers protection and assistance to people who have fled their countries, but does little to reduce the need to flee in the first place. Part of the reason why it has proved so difficult to address the root causes of displacement is that there is not enough research understanding the decision whether or not to flee. Justin Schon analyses data on daily violence levels in Somalia, to understand when and how violence results in displacement. Besides illustrating that the relationship between violence and displacement is by no means linear or causal, he also emphasizes the importance of understanding structural aspects of conflict, including its geographical scope. He concludes that we now have the data and methodology to zoom in on the details of conflict, to understand when it results in displacement, and to try to break this vicious cycle.

Refugee Health and Wellbeing: Differences between Urban and Camp-Based Environments in Sub-Saharan Africa by Thomas M. Crea, Rocío Calvo, and Maryanne Loughry in Journal of Refugee Studies.

Despite recent attention to Europe’s refugee crisis, about 85% of the world’s refugees live in poor and developing countries. Without underestimating the efforts of national governments or the international community, conditions for many of these refugees are deteriorating, especially in refugee camps, and as a result more are moving to urban areas. This article uses health as a lens on the wellbeing of refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa. On the one hand it demonstrates that refugees in urban environments report significantly higher satisfaction with health than refugees placed in camps. On the other it concludes that whether in cities or camps, the physical health of refugees is generally poor. The specific challenge for the international protection regime is to improve conditions in refugee camps, or promote new non-camp based solutions. The general challenge is a chronic lack of funding to facilitate such innovation.

Searching for Directions: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges in Researching Refugee Journeys by Gadi BenEzer and Roger Zetter in Journal of Refugee Studies.

At least in part as a result of poor conditions, increasing numbers of refugees leave the countries where they first arrive after fleeing their homes, and undertake the often perilous journey towards richer countries. An inability to protect and assist people in their regions is a major weakness of the current international protection regime, which is benefiting people smugglers who capitalize on the desire to move onwards. Here, the authors provide a conceptual and methodological framework for understanding the refugee journey; a fundamental first step to inform policy interventions to address the causes of onward movement, protect and assist refugees on the move, and ameliorate the often traumatic effects of the journey.

Stuck in Transit: Secondary Migration of Asylum Seekers in Europe, National Differences, and the Dublin Regulation by Jan-Paul Brekke and Grete Brochmann in Journal of Refugee Studies.

Another criticism of the international protection regime is its failure to achieve responsibility-sharing between states – this is an important goal for the ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.’ This article illustrates the problem, demonstrating how even within the European Union with its harmonized asylum and migration systems, asylum seekers move between countries. National differences in reception systems, welfare policies, and labour market opportunities are found to be the main motivations for secondary migration.

Riotous Refugees or Systemic Injustice? A Sociological Examination of Riots in Australian Immigration Detention Centres by Lucy Fiske in Journal of Refugee Studies.

In the absence of any formal mechanism for responsibility-sharing, it is asylum seekers and people-smugglers who select their destinations. In response, it is often asserted that there may be a risk of a ‘race to the bottom’ among industrialized states seeking to deter asylum seekers, for example by detaining asylum seekers and limiting their access to welfare and the labour market. Particularly strong criticism has been levelled at the Australian government in recent years. This article draws on testimonies of refugees detained in Australian immigration detention centres where they either participated in or witnessed riots. It concludes that conditions in these centres, such as solitary confinement, the excessive use of force, and the daily regimen of detention, almost guarantees that riots will take place.

Introduction: Accountability and Redress for the Injustices of Displacement by Megan Bradley and Roger Duthie in Journal of Refugee Studies.

A particularly intractable problem for the international protection regime has been to find enduring solutions for refugees. None of the traditional durable solutions – voluntary repatriation, local integration, and third country resettlement – is no longer providing options at the appropriate scale. This Introduction to ‘Accountability and Redress for the Injustices of Displacement’ emphasizes that effective voluntary repatriation depends on establishing mechanisms to achieve transitional justice, address grievances, and provide reparations. Repatriation is not simply a technical exercise of moving people across a border back to their homes; it depends on fully integrating returning refugees into politics and society, and realizing their potential to contribute to post-conflict reconstruction.

Introduction: Understanding Global Refugee Policy by James Milner in Journal of Refugee Studies.

Short overviews of a small selection of articles published by the Journal of Refugee Studies illustrate the challenges that lie ahead for states to negotiate a meaningful ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework,’ from addressing root causes through to better protection and assistance within their regions to unlocking new solutions. Solid evidence widely disseminated is an important first step. But what happens next depends on negotiations within and between states, and at the level of the international community. James Milner helps lifts the veil on the rather opaque process of global refugee policy-making. It provides specific recommendations to ensure that the process is legitimate and transparent, to lead the international protection regime towards a meaningful response to one of the greatest contemporary global challenges.

Featured image credit: UN building USA by jensjunge. Public domain via Pixabay.

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