Reflecting on current problems and possible solutions

Featured, Forced Displacement and Migration, News

By Sonal Marwah and Michelle Ball*

On June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day. The occasion focuses attention on the plight of refugees and displaced people around the world, but also celebrates their strength and perseverance as they build new lives. It is a time to remember that today, one in every 113 people on Earth has been forced to leave their homes, and that is an unacceptable number.

On June 7-9, 2018, the Canadian Council for Refugees hosted the International Refugee Rights Conference in Toronto. Participants included representatives from nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations, academia, United Nations agencies, and governments, as well as former civil servants, refugees, newcomers to Canada, citizens, and activists. They explored solutions for the 65.6-million people (22.5-million refugees) living in forced displacement—an estimated one per cent of the global population and the highest level in modern history.

This scale of displacement demands a re-examination of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) three traditional durable solutions for refugees: voluntary repatriation, local integration in the country of first asylum, and third-country resettlement. The reality is that effective access to such solutions remains elusive for most refugees. From many conversations at the Conference, we identified some best practices, as well as what’s not working and why, what needs to be done, and how it could be accomplished.

What’s not working?

In 2015, the one million refugees and asylum seekers who reached Europe captured the world’s attention because such an influx was not common in “fortress Europe.” The surge was triggered, in part, by the conflict in Syria. But the tragic events of 2015 are part of a much broader story.

People have been forced from their homes by conflict and violence since the beginning of history. Today’s conflicts are notable because they are internal/civil, protracted, and, increasingly, internationalized. Such conflicts force more people to flee, both within and outside their home country. Conflicts in Yemen and Syria are vivid examples.

But while the need for humanitarian aid is growing, responses from wealthier countries are increasingly insufficient. Why? Several factors must be considered. A polarized UN Security Council occasionally neglects its Charter responsibility to maintain international peace and security. As one participant put it, “there is no united in the United Nations.” An “international regime of impunity” appears to protect those who turn a blind eye to the needs of refugees, particularly Western states.

Eighty-four per cent of refugees reside in developing countries, with one in every three (4.9 million people) hosted by the world’s least developed countries. Many developed states have ignored or not fulfilled their legal responsibilities to assist people displaced by wars—wars in which they may have a direct or indirect involvement. Instead, such states provide little or no support to humanitarian agencies, close their borders, and prevent rescue ships with migrants from docking on their shores.

The UNHCR’s durable solutions are intended to end refugees’ suffering. But today, millions of refugees remain in “long-lasting and intractable state of limbo,” either confined indefinitely to camps or holding areas, often in volatile border zones, or living in extreme precarity in urban areas.

What needs to be done and how can we do it?

1. Stronger networks and new connections

From the 1960s through the 1980s, in Africa, at least some refugees were given economic opportunities and integrated into development efforts. However, for the past number of decades, refugees worldwide have largely been relegated to camps or other situations of dependence and the humanitarian sector has been left solely responsible for responding to their needs.

Now a modified global policy approach is attempting to bridge humanitarian and development sectors to “reduce the gap in humanitarian funding, reduce refugees’ reliance on international assistance, and mitigate the impact of large refugee movements on host communities.” Better integration of this approach is essential to comprehensively address the causes of forced displacement and irregular displacement.

The development-humanitarian nexus puts the focus on responding to refugees by addressing their economic and social needs in their countries of asylum, and finding ways for refugees to regain their dignity and self-sufficiency. Responding to the needs of local communities that often bear the costs of hosting and supporting refugees is emphasized. Collaboration between development and humanitarian actors seems an obvious approach when we recognize that the majority of forcibly displaced people are the result of 10 conflicts, and that most of the displaced are hosted in 15 neighbouring countries that are overwhelmingly in need of development assistance.

There are efforts to develop multilateral processes that encourage collaboration and sharing best practices, such as the integration of development actors into refugee policy. One of the most ambitious is the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). It is expected to become the first intergovernmental agreement to cover all aspects of migration. The GCM is in the midst of multiple rounds of consultations, which will culminate in the first global refugee summit in 2019. While the GCM is “non-binding,” it is encouraging to see agreement in principle to certain rights and norms around refugee protection.

The Compact follows from the September 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, in which states agreed that increased global collaboration was needed to protect the rights of refugees and strengthen global migration governance, among other goals. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said, “The New York Declaration marks a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance. It fills what has been a perennial gap in the international protection system – that of truly sharing responsibility for refugees.” The New York Declaration is unique in that it was unanimously adopted by all states, unlike the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Other significant multilateral processes, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (in particular goal 10.7 on safe, regular, and responsible migration), are meant to work in tandem.

2. Greater efforts to tackle root causes of forced displacement

Even as we have become more successful in leveraging different networks and multilateral agreements, humanitarian emergencies have grown. According to the Global Peace Index 2018 report, unresolved conflicts and crises of the past decade are causing a gradual, sustained decline in global levels of peacefulness and rising levels of forced displacement. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the three principal drivers that force people to flee from their homes are conflict, violence, and persecution. Poverty and climate change are often additional goads.

While recent multilateral processes outline states’ responsibilities for people once they become refugees, they don’t address refugee-generation. If the root causes for forced displacement are not understood and addressed, repatriation (voluntary return to a country of origin and reintegration) will not be feasible.

For example, in Rakhine state in Myanmar, Rohingyas have been subjected to state-sponsored violence. Bangladesh, where most Rohingyas have fled, want these displaced people returned to Myanmar; thus, local integration is not an option. But many of the necessary preconditions for voluntary return are also not present and the root causes of violence—long-standing discrimination, persecution, and denial of citizenship—have not been resolved. Resettlement in a third country is even less likely; less than one per cent of refugees are resettled. In 2017, the UNHCR put forward 5,300 resettlement applications by Myanmar citizens, but it is unclear how many have been resettled.

The exporting of arms to authoritarian regimes and other actors involved in armed conflicts in developing countries is another root cause that needs examination. Such activity adds to the problems of arms proliferation and enables gross human rights abuses.

Greater efforts and resources are needed to better identify, mitigate, and address the root causes of forced displacement in an effort to promote peace and ensure a sustainable recovery in conflict-affected areas.

3. Finding political consensus and enabling political will

The last and perhaps most elusive solution is to get firm financial commitments from developed states, and to secure their assistance in developing resettlement options. In recent years, the voluntary response to humanitarian appeals has resulted in significant funding shortfalls for even the most basic support of refugees. The UNHCR has received approximately 40% of the funds it needs in the past few years and the United States recently significantly reduced its contributions. The global humanitarian appeal in 2018 is a record US$22.5-billion.

How can this need be met? Bringing development and other economic partners into humanitarian appeals is one method. Using the funding mechanisms of organizations such as the World Bank  is another. The GCM will put pressure on states to report their progress every three years, beginning in 2021.

The national policies of states differ significantly in assuming responsibility for resettling displaced people, which is one of the durable solutions. The current draft of the GCM emphasizes the need to expand resettlement spaces for refugees who are not adequately protected in their country of asylum, in part to signify solidarity with refugee-hosting countries.

But resettlement cannot be the entire answer. Another option discussed in “Objective 5” of the zero draft of the GCM is enhancing the availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration through study or work permits, family reunification, or humanitarian visas. Such well-managed and safe avenues would protect more refugees, who would no longer need to rely on human smugglers or other irregular high-risk pathways.

The lack of consensus among host and donor countries on how to resolve these problems will not be resolved overnight. Points of mutual gain must be found that encourage a fair sharing of responsibility

Better and smarter solutions

Networking, reflecting, and sharing with the 800 participants at the International Refugee Rights Conference lessened the sense of isolation that many of us feel in working to find real solutions for refugees today. Most importantly, we were reminded that we need to include refugee voices in our decision-making.

This World Refugee Day, we celebrate the strength of refugees. We look forward with hope to a future in which, through the strengthening of partnerships and the harnessing of best practices, we will be able to provide better and smarter options for refugees.


*Michelle Ball has a Master’s degree in International Migration and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. She works in the Violence Against Women sector in Toronto, and also assists groups engaged in private refugee sponsorship. 

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