Outsourcing refugee obligations
THE world’s system for dealing with refugees is broken, and the Asia Pacific is no exception. Leaders in the region need to create a market of tradeable refugee quotas to deal with this issue. Such a system would produce better outcomes for refugees, introduce a fairer way of sharing the burden, and be much more cost effective.
We hear so much about the refugee crisis in the Middle East that it’s easy to forget that we have one in our own backyard. The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are 3.5 million refugees in the AsiaPacific region, with 500,000 from Myanmar alone. These are people fleeing persecution and violence who should qualify for protection under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Instead, most are detained in squalid refugee camps or are rejected outright by the countries where they seek asylum.
The Refugee Convention was forged against the backdrop of World War II, during which time European countries closed their doors to Jews fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. At its core, the Convention obligates signatory countries not to commit the crime of “refoulement” – sending genuine refugees back to the borders of countries where they face death and persecution.
But the Convention has a serious flaw in that it makes no mention of how the refugee burden should be allocated among states.
Without this clarity of responsibility, states go to extreme lengths to discourage refugees from becoming their problem. Whether it is Australia creating a punitive system of mandatory detention, or Japan’s narrow interpretation of a refugee allowing it to reject 99 percent of asylum applicants, the effect is that countries which border refugee-producing nations shoulder the vast majority of the refugee burden. Overwhelmingly these are poor countries of the global south struggling with their own domestic problems even before they have to provide for the well-being of thousands of war-stricken refugees.
The UNHCR is supposed to provide resources for these countries, but because it depends on contributions from member countries, in particular the wealthy ones of the global north, it is particularly vulnerable to funding shortfalls in times of crisis.
What emerges is a free-rider problem, where wealthy countries are happy to let poorer nations which are closer to conflict zones pick up the slack of taking in refugees. Yet as much as countries like Australia like to claim they are abiding by their treaty obligations, the effect of this on refugees is much the same as refoulement: the inability to reach places of lasting protection.
A new approach is needed – one in which the burden of sheltering the world’s refugees is more evenly distributed, yet still gives states the ability to determine their own intake. A simple mechanism would be a market of tradeable refugee quotas.
In 1997, political scientist Peter Schuck outlined how this would work. Countries would enter into a regional agreement to share the burden of refugees, and would decide on a system for establishing appropriate quotas for each country. Given that the task of protecting and providing services to refugees can mostly be expressed in financial terms, quotas would likely be a function of each country’s GDP per capita.
Once quotas are determined, countries would have the option of trading them among each other. This would give wealthy countries like Australia and Japan, who are particularly adverse to accepting refugees, the option of paying other countries to provide protection for a portion of their quota of refugees. It would also allow poorer countries to shelter refugees with adequate resources, and gain another source of income for their efforts.
The market would be regulated by the UNHCR, which would be responsible for monitoring and publicising the treatment of refugees in each country. Wealthy countries would be barred from offloading their quotas on any country found to be providing inadequate protection or services to refugees.
Why would wealthy countries agree to fork out money when others are already doing the heavy lifting? Because as long as the world has such an uneven distribution of refugees, the whole system is vulnerable to shocks, and these affect everyone. The big influx of refugees over the past decade has not remained contained within the global south. When first port-of-call countries are overburdened, when they seek to deter refugees through harsh treatment or by turning them back altogether, it is unsurprising that refugees try their luck in the more affluent West.
A tradeable quota system would also be in the interest of the freeriders because it would actually save them money. In the 2014-15 financial year, Australia spent over A$1 billion to run its offshore detention facilities on Nauru, Christmas Island, and Manus Island, housing less than 2000 refugees. Compare this to the figure of US$157 million, which is what the UNHCR spent on its entire budget for Southeast Asia. The money of countries like Australia would go much further, and could aid many more refugees if it was spent on resettlement programs rather than prisons.
But isn’t it immoral to trade refugees like commodities? Isn’t it unfair to let wealthy countries shift their obligations onto poorer ones? What about the preferences of the refugees to be settled in one country over another?
In an ideal world, all countries would have high enough refugee quotas that we wouldn’t have a problem. Or better yet, countries would remove border restrictions so that we all have freedom of mobility. But unfortunately, the world we live in is one where state sovereignty and national interest remain overriding concerns.
In this world, states do whatever they can to minimise what they see as a refugee burden, and wealthy states are already outsourcing their refugee obligations to poorer ones. Let’s at least regulate it and make sure they do it properly.
Nicky Lovegrove is an Asia Pacific Studies and Arts student at Australian National University.
A woman sits outside tents at a Chin State IDP camp in October 2015.