Refugees: The Dynamics of Displacement

The chair opened the session by drawing attention to some passages from the ICIHI’s 1986 report on refugees. The first observed that “the experience of recent years does not leave room for optimism regarding the future. Just as one refugee situation diminishes or stabilizes, new mass exoduses occur elsewhere.”

The second noted that “the industrialized states are adopting what appear to be contradictory standards. They expect and assume that some of the world’s poorest countries will maintain an open door policy towards millions from neighbouring states, but they are increasingly reluctant to grant asylum to the thousands who arrive on their own territory.”

And the third stated that “there are millions of uprooted people who are unable or unwilling to leave their own country. They are in the jargon of the refugee specialists ‘internally displaced’ and do not qualify for the kind of protection and assistance offered to refugees.’

The first speaker suggested that all three of these statements remain highly relevant today, and that the continuities in the global refugee situation are often ignored or downplayed. Many contemporary commentators suggest that the refugee problem is now much bigger and more complex than it was in the past, that it has many new characteristics and that protection standards have steadily declined. But this is to some extent a false narrative, and many of the refugee and displacement issues that we are grappling with today are not fundamentally different than they were in 1986. Indeed, large sections of the ICIHI report could be republished today, and few people would realize that they were written 30 years ago.

The speaker then went on to identify some significant features of the ICIHI report. First, it was not simply about refugees and asylum seekers, but also looked at a range of other phenomena, including internal displacement, mass expulsions, urban removal programmes and compulsory relocation schemes, as well as displacement caused by environmental degradation and development programmes. At the same time, the 1986 report asked whether the traditional distinction made between refugees and other migrants was a meaningful and sustainable one – a discussion that has been given new life by the mass influx experienced in Europe in 2015-16.

The speaker pointed out that the ICIHI report on refugees included a very clear recommendation for the establishment of a new, more dynamic, coordination body within the UN. And that was exactly happened five years later, with the creation of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. In addition, the report called very clearly for a set of minimum humanitarian standards that could be applied to refugees, displaced people and conflict-affected populations. As can be seen from the completely unacceptable conditions experienced by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, IDPs in South Sudan and the conflict-affected populations of Yemen, this issue remains to be resolved.

Finally, in its work on refugees and displaced people, the Commission had placed a strong emphasis on the need for solutions. That continues to be a major challenge. Refugee resettlement quotas are small, and diminishing rapidly in the case of the USA. Repatriation is limited by the intractable nature of the armed conflicts taking place in many countries of origin. And very few developing countries are prepared to allow the local integration and naturalization of refugees living on their territory.

A second speaker took up the question of the refugee/migrant distinction, pointing out that the former concept is clearly defined in international law, while the latter is not. ‘Migrant’ is essentially a colloquial term used to designate people who have moved from one place to another, but it does not specify why they have moved or whether they have crossed an international border in the process.

The speaker went on to suggest that the refugee/migrant distinction is not as clear cut as it is often assumed to be. There have always been situations in which people move as a result of mixed motivations, and there have always been mixed population movements which incorporate some people who meet the refugee definition and others who do not. It is also a common phenomenon for a person’s legal status to change in the course of their journey, further complicating the distinction.

There has been a tendency in the past to regard refugees as people who have much more pressing protection needs than others who are on the move. It is now very difficult to sustain that argument. As we see in the movement of people from West Africa to Libya, migrants who are moving primarily for economic reasons are nevertheless confronted with many threats during their journey, some of them life-threatening. While refugee protection is essential, there is a need to ensure that everyone on the move has their rights respected. 

A third speaker suggested that in some respects, the international community’s response to the issue of refugees and displacement had not progressed and had even gone backwards in some respects. The speaker pointed out that in the mid-1990s, a UNHCR publication produced under the auspices of UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata, a former ICIHI commissioner, had suggested that a paradigm shift appeared to be taking place in the international refugee regime, prompted in part by the end of the Cold War.

Whereas the regime’s approach to the refugee issue had traditionally been “reactive, exile-oriented and refugee-specific,” it was in the process of becoming more “proactive, homeland-oriented and holistic.” In retrospect, the speaker pointed out, it has become clear that the envisaged paradigm shift did not take place. In many respects, the international community’s approach to the refugee issue today is not strikingly different from the way it was addressed during the time of the Commission.

The speaker went on to observe that the last UN High Commissioner for Refugees to come from the Global South was Sadruddin Aga Khan, and that was in the 1960s and 1970s. This was an anomaly and an anachronism, given that the vast majority of the world’s refugees – around 85 per cent – are to be found in developing countries.

Similarly, in the 25 years since the post of UN Emergency Relief Coordinator was established, the only person to have held that position and who came from the Global South was Brazilian national Sergio Vieira de Mello. A notable feature of ICIHI was that its three most important members – Prince Hassan, Prince Sadruddin and Zia Rizvi – all came from the Global South and all had a passionate commitment to the refugee issue.

Looking to the future, the speaker made two specific suggestions. First, there was a need to look more creatively at refugee issues, in the way that the Commission had done in the 1980s and as UNHCR had done under Sadako Ogata’s leadership. More specifically, the title of the UNHCR chief could usefully be revised to that of ‘UN High Commissioner for Refugee Situations’, its incumbent responsible for focusing holistically on both the circumstances that have forced people to leave their own country as well as their needs in the countries to which they have fled.

Second, the speaker observed that while the international community was currently focused on the establishment of a Global Compact for Refugees, there was in fact an untapped potential for agreements to be forged at the regional level. The Economic Community of West African States, for example, had recently concluded a binding treaty on the elimination of statelessness. It was now time for this regionally-focused approach to be pursued in relation to the refugee issue.

Responding to these opening statements, the chair suggested that it would be useful for the conference to focus on the question of state accountability. Even if the global refugee situation is in many respects not too different today than it was at the time of the Commission, is it true to say that governments are increasingly ready to flout the basic principles of refugee protection, confident in the knowledge that there is no real way for them to be held to account for their actions?

According to one speaker, this is indeed the case. As with International Humanitarian Law, which had been discussed by the previous panel, both states and non-state actors are very much aware that the international refugee regime lacks compliance and enforcement mechanisms. This has been seen very clearly in the policies pursued by Australia and the EU towards asylum seekers travelling by boat. In both cases, it can be argued that the states concerned have simply disregarded the non-refoulement principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which entitles people to seek asylum in other states.

How can this situation be addressed? The speaker suggested that one expression that comes up time and time again in response to this question is that of “political will.” If only there were sufficient political will, we would not have any new refugee situations and we would be able to resolve those that already exist. But unfortunately, the speaker pointed out, relatively little thought has been given to the meaning of ‘political will’ or to the methods that can be used to generate and sustain it in a refugee context.

In that respect, it was proposed, a combination of strategies should be employed: first, encouraging sympathetic political leaders and other personalities to take a stand in favour of refugee protection principles; second, reminding states of the obligations they have freely assumed under international law and as members of the UN; third, providing governments with political, economic and developmental incentives to pursue progressive refugee policies; and fourth, mobilizing a range of different constituencies – including refugees themselves, NGOs, civil society, the private sector and general public – to lobby for the fair treatment of refugees.

Taking up the issue of public pressure, another speaker recalled the time two years ago, when a group of people posted a Facebook message, saying that they were organizing a march in London in support of refugees. “We imagined that there would be about four of us standing in the rain with placards. But two days later, 10,000 people had signed up, and when the march eventually took place, 100,000 people participated. The BBC called it the greatest act of solidarity in the UK in living memory.” What is needed, the speaker suggested, is a more dynamic relationship between such concerned citizens and the specialized refugee and human rights organizations that can communicate with government at a policy level.

Another speaker asked whether humanitarian advocates had actually given too much attention to the refugee issue. Citing Syria and Yemen, the speaker observed that both countries had large numbers of people who were besieged in their own homes and communities, deprived of assistance and at risk of death by aerial bombardment. “I am wondering if international organizations, donors, decision-makers and even researchers are giving so much attention to people who have been displaced that they have forgotten about those people who are unable to move.”

Another speaker concurred with the importance and urgency of this question, expressing horror in relation to the treatment of besieged populations in the two countries under discussion. “Food has been used very explicitly as a weapon of war, while bombs have been deliberately dropped on hospitals and clinics. It is astonishing that we have not been able to respond to these abuses.”

Taking up issues raised earlier in the discussion, the speaker suggested that two things were needed in such situations: first, a holistic approach to humanitarian action based on people’s needs and vulnerabilities, rather than their legal status or location; and second, a sense of popular outrage that makes it impossible for political leaders to ignore their plight.

Addressing the latter issue, a final speaker argued that a new civil society movement is needed, linking citizens in the Global North and Global South, with the purpose of mobilizing and channeling public pressure on states the Security Council. Citing a recent article from The Lancet, the speaker said that the atrocities in Guernica in Spain had signaled the demise of the League of Nations. Would Syria and Yemen have the same impact on the United Nations?