Updating the Global Refugee Regime
The international convention governing the global response to refugees, crafted in the aftermath of World War II, is unsuited for the challenges of today. To address current and future crises, the convention should be amended to increase funding, strengthen enforcement mechanisms, and reassess who counts as a refugee.
ISTANBUL – The debacle in Afghanistan has rekindled the global debate over how to manage refugee flows. There is widespread concern that the Taliban’s return to power will trigger new waves of people fleeing the country. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is preparing for more than a half-million people to leave Afghanistan in this year alone. The crisis in Afghanistan, like recent crises in Syria, Libya, and Myanmar, has exposed the weaknesses of the global system governing refugees – primarily, the deficiencies in the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The refugee convention was designed for a different age. When it was developed, the world was recovering from the tragedy of World War II, and Europe was the epicenter of the refugee crisis. Today, the epicenter has shifted. More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. As a result, the burden of caring for refugees has shifted away from the West. Globally, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees – nearly 3.7 million – followed by Jordan (2.9 million), Colombia (1.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), and Uganda (1.4 million).
But this significant change in refugee dynamics has not produced any real effort to amend the multilateral framework. The result is a proliferation of transactional bilateral deals like the March 2016 agreement between Turkey and the European Union on Syrian refugees. This agreement essentially allowed the EU to escape its obligations under the 1951 convention by outsourcing its refugee policy. Such deals weaken the global rules-based international system on refugees.