With global refugee numbers increasing around the world and political tensions rising apace, less than scrupulous governments are resorting to refoulement to manage their borders. Refoulement is the appalling practice of forcing refugees to return home to countries where they face persecution, physical harm or even death. Illegal under the Refugee Convention of 1951, refoulement robs those seeking refuge of the safety they desperately need for themselves and their families.
Meanwhile, host countries, some of the poorest on the planet, and the UN refugee agency are holding a bag of half-empty promises of support. And things will get worse before they get better. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are being pressed to return to Myanmar, the country that just violently expelled them. Israel is issuing deportation orders to Eritrean refugees that present them a bleak choice: leave for unsafe conditions – or face imprisonment. Europeans are deterring refugees and building walls to keep them out. Somali refugees in Kenya are pressed to return to a dangerous and volatile homeland because the UN lacks the resources to sustain them where they are. Meanwhile, the U.S., the largest donor, has cruelly cut its refugee budget. And other political crises, notably in Venezuela, build ominously.
Looming on the horizon is a potential further massive movement of Syrian refugees from their border sanctuaries in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Humanitarian agencies are concerned that these host countries, increasingly destabilized by the great burdens they are bearing and the ephemeral support of the international community, are contemplating refoulement measures. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war grinds on, targeting civilians and soldiers alike, driving more people from their homes and creating more refugees and internally displaced persons.
This trend of refoulement demonstrates how and why the global refugee system needs reform, and fast. The UN is trying to coax reform of the system through the negotiation of a Global Compact, but it is already obvious that its efforts, while vital, will be insufficient: The latest draft of the Compact makes clear that it will be seeking only discretionary contributions and will avoid political issues that need confronting. Global civil society needs to press states to overcome the impasses in the current system.
Regimes and non-state actors who violently trigger refugee flows must be held to account. Governments who stimulate xenophobia for domestic political gain must be confronted. Those that shirk their treaty commitments and disregard even their own financial pledges to support refugees must be named and shamed.
Accountability mechanisms are needed. Options exist, including a universal periodic review (UPR), such as that of the UN Human Rights Council; or a review conference, such as those of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); or a review committee, similar to the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) model. These accountability mechanisms have demonstrated that peer review among states can foster greater compliance. What is lacking so far is the political will to adopt one for refugees.
Second, there must be a fundamental reset on how refugee programs are funded. Whether it’s basic humanitarian assistance, encouraging the economic integration of refugees, or relief for host communities, most funding comes from voluntary donations by governments and private donors. The reality is that this reliance on goodwill simply doesn’t produce the needed resources. States in regions of refugee origin host 86 percent of the world’s refugees; 10 donors account for 77 percent of contributions to the UN refugee agency, and three states account for more than 80 percent of global-refugee resettlement. It is a flimsy system growing more unreliable each day. Other sources of funds must be found, including through harnessing the power of global markets, trade and investment.
Third, security is a vital element in the protection of refugees. People will not return home voluntarily unless they are confident they and their children will be safe. Blue helmets and human-rights monitors, properly mandated and empowered can offer greater assurance to refugees that they will be protected upon return home.
The Global Compact negotiations now underway at the UN are a necessary step in addressing the myriad of failings of the refugee system. But the prospects of making major structural change from the inside are limited. Past successful reform efforts on issues such as land mines and the International Criminal Court have shown the value of independent networks and coalitions of like-minded, committed governments, civil society actors and international organizations in mobilizing to change the system itself.
To head off increasing recourse to the miseries of refoulement, the international community must offer concrete, effective, structural reforms to the global refugee system to secure the safety of refugees and to support the generous but often poor states who host them.
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.