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We Must Answer 3 Key Questions on Refugee Responsibility-Sharing

The Global Compact on Refugees is an opportunity to build a fairer global refugee system through more effective and equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees. The Kaldor Center’s Tristan Harley examines various unresolved issues.

Written by Tristan Harley Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Rohingya refugees gather in the "no man's land" behind Myanmar's border with Bangladesh on April 25, 2018.YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

As momentum builds for the proposed 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, there has been a flurry of proposals on how countries can more effectively share responsibility for refugees. Currently, the responsibility falls predominantly on developing regions, which host 84 percent of the global refugee population.

Academics and policy experts developed a Model International Mobility Convention, which includes the allocation of “responsibility shares. The non-profit DARA (Development Assistance Research Associates) is working with UNHCR and others to develop an index to more accurately measure country’s contributions to refugee situations.

These proposals share some common ground, particularly in their call for a more equitable allocation of responsibility for refugees by taking into account countries’ different capacities, resources and contributions.

But what is more striking is their significant differences. These relate not only to their level of ambition, but more fundamentally on what responsibility-sharing involves, how it can be measured and applied, and how it should be implemented and monitored.

Here are three of the big unresolved issues:

1. What responsibilities are we are talking about?

There is little consensus about what specific responsibilities should be shared. Some proposals – such as the largely unsuccessful E.U. resettlement quota system for the relocation of refugees from Italy and Greece – seek commitments to a specific responsibility in isolation, such as hosting refugees. Other proposals seek to be more comprehensive, including the hosting of refugees together with other responsibilities, such as refugee financing, providing personnel, training or infrastructure, the provision of durable solutions, or, more opaquely, efforts to minimize the drivers of displacement such as rule of law initiatives and conflict prevention.

The first draft of the Global Compact on Refugees published this March takes one of the broadest approaches. It suggests that contributions may include “the hosting of refugees, making financial contributions and providing solutions” as well as contributions to the provision of refugee protection such as development action, private-sector investment and job creation. The Model International Mobility Convention takes a narrower approach by including just the resettlement of refugees and financial contributions. This omits arguably the most common contribution to refugees globally: the reception and protection of refugees in the first countries in which they arrive.

2. How can we measure capacities and contributions?

In its annual Global Trends report, UNHCR uses population density, gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index to crudely measure states’ capacity to provide protection. However, there is increasing attention on developing more holistic indicators of states’ capacities and contributions. DARA’s Refugee Response Index focuses more on measuring countries’ contributions, for example to facilitating durable solutions and creating conditions for refugee self-sufficiency and integration.

There are a number of challenges to these measurements. In measuring contributions, there is the issue of equivalency. How, for example, are we meant to weigh the financial contribution of states to a refugee emergency against the contribution made by initial host states providing asylum to refugees, without creating a price per head for refugees? Or, when comparing the contributions made by host states, are we to assign equal value to hosts that provide refugees with housing, healthcare and the ability to access employment to those hosts that do not?

In measuring capacity, determining the accuracy, legitimacy and appropriate weighting of each indicator is a challenge. For example, population density appears as an indicator of capacity in most proposals, on the basis that less-populated states are better able to absorb refugees because there is likely to be more living space and less impact on the environment. But even this indicator is challenged by demographers, as the impact of a population can be mediated by other factors, such as demographic organization, consumption and technology. Perhaps it may be more appropriate to look specifically at the availability of housing or environment impacts such as deforestation or pollution levels.

The challenges only increase with the more contentious indicators. For example, to what extent should integration potential be considered when determining state capacity, if at all? How can the choices of refugees themselves be factored into these measures? How can these measures recognize and incorporate the benefits that refugees provide host societies?

The first draft of the Global Compact on Refugees proposes that each state and stakeholder determine their respective contributions according to their own judgment. It is difficult to see how this approach will move us beyond the ad hockery, inconsistency and unfairness of the current refugee regime.

3. Who should be involved?

Most proposals take a state-focused approach to responsibility-sharing. Yet the proposed first draft of the Global Compact on Refugees takes a remarkably different approach by including not just nation states, but also a large number of other stakeholders, such as local authorities, civil society, international organizations, academics, private sector, media and refugees themselves. It also proposes action to be taken at any level of governance – global, regional, national or local.

This approach is not surprising, given UNHCR’s advocacy for a multi-stakeholder or “whole-of-society” approach to refugee protection, along with the United Nations’ broader push for a new way of working that, for example, breaks down silos between humanitarian, development and migration actors and engages more effectively with local organizations and the private sector.

But, this approach is also not without risk. While it has the potential to build upon each stakeholder’s respective comparative advantage and open up new avenues for greater responsibility-sharing, the inclusion of an indeterminate number of stakeholders risks diluting the core responsibilities of nation states. It also makes it almost impossible to measure the fairness and equity of such a system.

If we are to seize the opportunity of this year’s Global Compact process to develop a more concrete framework for equitable and effective responsibility-sharing, we need to tackle each of these issues head-on.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This article is based on Tristan Harley’s presentation at the Exodus Institute Symposium on Responsibility-Sharing and Refugees held at Georgetown University on 16 April 2018 in collaboration with the World Refugee Council.

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