A Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Photo: Getty Images.

A Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Photo: Getty Images.

More than 80 per cent of refugees globally reside in low- and middle-income countries. With chronic underfunding of humanitarian assistance, shrinking resettlement opportunities and increasingly protracted displacement, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has described the current situation as ‘not so much a crisis of numbers but of cooperation and solidarity’.

Take Lebanon, for example – seven years in, more than three quarters of Syrian refugees are considered by the UN to be living below the poverty line. Only 36% of funding needs for humanitarian assistance in 2017 were met. Resulting resource competition has become a source of tension between refugees and local communities.

Making responsibility sharing work

In the midst of a visible failure of the international community to respond coherently to large scale refugee movements, states acknowledged in the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants a ‘shared responsibility’ to manage large movements of refugees, along with the need for a more equitable and predictable approach.

Translating the New York Declaration’s sentiments on responsibility sharing into meaningful action should be high on the agenda in the current discussions towards a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The compact, a non-legally binding instrument envisaged by the New York Declaration, is due for adoption later this year (alongside a global compact dealing with migration, negotiated on a separate track).

The zero draft of the GCR from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), released late January, specifically addresses ‘principal modalities for burden- and responsibility-sharing’. It draws upon the concept of ‘responsibility sharing’ that has been discussed for decades as a means of reducing strain on disproportionately-affected host countries and improving protection and assistance for refugees, through support in the form of financial and material aid to such countries and admission of refugees.

The proposed mechanisms in the zero draft are ad hoc in nature: UNHCR-facilitated platforms, solidarity conferences or situation-specific compacts for mobilizing international resources in support of plans developed by the affected state. It draws on positive developments in practice; for example, supporting a greater role for development actors and refugees in assessing needs and designing responses.

But no mention is made of concrete criteria for apportioning responsibility between states, types of contribution or standing mechanisms to facilitate and monitor distribution of responsibilities. And the emphasis appears to be on responsibility sharing through material and financial assistance rather than through relocation of refugees and asylum seekers.

The latter, generally less palatable to developed states, features in the zero draft, but only later on in the context of durable solutions under the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The CRRF, already agreed by states and due to form part of the global compact, sets out guidance for host states, and those assisting them, on tools for responding effectively to large-scale refugee situations.

The draft compact’s relative cautiousness on responsibility sharing is understandable given the fractious debate around refugee and migration policy. The New York Declaration provides little cover. And international refugee law is of limited assistance: an obligation to protect and assist refugees within or at a country’s borders is clear; less so any duty to support significantly-affected states.

While the principle of cooperation may exist, with the preamble to the 1951 Refugee Convention often cited in this regard, the existence and content of any firm obligation to provide specific forms of assistance is contested. The EU’s divisions on its own emergency relocation scheme illustrate the defensiveness of many states towards more robust approaches to responsibility sharing, never mind any suggestion of a legal obligation. Only 34% of the target of around 98,000 asylum-seekers were relocated by the scheme’s close at the end of last year.

Shifting incentives

Yet, as many commentators have noted, political and humanitarian considerations have persuaded governments in the past to take on commitments in the spirit of responsibility sharing. Commonly cited, the Comprehensive Plan of Action in the late 1980s saw Western states, including the US, resettle significant numbers of Indochinese refugees from host countries in Asia. The GCR is a chance to move beyond such reactive and situation-specific arrangements to a global and more predictable framework for responsibility sharing incorporating a degree of accountability.

Admittedly, this requires a fundamental shift for many influential states given their current preoccupation with securitized, containment-focused refugee policies. However, such policies are likely to increase pressure on frontline (and often fragile) countries, provoking them to question their own obligations towards refugees. The humanitarian consequences are potentially catastrophic: deteriorating security and living conditions, pushbacks and forced returns, driving many refugees to seek safety elsewhere. The latter scenario is precisely the onward movement states further afield are desperate to avoid.

Numerous proposals have been made for how a more predictable, equitable and global system of responsibility sharing could work. A treaty on responsibility sharing has been advocated. Others have suggested methodologies that can guide states on the contributions they should reasonably be making, both in terms of financial and material assistance and in relocating refugees.

For example, Oxfam’s working model uses GDP, population size, the Human Development Index and the Fragile States Index to calculate a country’s ‘fair share’, estimating that of 193 countries assessed so far, 113 are doing less than half of what they could fairly be expected to do when looking only at the numbers hosted. In terms of how such a model could be used in practice, Oxfam’s proposal envisages a standing intergovernmental platform, chaired by well-performing states, to guide governments on achieving their fair contribution and to monitor progress.

Political realities make it unlikely that states are ready to accept a system predicated on mandatory and advance commitments. Progress may, more realistically, be made on establishing criteria for speedily identifying a fair distribution of existing and emerging support needs – along, perhaps, with a mechanism for engaging states and monitoring commitments made. Richer states tempted to move in this direction may draw some comfort from developments in current practice that may render potential demands more manageable (and easier to sell domestically).

Development and private sector actors are increasingly engaged in refugee responses, signalling a move away from (prolonged) emergency assistance to more sustainable programmes that help refugees to help themselves and their local community – for example, innovative financing for infrastructure and job creation projects. Grassroots initiatives, such as private sponsorship schemes in Canada, illustrate the potential for civil society to open up safe and legal pathways for refugees with limited impact on public resources. And emerging resettlement countries show how states not traditionally active on refugee issues can be constructively engaged. Many such practices are embedded in the CRRF.

If humanitarian considerations alone won’t persuade a broad coalition of states to consider real reform on responsibility sharing, political, security and economic dividends may provide the necessary incentives. A more mature approach that is pragmatic, evidence-based, inclusive and rights-sensitive, is long overdue.