Human Rights Day, held on On 10 December every year, honors the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document which details the rights that all human beings, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or religion, are entitled to. The following excerpt from Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World takes a look at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency tasked with protecting the human rights of stateless people throughout the world.
Refugee protection is a global public good: all countries benefit to some degree from the human rights and security outcomes it yields, irrespective of whether they contribute. As with all public goods – like street lighting at the domestic level – free- riding and under- provision are inevitable unless some kind of centralized institution creates rules for effective cooperation. Yet existing institutions offer insufficient mechanisms to ensure adequate overall provision. The cooperation problem in the refugee regime can be thought of as what game theorists would describe as a ‘suasion game’: one in which weaker players are left with little choice but to cooperate and stronger players are left with little incentive to cooperate.
This explains in part why fewer than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees get access to resettlement in third countries beyond their region of origin. It explains why UNHCR’s assistance programmes around the world are chronically under- funded. It explains why distant countries in the global North, who take a relatively tiny proportion of the world’s refugees, constantly compete with one another in a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of asylum standards in order to encourage refugees to choose another country’s territory rather than their own.
In the absence of clear rules, attempts by UNHCR to overcome this collective action failure have had to be ad hoc and episodic. The organization relies upon annual voluntary contributions for almost all of its budget, rather than having access to assessed, multi- year funding contributions. This makes it easy for governments to change their priorities but difficult for UNHCR to plan. Meanwhile, in order to address long- standing or large- scale refugee crises, it has relied upon the UN Secretary- General convening international conferences such as the International Conferences on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA I and II) of 1981 and 1984, the International Conferences on Indochinese Refugees of 1979 and 1989, and the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) of 1989, intended to generate reciprocal governmental commitments for a particular crisis.
To take an example, after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Indochinese ‘boat people’ crossed territorial waters from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia towards South- East Asian host states such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the host states, facing an influx, pushed many of the boats back into the water and people drowned. Like today, there was a public response to images of people drowning on television and in newspapers, but addressing the issue took political leadership and large- scale international cooperation. In 1989, under UNHCR leadership, a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) was agreed for Indochinese refugees. It was based on an international agreement for sharing responsibility. The receiving countries in South- East Asia agreed to keep their borders open, engage in search- and- rescue operations, and provide reception to the boat people.
However, they did so based on two sets of commitments from other states. First, a coalition of governments – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the European states – committed to resettle all those who were judged to be refugees. Second, alternative and humane solutions, including return and alternative, legal, immigration channels were found for those who were not refugees in need of international protection. The plan led to over 2 million people being resettled and the most immediate humanitarian challenge was addressed, partly because of the political will generated at the end of the Cold War and partly because of exceptional leadership by UNHCR.
As the Indochinese example highlights, these ad hoc initiatives have sometimes succeeded when they have been accompanied by decisive leadership and a clear framework for collective action, and have met the interests of states. But such initiatives have been rare and their very existence is indicative of a broader structural weakness in the refugee regime: the absence of norms for responsibility- sharing.
In the twenty- first century, increasing opportunities for mobility and migration have further complicated the question of ‘Where to protect?’ Rather than waiting passively for governments to decide where protection should be provided, more and more refugees have been making this decision for themselves. ‘Spontaneous arrival asylum’ – including moving directly onwards to more distant countries in the North by using the service of human smugglers – has become the primary means by which refugees are redistributed beyond their ‘regions of origin’.
In response, those receiving countries in the developed world have created a range of new practices relating to where refugees should receive protection. Most of these have had in common the aim of reasserting, by fiat or coercion, the idea that refugees should have received protection nearer to home rather than embarking on independent journeys. One such example is the advent of the ‘safe third country’ concept – the idea that refugees should seek asylum and remain in the first safe country they reach and if they have passed through such a country they can be subject to removal. Another example is the idea of ‘outsourcing’, with countries seeking bilateral agreements in which they pay another country to admit spontaneous- arrival asylum- seekers and process their claims. Australia’s bilateral agreement with Nauru is perhaps the most infamous example. These techniques may well offer a convenient means to contain refugee populations but they are neither supportive of refugee protection nor sustainable.