By Guy S. Goodwin-Gill and Selim Can Sazak
The full text of this article was published in Foreign Affairs.
EXTRACT: Nearly a century has passed since the League of Nations appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees, and the international community’s treatment of such displaced persons has come a long way since. Millions have been displaced by conflict and persecution, but have also found protection in the form of refuge in another country or through the opportunity eventually to return safely to their own. This success, however, does not mean that the current system for handling refugees is sufficiently effective or accountable. That there are nearly 55 million forcibly displaced persons around the world is evidence enough of that. More than four million people have fled from the civil war in Syria, and nearly two million of them are now in Turkey.
In situations of mass displacement, the international community relies on individual states to shoulder the primary responsibilities of their care, and to extend hospitality to those who cannot risk remaining in their own countries. No state is obliged to help any other state that admits refugees. Hence, few, if any, provisions to assist nations that accept refugees and displaced persons are codified by law, leaving the costs of their safe harbor sit on a nation’s own balance sheets. As a result, their reception of refugees frequently comes at a great cost, and with few, if any, assurances about how long the displaced people will stay.
By definition, the refugee problem is an international one: Every state that admits refugees acts on behalf of the international community in defense of fundamental human rights principles. In turn, asylum states are entitled to expect the support of others, whether it is through financial, political, or material aid, or ideally, through more active efforts to mitigate the problems that create refugees in the first place. Tragically, such support is rare, and the cost of caring for refugees is disproportionately borne by those nations that are least able to afford it. Most refugee-hosting countries are in politically unstable regions like the Middle East and South Asia, and in neighborhoods mired in prolonged conflict, as in the case of Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Other states, particularly in the developed world, have externalized their responsibilities to the refugees, and have returned asylum seekers and other migrants to transit countries, other regions, or to their home country, irrespective of their claims to protection.
Turkey, for instance, has shouldered $6.5 billion in costs to host its Syrian refugees. The international community provides less than one-thirteenth of this sum. Turkey is by no means alone: Refugee-receiving countries from Jordan, to Kenya, and Lebanon face similar challenges. The World Bank had projected the Syrian refugee crisis will have cost Lebanon $7.5 billion by the end of 2014, and Jordan’s King Abdullah was told in late 2014 that Jordan needed an additional $1.9 billion to cover the costs it incurred in providing for Syrian refugees.
The problem is that host countries rely on voluntary contributions, which allows other members of the international community to decide for themselves how much to contribute to aid operations abroad. As a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not have the power to take funds from UN member states. As a result, the required amount of aid regularly exceeds contributions: In 2013, actual contributions to the UNHCR amounted to roughly 45 percent of assessed needs, creating a critical funding gap. If the international community is to address these challenges, it must take the issue of state responsibility more seriously—both in terms of those who create refugees, and by supporting those that bear the financial burden of hosting them...
The full text of this article was published in Foreign Affairs, 29 July 2015.