After the Forum: new directions in global refugee policy

In December 2019, more than 2,000 people met in Geneva for the first Global Refugee Forum. Bringing together representatives of governments, international organizations, NGOs and the private sector, the event was described by UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi as a “unique opportunity to put in place the elements needed to accelerate our transformation of the global response to refugee flows”. But what exactly will that transformation look like?

Global responses to displacement – two key trends

Based on the presentations and discussions that took place at the Forum, the international community’s future response to the refugee issue seems likely to have two principal characteristics.

On one hand, there will be a continuation of the exclusionary refugee policies currently pursued by many of the world’s most prosperous countries, their objective being to minimize the number of asylum seekers who are able to seek refuge on their territory. UNHCR will be unwilling and unable to challenge this approach, as demonstrated by the organization’s failure to influence EU policy with respect to the interception and return of refugees to Libya.

At the same time, the industrialized states will endeavour to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of refugee protection and responsibility-sharing by establishing carefully controlled 'complementary pathways' such as refugee resettlement programmes, family reunion and labour mobility initiatives, humanitarian visas and corridors.

On the other hand, in the developing countries where 85% of the world’s refugees are to be found, there will be a much stronger focus on market-oriented approaches to self-reliance, host community support and social inclusion, facilitated by the greater involvement of development actors and the private sector. An integral component of this approach will be additional investment in services such as education and health care, with a particular emphasis on the avoidance of camps and the incorporation of refugees into national systems.

Picture by Martin Wagner/ICMPD

Central Stakeholders and their interests

While these approaches promise to bring tangible benefits to refugees, especially those in the Global South, they will also suit the purposes of other stakeholders.

By enabling refugees to become self-reliant, the need for humanitarian assistance will be reduced, thereby easing the pressure on the aid budgets of donor states. At the same time, by averting the movement of asylum seekers from the Global South to the Global North, the industrialized states will be able to satisfy the demands of their electorates, who are generally hostile to the irregular arrival of foreign nationals, and minimize the threat that refugee arrivals supposedly pose to national security and sovereignty, social cohesion and public services.

For UNHCR, the engagement of development actors and promotion of refugee self-reliance will enable the organization to limit the chronic shortfall in its budget, most of which is provided by a dozen of the world’s wealthiest states. If the number of asylum seekers arriving spontaneously in those countries can be better managed, the agency will also be able to reduce the potential for friction with its key donors on contentious protection issues such as admission, status determination, detention and deportation.

In terms of UNHCR’s ideology as well as the agency’s communications strategy and fundraising efforts, the emphasis on self-reliance endorsed by the Forum also has some distinct advantages. In all of these respects, what could be better than to rebrand refugees as resilient entrepreneurs, gifted innovators and hard-working employees, rather than as long-term dependents on international assistance?

Finally, the refugee response paradigm that emerged from the Forum has a number of attractions for host state governments in the Global South. It promises to bring them significant amounts of additional development aid. It has the potential to mitigate the impact of refugees on the economy, environment and infrastructure of those areas most directly impacted by the presence of refugees. And by shifting the language of the refugee discourse from ‘local integration’ (which implies naturalization and citizenship) to ‘social inclusion’ (which does not) the new paradigm satisfies the many host states in the developing world that refuse to countenance the indefinite presence of exiled populations on their territory.

Arising risks

So what could possibly go wrong with the key policy directions discussed and broadly endorsed by the Global Refugee Forum?

First, there is a risk that new humanitarian crises will divert attention and resources from long-term and developmental approaches. In this respect, it is worth recalling that at another UN meeting held in Geneva in 1984, the international community agreed that the support given to refugees in Africa should be ‘solutions and development-oriented from the outset’. But that approach was quickly abandoned when the Horn of Africa was convulsed by a serious famine and governance failures, requiring UNHCR and other agencies to revert to the distribution of short-term emergency relief. Given the prevalence of major displacement crises in recent years (Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela, to name but four) a repetition of this scenario on a global scale cannot be ruled out.

Second, if the expectations of refugee-hosting states in the Global South are not met in terms of additional development aid and private sector engagement, it is unlikely that they will really be willing to ease the restrictions that they have traditionally placed on the rights of refugees, and which have made it impossible for so many of them to become self-reliant. Because if they do not enjoy freedom of movement, access to land, the right to work, the ability to open a bank account and to take out a loan, it seems unlikely that large numbers of refugees will become the successful entrepreneurs and industrious employees envisaged by the Forum. Without enhanced international support, the notion of social inclusion may well be quickly abandoned in host states and replaced by a renewed push for the premature and involuntary return of refugees to their countries of origin.

Finally, there is a very real prospect that global economic and security disparities will continue to drive the movement of people from the Global South to the Global North – a movement that even the harshest of exclusionary policies pursued by the industrialized states has hitherto failed to obstruct. At the same time, serious questions must be asked as to whether those countries will be willing to offer a sufficient number of resettlement places and ‘complementary pathways’ to convince people living in conflict-affected and impoverished countries to patiently wait their turn for a ticket to a more peaceful and prosperous part of the world.

by Jeff Crisp, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

About the Author

Dr Jeff Crisp is independent consultant and expert in forced migration and refugee studies, affiliated with the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and Chatham House. He has held senior positions with UNHCR, Refugees International and the Global Commission on International Migration. Jeff is a member of TRAFIG’s Advisory Board.

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