Out­sourc­ing refugee obli­ga­tions

The Myanmar Times - - News - NICKY LOVEGROVE news­room@mm­times.com

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.

Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw

A wo­man sits out­side tents at a Chin State IDP camp in Oc­to­ber 2015.

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