Let me, as a neighbour to your north, pause for a minute to recognize the time of stress, striving and suffering taking place in the southeast of your country. Also let me note the irony of talking about global refugee issues when there is in effect a refugee crisis taking place as we speak on our own continent. If there is any difference, it's only that this tragedy takes place in a country with the resources to cope, the ability to return home and safety and security to rely on.

In so many other parts of the world, refugees are stateless and rootless, often under threat of violence and with no guarantee of safety or security. There is a parable here that speaks to the fact that nowhere in the world is there immunity from disaster and disruption. It teaches that borders cannot defend us against many of our biggest threats.

Let me also relate my own personal experience with Hubert Humphrey. As an undergraduate student at United College in Winnipeg I attended the Macalester–United College Canada–US conference where, believe it or not, we debated free trade. Then-Senator Humphrey gave inspiring keynote speeches. His message that we prosper by working together and using the tools of government positively has stayed with me.

I’m also conscious of the honour the Humphrey award brings to a political scientist who has ventured into the murky world of street politics. I recall the chastisement I received at the hands of a University of Toronto prof: “Human security may work in practice, but does it work in theory?”

I’m still pondering that one. What I do know is that my academic grounding gave me a way of working in the world of policy making and election engagement in a way that no other training could (my apologies to any lawyers here) and that so much of that was gained through the example of Gordenker, Lockard, Wilson, Furniss and Falk.

Dr. McCarty, head of the department of politics today at Princeton, can testify to their impact as scholars and teachers. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants.

In fact, it was one of those giants who left me with a long-remembered statement of General George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan, who wrote “Problems which bear directly on the future of our civilization cannot be disposed of by general talk or vague formulae—by what Lincoln called ‘pernicious abstractions.’ They require concrete solutions for definite and extremely complicated questions.” The unstated premise of the Marshall plan was that the United States was the decider and the driver. This is not likely to be the case today when the opposite is true of present US policy.

There is a general assumption that great power politics are the only way to make things happen. I would suggest that other models need to be applied. Through my experience with the campaign on banning land mines, the international court, and establishing R2P as a protocol at the UN, I’ve found that change can be carried by a coalition of middle powers, NGOs and international institutions like the Red Cross.

Such a coalition has to make strategic choices about the places or issues to prioritize in order to precipitate reform in the present system and avoid a breakdown in global governance and a loss of faith by increasing numbers of people.

The structural reform of the refugee system is pivotal in the realm of innovative paradigm change. In other words, refugee reform has become what systems analysts describe as a leverage point. Here’s what they mean, in the words of Donella Meadows:

These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything…. Leverage points are points of power.

Why is the refugee system of those leverage points? Let me begin by recalling the thought of one of my former professors, Leon Gordenker, in his book Refugees in International politics. The increasing flow of refugees and the growth of intricate networks to administer the resources devoted to the humanitarian efforts make it a singular powerful factor in defining the international system. As I learned last year while in Germany through the Robert Bosch Foundation, the refugee issue has become a lightning rod of identity politics, either by causing evasion of leadership or through bombastic racist exploitation. Through this there is a growing intersection between the global need for collaboration and the sovereignty driven demands for greater border control with the consequence of undermining international cooperation.

Starkly put by Stanley Hoffmann in the book Duties Beyond Borders, “there is no way of isolating oneself from the gross violations abroad. They breed refugees....who come knocking at our doors and we must choose between bolting the doors and increasing the misery or opening the doors at some cost to our own well being.” The numbers are staggering. There are 65 million forced migrants of whom 21 million are refugees experiencing the tragic consequences of perilous voyages: sex trafficking, border confrontations and the breakdown of agreements and mutual assistance.

Frontline states, those on the borders, are usually poor states themselves and receive 84 per cent of refugees. The system doesn't know how to pay for it. A recent pledging conference for South Sudanese refugees flowing into Uganda attained a 13 per cent result. We finance refugee assistance as if it were a charity ball.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has taken over the return of Syrians, sending them to areas where they are recruited as cannon fodder for ongoing conflicts or used to establish territorial eminent domain.

The European Union, once the paragon of integrated international governance, is in total stalemate in deciding how to manage the refugee surge which still amounts to hundreds of thousands each year. It seems to be every country for itself and many are totally denying their obligations under the 1951 convention.

Australia, once a leader in forging collaborative international response, has broken the basic spirit of the Refugee Convention by denying asylum and corralling refugees from Burma into a camp on Nauru which has been described as a disgrace.

Refugees also now spend longer in exile than ever before. In the early 1990s, it took an average of 9 years to resolve a refugee situation. Today, that average is 20 years.

On the Canada-US border, the threatened deportation of Somalians and Haitians from the US has led to breakdown of border management and the creation of camps in Quebec urged on by nationalistic groups in the language all too familiar in our country.

A further elaboration of this thought comes from Emma Haddad relating to the political science of refugees: “The study of refugee issues is essential to our understanding of the significant impact the problem now has on national and international politics, policy making processes, human rights and development.” To this must be added the equally important and more difficult question of creating the political ability to actually bring about reform.

This takes me to the importance of the World Refugee Council.

The World Refugee Council was created to build on the momentum generated by the New York summits of September 2016, to engage with the structural and political constraints of the current refugee system, to develop new approaches to make international cooperation for refugees more predictable, just and effective, and to promote these recommendations, including in the context of the negotiation of a Global Compact for refugees. And to assist in building the political leadership capable of resetting and reshaping the system. It's made up of a diverse cross section of people from across the globe who have shown their commitment to finding concrete solutions.

A Nobel Laureate, former President of Tanzania, a country that has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees since its independence, a young woman activist from Tunisia, some of the best academics working in the field of refugee issue, former president of a major US foundation, civil society representatives, former ministers of foreign affairs and immigration, diplomats and public officials. It's a council that has the power of combustion in resetting the refugee Issue.

Robert Spolosky, the neuro biologist, in his recent book Behave says “we utilize the frontal cortex to do the harder thing in social contexts” — and what harder exercise is there in today's world than to reform the refugee system that is fragmented, multi tasked, and spread throughout the global system. The borders that define the system are possessively clung to by governments and civil groups as the last few vestiges of sovereignty. An amalgam of institutions, protocols, conventions, and practices have emerged. Too many people fall through the cracks of this jerrybuilt system.

Re-setting the system will require a grasp of multiple factors in a disputatious environment and will necessitate specific initiatives. There is an increasing call for reform. Last September, the UN set in motion a reform process that will culminate in a global compact. But there is concern over whether this will be anything more the squeaks of rhetoric and tweaks of limited initiative.

What problems are paramount?

While countries of first asylum have an obligation to receive refugees and not to forcibly return them to a country where they fear persecution, there is no binding obligation on other states to share the costs associated with the provision of asylum. Contributions to protection and solutions for refugees remain discretionary, piecemeal and inadequate.

I recall my experience during the “boat people crisis” when we had a working group of countries that met to allocate tasks, resources and resettlement. That kind of consensus presently doesn't exist.

The global refugee regime is premised on the understanding that states and other actors will cooperate to resolve refugee situations. As noted in the preamble of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, “… the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and … a satisfactory solution … cannot therefore be achieved without international cooperation.” Thirty UN General Assembly Resolutions over the past 35 years have affirmed the principle of cooperation. They do not constitute mechanisms to ensure international cooperation that is predictable, just and efficacious for both refugees and states.

As highlighted in the Joint Statement on the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York on 20 September 2016: “no routine mechanism exists yet to facilitate the kind of voluntary responsibility-sharing for refugees that was demonstrated today or to more comprehensively address other challenges arising from large-scale refugee crises.” In response, states participating in the Summit committed themselves to “develop tools and institutional structures to improve the international architecture and lay a foundation for addressing both the immediate and the long-term challenges of managing refugee flows effectively and comprehensively.”

There is, however, a political space when refugee issues receive significant global attention. On 19 September 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration, which outlined key principles relating to large movements of refugees and migrants. This also began a parallel process to negotiate a Global Compact on refugees and a Global Compact on migration, both by mid-2018.

This is a clear, time-sensitive goal for the Council.

The work of the World Refugee Council consequently has established two core principles: that there is an obligation to help refugees, and that international cooperation is necessary to help the states that host refugees.

Notwithstanding these principles, there are a series of problems that motivate the council’s work.

First, refugees are not predictably getting help. This may be measured in a number of ways. A growing number of states have been closing their borders to refugees, thus limiting the quantity of asylum for refugees. A wider number of states are placing limits on the rights of refugees, especially in relation to freedom of movement and the right to work. Furthermore, they are requiring refugees to reside in isolated and insecure refugee camps or live on the margins of urban areas. Refugees are also not receiving timely access to solutions, through repatriation, resettlement or local integration. Today, that average is 20 years. Refugees are also not predictably receiving adequate levels of assistance, including food, shelter and basic services.

Second, refugee-hosting states are not predictably getting the scope or scale of help they need. For more than 30 years, there have been persistent gaps between the funding required to support refugee hosting states and the funding provided. Most recently, this has resulted in chronic shortages in the funding for states hosting refugees from Burundi, South Sudan and Syria, to name but three.

Third, the global refugee regime is not predictably delivering on its mandate. In the aftermath of World War Two, the UN General Assembly created the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A year later, a majority of states signed the 1951 Convention. Together, UNHCR and the 1951 Convention formed the foundation for a global refugee regime (notwithstanding a number of important regional variations). At the core of the regime is a mandate of ensuring protection for refugees and finding a solution to their plight. The current state of refugee protection and the rise of protracted refugee situations is evidence of the regime’s inability to predictably deliver on its mandate.

Fourth, the problem is sustained, global and systemic. The gaps in protection, solutions and assistance for refugees outlined above have been present for more than 25 years. These gaps are found in all regions of the world. While recent events in Europe have arguably raised the issue of refugees on the global political agenda, all regions of the world have witnessed significant challenges in responding to the needs of refugees in recent years. Likewise, research over the past 20 years has illustrated how the recurring gaps in the global refugee regime are the result of systemic problems, such as the lack of a global political consensus and the design and functioning of institutions. While responding to thematic gaps, such as education and protection of particular categories of refugees, are critical, these thematic gaps are symptoms of deeper structural problems.

Fifth, the combination of these problems has negative consequences for the wider international system. The global refugee regime is premised on the logic that cooperation will lead to better outcomes for refugees and more predictability and stability for states. The inability of the regime to fulfill its mandate, in turn, is creating disastrous outcomes for refugees and unpredictability and instability for states. In the absence of predictable international cooperation, states are closing borders and placing limits on refugees. These actions are prompting responses that further undermine stability, for refugees and states alike, including through the uncontrolled movement of people, insecurity in refugee-populated areas, environmental degradation, and increased tensions between states.

Finally, the continuation of these consequences further erodes confidence in multilateralism and liberal internationalism, which exacerbates the above problems. Ineffective responses to refugees have contributed to the rise of populist political parties in many regions of the world, who have seized on issues like refugees to argue for a diminished role of international institutions and regional organizations. This emphasis on individual versus collective responses to shared problems, like refugees, increases the probability of collective action failure and erodes public confidence in the role of multilateral institutions in promoting and implementing effective responses. An effective response to the lack of international cooperation for refugees could, therefore, contribute to a wider effort to reinvigorate international, collective efforts to resolve a broader range of shared problems.

In light of these problems, one of the core challenges for the World Refugee Council will be to develop a shared understanding of what contributes to the above problems. To this end, there are a series of questions that could usefully be explored through the Council’s consultations, discussions, research and dialogue. The ultimate goal of the Council will be to propose and promote solutions. These solutions may take a number of possible forms:

Improving existing forms of international cooperation and developing new ones: The New York Declaration includes a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), which UNHCR is in the process of implementing in a limited number of pilot countries. The CRRF specifies a range of traditional and emerging approaches to respond to refugee situations, including new forms of humanitarian assistance and approaches to resettlement. While the Council may wish to examine a number of these elements, it may also consider a wider set of possibilities to promote international cooperation for refugees, including trade arrangements and access to markets, visa waivers, debt relief, access to preferential loans, development assistance and reconstruction programs. This would also include engaging with a wide range of traditional actors in the refugee regime, in addition to new actors such as international financial institutions, development agencies, and peace and security actors.

New mechanisms and instruments to make international cooperation predictable, just and efficacious: Notwithstanding the benefits of the elements contained in the CRRF, they do not address the structural problems caused by the lack of any mechanism to predictable, equitable and effective international cooperation to meet the needs of refugees and states. In response, the Council will have to consider the benefits of a range of possible new mechanisms and instruments, such as an Additional Protocol on International Cooperation for Refugees, as proposed by then UN High Commissioner António Guterres, in 2015.

This may also take the form of examining the application of a norm on international accountability approved by a UN Summit in 2005 called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There is increasing academic work adapting the R2P idea originally fostered to deal with issues of violence to the means of establishing accountability for nation state behavior. Alise Cohen, in the journal Ethics and International Affairs, has raised this point “in the wake of mass atrocity situations, facilitating access to asylum, granting temporary protection, and upholding the principle of non-refoulement represent essential steps toward fulfilling the international norm of R2P.”

As one who played a role in developing the R2P idea, I've written along with my former Cabinet colleague Allan Rock that the classic notion of sovereignty is being used to evade action or at worst to bolster the fear of many citizens that their identity as a people will be undermined. There needs to be an idea that respects sovereignty but a sovereignty that is earned by the degree it advances the protection of the people under the jurisdiction that asserts its sovereignty.

And, here is a connection: in the 1990s, Francis Deng, the UN envoy for internally displaced persons coined the principle that for the thousands of people who had no sanctuary “there is a responsibility to protect.”

In other words, there are grounds for treating refugees as an R2P issue. And we need to begin now to put that idea on the table as a potential for redesigning our migration system.

To begin we need to go back to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that was established by the Canadian government with the full support of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and look carefully what the scope of its proposals really are.

There needs to be new funding mechanisms that are not dependent on voluntary contributions. One way to achieve that is to revise assessed contributions to UNHCR or a UN Refugee Fund, along with new accountability measures, and the establishment of a UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General, responsible for ensuring coherence across the UN system in support of protection and solutions for refugees, and responsible for designing and marshalling state support for the implementation of comprehensive solutions for large and complex refugee situations. Building this new architecture will be a challenge.

To this end, the Council is designed to offer a unique space for political dialogue on the constraints of the global refugee regimes and the range of issues that need to be overcome to achieve more predictable international cooperation. The Council may also consider its role in promoting its recommendations and developing a new global political will to ensure predictable and meaningful cooperation to ensure protection for refugees and a timely solution to their plight.

It could be a catalyst for the formation of a coalition of key states, civil society, international organizations and the private sector to pursue specific goals such as attaching frozen assets, agreeing on employment and work programs, applying new digital technology such as blockchain technology for registration, identification, open verification, establishing a new protocol to cope with crisis refugees, work on a refugee network based on decentralized partners of nodes of regional organizations, international bank, and peacekeeping security stand by forces.

There are solutions begging for political support. Leadership needs to establish a different narrative.

To wrap up, let me take advantage of this opportunity to urge the need for political scientists to accelerate the study of refugees.

  • Many of the challenges confronting the global refugee regime are not new, and have been the focus of scholarship in the many fields of political science for decades.
  • Political science research has created new opportunities for policy and practice in responding to refugees.
  • Political theorists have challenged us to understand the place of refugees within political communities, while debates between communitarians and cosmopolitans have fueled practical debates on the rights we extend to refugees in liberal democracies.
  • The field of comparative politics has helped shed important light on the wide range of factors that influence the asylum policies of states in the global North and the global South.
  • Research in public policy has illustrated the complex networks involved in developing and implementing refugee policy at the local, national, regional and global levels.
  • Work in peace and conflict studies has led to new approaches to the role of refugees in conflict management, peace processes and peacebuilding.
  • From the early work of Leon Gordenker and others, international relations scholars have provided valuable insight of the place of refugees within broader questions of international cooperation, foreign policy and global governance.
  • Let me give one example of the impact of this scholarship. When negotiating a Comprehensive Plan of Action for some 2 million refugees who fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by the late 1980s, foreign policy analysis, and an understanding of how pressure from civil society could result in policy change and leadership from non-regional states, directly contributed to a successful resolution of a large, complex and protracted refugee situation.
  • Similar big-picture analysis and creative thinking is needed to help address the many refugee challenges we face today.

Questions for political scientists today

My work with the World Refugee Council has clearly demonstrated the role that political science research can play in solving one of the great problems of our time. Let me give some examples:

  • Why are refugees not reliably getting the protection, assistance and access to durable solutions they need? Despite the global norms to protect refugees, why are some states still closing borders and placing limits on the rights of refugees? Why does refugee integration and social inclusion remain a significant challenge?
  • Why are refugee-hosting states are not receiving the scope or scale of help they need? What are the pre-conditions for international cooperation to address the needs of states that host the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees? Why is there consistently inadequate funding for support for states hosting refugees from Burundi, South Sudan and Syria, to name just three examples? While refugee flows differ from region to region, how can we approach their needs from a global, collective perspective?
  • Why is the global refugee regime not reliably delivering on its mandate? The regime we have now was created in the aftermath of World War Two to ensure protection for refugees and to find a solution to their plight. Why is it not able to deliver on this mandate?
  • What are the compliance problems with the existing regime? Are the problems with the regime the result of states not complying with their obligations with the core instruments of the regime? For example, while the 1951 Convention provides for freedom of movement and the right to work for refugees, many states do not extend these rights fully to refugees, thus constraining the capabilities of refugees.
  • The application of new digital technologies that are already changing the capacities in peacebuilding and nation state building. Right now, the most important tool of the refugee is the smartphone. Tanushree Rao makes this point: "technology has made global knowledge accessible, resulting in a number of communities collaborating to develop innovations that make refugees’ lives easier.” Engineers, scientists, humanitarians, educators and others are working together to come up with a range of solutions that make life more comfortable in refugee camps, help navigate the legal process of seeking asylum, gain acceptance in new communities where they are resettled, and restore broken family ties. In sharp contrast to the fearmongering about refugees that we see from many Western politicians and a substantial section of the media, these innovators have chosen to pursue rationality, logic and optimism.

This is not just star gazing. The UN is already engaged in testing out new technology used in Lebanon. Computer Weekly reports "The humanitarian aid effort is led by UN agencies working with the national governments and a multitude of non-governmental aid organisations. The momentous task of registering and delivering aid such as food, healthcare and education relies on an array of often innovative information and communications technology.”

All these digital forms of aid have one underlying dependency  and that is robust networks. None of this will actually work unless people – both the aid workers and the beneficiaries – have access to communications. “Where communications was a ‘nice to have’ at one point, now it is a ‘need to have’” says Patrick Gordon, chair of the WGET Forum at the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

This can be a signal service that encompasses the commitment to scholarship, and the academic public service. There are many dimensions that cry out for serious, concrete solutions and the political means to see them fulfilled.

The WRC is but one venue, not a panacea but a sign post pointing to pathways that must be taken to redesign and manage a refugee system that works towards a just and fair treatment for a growing number of humans, our brothers and sisters.

It is a clear call for political science scholars and students to be in on the search of concrete solutions and appropriate political coalitions to take up the charge.

It is imperative for those who understand and can analyze to help put into practice a systemic change. Before it's too late.

To cite the words of Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor, “Our age makes higher demands of solidarity and benevolence on people today than ever before. Never before have people been asked to stretch out so far, and so consistently, so systematically, so as a matter of course to the stranger outside the gates.”