Governance of the Global Refugee Regime

Alexander Betts and James Milner

World Refugee Council Research Paper Series, World Refugee Council Research Paper No. 13, May 2019


The authors argue that the global refugee regime, distinct from its component organizations, lacks a clearly defined system of governance due to: diffuse governance arrangements; conflation of governance of the regime with governance of UNHCR; and lack of effective coordination, dialogue and political engagement necessary for international cooperation and the realization of the regime’s core objectives of protection and solutions for refugees. Individual states are responsible for implementing the regime’s norms within their jurisdictions, with control over the quantity and quality of asylum they grant to refugees on their territory, while outcomes for refugees are increasingly shaped by decisions taken in other fields (e.g. development, humanitarianism, human rights, labor migration, travel, security). Additionally, there are no binding obligations on states to cooperate to ensure the functioning of the regime or to share the burden or responsibility for refugee protection.

In response to these gaps, the authors propose enhanced governance arrangements for the global refugee regime that would contribute to enhanced protection and solutions for refugees and more predictability for states and the international system. They identify four functions needed to facilitate collective action—dialogue, facilitation, expertise and oversight—and propose: (a) a forum for dialogue between refugee-hosting and donor states and other stakeholders, including the private sector, NGOs and refugees themselves; (b) the capacity for political facilitation between actors, i.e. to identify principled yet practical bargains that can meet states’ interests while advancing refugee protection and solutions; (c) enhanced capacity for analysis and evidence-based planning; and (d) oversight and accountability to ensure compliance with international norms.

Specific recommendations are as follows:

  • New governance mechanisms: The Global Refugee Forum (GRF) and Support Platform, detailed in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), should be supported as new governance mechanisms that, if combined, could provide a mechanism for dialogue, facilitation, expertise, delivery and oversight. Working groups should be authorized to develop responses to specific refugee situations and make proposals that require political and material support. If the GRF proves inadequate, the ten largest host and ten largest donor countries should establish a ‘R20’ mechanism. New governance mechanisms should be supported by a secretariat that can provide political analysis and research.
  • Ensuring coherence: A special representative of the UN Secretary-General for displaced persons should be tasked with ensuring sustained engagement and complementarity across the UN system and with regional organizations and other actors, and more predictable efforts to address root causes of displacement and to respond to displacement when it occurs.
  • Strengthening accountability: Mechanisms are needed to ensure more consistent state compliance, including through authoritative and legitimate monitoring, enforcement and accountability mechanisms to address causes of displacement and provision of protection and solutions.
  • Addressing gaps: Notwithstanding the potential benefits of the GCR, the reliability of the refugee regime would benefit from additional instruments and mechanisms to ensure that burden and responsibility sharing for refugees is ultimately predictable, equitable and sufficient in both scope and scale.