The Global Cop-Out on Refugees

James C Hathaway

International Journal of Refugee Law, 2019


The Refugee Compact and its companion Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) seek to address the major failing of the 1951 Refugee Convention to establish a common operational mechanism to ensure that protection burdens and responsibilities are fairly shared among States. While acknowledging the constraints imposed by the current political environment, the author contends that the Refugee Compact is a ‘tepid response’ that does not address the operational deficits of the refugee regime (e.g. where most of the resources are spent to address the claims of a tiny number of refugees able to reach rich countries) but rather establishes a bureaucratic “endless procession of voluntarist pledging conferences that may, or may not, deliver”. He argues that affirmative action is required to answer the perception that the provision of asylum is inattentive to the concerns of receiving communities and there is ‘no upper limit’ to the duty to provide asylum to those who arrive. Furthermore, the continued appeal of multilateralism depends on ensuring real benefits at the local level.

The author proposes that a robust alternative to the Global Compact would entail: (a) refugees’ access to protection in whatever country they can reach; (b) internationally run, normally group-based refugee status assessment would take place, and refugees would be assigned a destination based on algorithms that reflect destination State and refugee preferences; (c) no constraints on freedom of movement once they arrived in their assigned State of protection for the duration of risk; (d) making asylum doable for poor states by having funds guaranteed by the international agency, with funds raised under a common burden-sharing formula, and contingent on respect for refugee rights by the receiving country; and (e) resettlement guarantees (approximately 1.7 million resettlement places per annum) for those who cannot return or integrate locally. The author believes such a system is possible citing several historical examples. He goes on to enumerate the benefits of such a system to refugees (access to protection, and durable solution within a reasonable period of time), poor host countries (guaranteed funds for protection of refugees and to benefit host communities, and no indefinite hosting) and the developed world (by undermining smuggling market and reduce the use of the refugee channel for economic migration). The author outlines a number of practical challenges that would need to be met including: (i) agreement on the formulae that would define both a fair sharing of (financial) burdens and (human) responsibilities which would ground the proposed system of common, but differentiated, responsibility; (ii) a strong central actor able and willing to administer the quota and assignment program; and (iii) a political champion. A further ethical challenge is whether such a system undermines refugee autonomy, and the author defends his proposed system on the basis that it is better than the current system.