Tomorrow, on June 20, we observe World Refugee Day. This day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of those who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. But this year’s World Refugee Day also reminds us – perhaps more than ever before – of our failures as an international community and the shortcomings of international refugee law. Civil war in Syria has created the worst refugee crisis in 20 years, with an average of 6,000 people fleeing every day in 2013. Not since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda have refugee numbers risen at such a startling rate.
In March of last year, the UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres wrote in the New York Times, “[o]n Wednesday, my colleagues will register the one millionth Syrian refugee. A milestone in human tragedy. And a figure that should, after two years of death and destruction, stir the level of political action needed to put an end to this war before more lives are lost, more people forced to flee and the conflict destabilizes the region.” This past April, UNHCR once again brought to our attention the one millionth refugee, although, this time, the figure referred solely to the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In total, and in addition to 6.5 million internally displaced persons in Syria, we are currently facing a staggering 2.8 million Syrian refugees.
The overwhelming majority of these refugees are hosted in Syria’s neighboring countries Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. For most of them, the three options currently provided by international refugee law for the resolution of displacement – voluntary repatriation, local integration in the country of first asylum or resettlement in a third country – are of little comfort. Prospects of an imminent return are fading as the conflict drags on, and the refugee presence in neighboring countries have proven to aggravate the already severe political, security, sectarian and economic repercussions of the Syria conflict. This, together with over-burdened education, health, housing and water systems in the host countries, has made local integration almost as difficult.
Due to reluctance on the part of the international community to resettle any meaningful number of refugees, also the third durable solution has been challenging to implement – many States have rather put in place a wide range of practical and bureaucratic obstacles aimed at keeping Syrian refugees out. Today, resettlement is available for less than one percent of refugees, and a recent study of UNHCR’s resettlement activities even concludes that while it is a ‘brilliant idea … implementation has not lived up to the concept’s potential.’ This is in stark contrast to the 1970s and 1980s, when resettlement was a highly valued solution by the international community. It is therefore deeply disturbing that States have displayed resistance against UNHCR’s (relatively) minor objective to resettle 160.000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. Earlier this month, Germany agreed to provide an additional 10.000 places for Syrian refugees under its humanitarian admission program. Now offering a total of 20.000 places, Germany provides over two thirds of the total admission and resettlement places offered across the whole of Europe, while a great number of European states have offered no places at all. Others, such as Norway, have chosen to cherry-pick precisely which Syrian refugees to resettle, opting for individuals who are ‘easy to integrate’ and do not require any substantial health treatment, in effect neglecting UNHCR’s calls to resettle the most vulnerable refugees whose mental and physical needs cannot be met in Syria’s neighboring countries.
Against this reality, it is clear that international law is in dire need for new approaches towards refugee protection. The current displacement crisis in the Middle East – where in the past week more than half a million Iraqis also have fled the advancement of ISIS – highlights the unfair apportionment of burdens and responsibilities of offering protection to refugees. Even though the notions of burden-sharing and solidarity are central to the international refugee regime and underpin the legal frameworks aiming at protecting refugees, they are in great need of being concretized and formalized.
We may recall the meaningful thoughts on burden-sharing that have been brought forward over the years; James Hathaway, for example, has proposed the development of a globalized system of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ based on a major, binding, and practically enforceable obligation. This reallocation agreement would notably ‘shift protection dollars to the places where most protection needs to happen,’ and respond to the common protests of countries in regions of origin that they cannot be expected to admit massive numbers of refugees—to whom they thus become legally obligated—‘on the basis of no more than discretionary grants which ebb and flow with the political, budgetary, and other preferences of wealthier governments’. It is indeed time to intensify our efforts in materializing the notions of burden-sharing and solidarity for the benefit of refugee protection. If we begin today, next year’s World Refugee Day still has the potential of highlighting a reversal of this negative trend.