Contrary to what you might think given the amount of attention focused on Europe’s response to the surging number of refugees knocking on its door, this crisis isn’t primarily a problem facing Europe. More than three-quarters of the 4 million refugees from Syria’s civil conflict remain in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
The ensuing strain on these countries is hard to overstate. In Lebanon, for instance, one in four people is now a refugee, a proportion which would translate into 80 million refugees if we were talking about the United States.
Conflict and turmoil continue to drive people from their homes all over the world. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that today there are more than 18 million refugees worldwide, and over 38 million internally displaced persons, people who have fled their homes like refugees but who haven’t crossed international borders.
Syria is the urgent crisis of the moment, but there are a number of other countries and situations continuing to create a steady flow of refugees, including civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and South Sudan; the terrorist activities of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria; the long-running collapse of a functioning state in Somalia; and gross human rights abuses in Eritrea.
The international community is finding it hard to keep up with the need for humanitarian assistance. For the countries around Syria, the United Nations has requested more than $7 billion to respond to the crisis this year; so far it has only received 40 percent ($3 billion) of that total. This has meant that the World Food Program has cut rations to refugees, can give the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon just $13 per month for food, and may need to cut all assistance to refugees in Jordan.
The outlook will hopefully improve, with new pledges coming in from the European Union and Japan. But there is still an immense unmet need, which pushes refugees to move onwards to seek assistance.
How should the international community rethink its response to these movements? The 1951 Refugee Convention remains the cornerstone of refugee protection, offering legal protections to anyone who flees their country owing to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
This convention is primarily designed to protect people facing individualized persecution by their own state. It does not necessarily protect people who are fleeing persecution by non-state actors like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or those fleeing situations of generalized violence, common in the context of a civil war.
It is up to individual states to determine how to interpret and apply the convention’s persecution test to scenarios of generalized violence. One country might decide that anyone fleeing a given conflict in a neighboring country is a de facto refugee, while a third country might not agree that everyone leaving that conflict is individually targeted. In addition, countries have widely varying interpretations of more newly recognized forms of persecution, such as persecution for reasons of sexual orientation and from gender-based violence that clearly fall within the “social group” category. And UNHCR has also done what’s called “prima facie” recognition, recognizing groups as having refugee status without going through an individual status determination. But, once again, it is up to individual states to decide if they will follow it.
Fortunately, the Refugee Convention is not the only protection available to forced migrants. Regional law provides wider definitions for refugee status, such as the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention’s Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which includes all “events seriously disturbing public order” or the non-binding 1984 Central American Cartagena Declaration on Refugees which includes “generalized violence.”
The United Nations has also created a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to provide protections for refugees in their own states based on applicable international law. These also define those in need of protection more broadly than the Refugee Convention, such as people who have been forced or obliged to flee their homes due to “armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.” But these principles are not binding on states, though they have been introduced into regional law in Africa through the African Union’s Kampala Convention.
One of the recurring shortcomings of all the various protections international and humanitarian law offer refugees is the fact that refugees must usually make it to their protective haven—say, a European Union member state—before they can ask for this protection. That has been the major problem with a lot of the proposals to help the Syrian refugees. The European Union has committed to two emergency schemes to resettle 160,000 people; but these are refugees already within the EU. To qualify, then, people need to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, a trip that has already killed 3,100 people this year.
In principle, amending the Refugee Convention to better reflect today’s new forms of displacement would help ensure that all refugees, not just those covered by the convention, receive full rights. But there is little political support for amending the Convention. Worse, opening it up to negotiations might lead to a more restrictive, rather than a better, convention.
What we need instead is a better policy response, one that improves the global, coordinated response to refugee emergencies in three ways. First, those countries directly hosting refugees clearly need more humanitarian assistance. Such aid has risen to a new record—$24.5 billion in 2014—but that is insufficient to meet the need. Second, refugees should have access to safe regional screening and processing centers when such crises erupt. UNHCR has noted that such centers could be established under international law if they clearly reflect the international legal standards—including the U.N. Refugee Convention and the right of refugees to not be returned to a country where they would face persecution, termed non-refoulement– and have formal authorization from host nations. Such regional processing centers would have two benefits: Processing refugee claims could be centrally coordinated through an organization like UNHCR, and the process would deter refugees from having to undertake dangerous voyages, such as crossing the Mediterranean, in order to make their asylum claims.
But such a shift would only work with clear commitments for a new global resettlement scheme for refugees, and provisions for safe returns for those denied claims. Processing centers can only work if there is a clear onward route for those deemed to be legitimate refugees. Pledges have already been made by a number of countries, including the United States, to take 130,000 Syrian refugees.
There are historic precedents worth emulating. The Comprehensive Plan of Action, negotiated in 1989 in response to the Indochinese Boat People, successfully resettled more than 500,000 refugees over six years. UNHCR also negotiated a successful scheme following the Kosovo War in 1999, which resettled almost 100,000 refugees.
Sadly, we need to accept that the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons is not unlikely to go down anytime soon. Supplementing the fragmented legal framework for refugee protection with a clear and improved global policy is necessary. The refugee problem will remain acute for years to come. With courageous political leadership we can ensure that those who need protection will receive it—no matter whose door they initially knock on.