Law Prof. James Hathaway, founder and director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, spoke earnestly to a group of Michigan students at a lecture on Nov. 9 about a situation whose urgency should be ubiquitous even in the wake of this month’s contentious election. The state of the global refugee system is in many ways egregious, marked with an unequal assumption of responsibilities by states, horrible conditions for asylum-seekers and specious incentives for a number of actors. The refugee crisis of the past five years has made this already dire problem far more salient in the Western world, and Hathaway insists sticking with the status quo is not an option.
The most prominent flaw in the current refugee system is the astoundingly asymmetrical distribution of displaced populations. According to Hathaway, given the lack of international cooperation and growing reluctance by many developed states to take in refugees, approximately 85 percent of global refugees reside in poorer countries, many of them contiguous to the conflicts from which refugees are fleeing. Consequently, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Pakistan and others have been forced to shoulder a tremendous burden with Western support being more superficial than palpable at times. Hathaway pointed to one eye-opening statistic that is illustrative of this reality: Western nations spend more in processing the claims of the 15 percent of world refugees entering Western countries than in assisting the 85 percent of refugees living elsewhere.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to the West’s collective engagement with the world’s refugee problem is our effort to circumvent the issue itself. Between the European Union’s deal with Turkey to deflect refugees back to the Middle East and growing anti-refugee rhetoric from elected officials, many developed nations have not yet acknowledged that the global refugee crisis is a problem that we all have a responsibility to help solve. As it stands, the majority of the world’s refugees live in harsh conditions, uncertain of what the future holds, faced with ever-growing contempt from the countries with the greatest means to support them.
Hathaway did recognize a silver lining amid the disarray: A solution already exists; we simply need to operationalize it. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 — signed by the United States and 146 other countries — insisted upon a collective system in which all participating countries take on a level of responsibility for the inevitable and dynamic surges of refugees. It declared that refugees are entitled to arrive to a country without permission, granted rights to empowerment such as work and mobility and called for measures to facilitate refugees’ eventual return home. Instead, the system that exists today is characterized by “10 countries doing 60 percent of the world’s refugee work simply due to geographic coincidence,” Hathaway said.
Instead, Western nations seem more concerned with the crime of smuggling and the dilemmas of cultural and economic integration than with the well-being of the world’s most vulnerable population. The now-commonplace political mantra of the “dangerous refugee” justifying a ban on their entry is suspect, as there is no indication that refugees are any more dangerous than American citizens or other migrants. Even then, our vetting process could hardly be more thorough. The West’s concerns are certainly legitimate but should not entirely supersede the responsibility we have assumed through our signing of the Refugee Convention, our continuous intervention abroad and our tremendous economic prosperity.
Hathaway proposes an “insurance-like” model to implement the framework laid out by this convention. Each country would take on certain financial and human responsibilities based on various characteristics (GDP, amount of arable land, demographics, etc.). These quotas would be agreed upon and distributed fairly in order to assuage the ongoing movement of refugees. In this model, refugees’ countries of arrival would not necessarily be their final destination, but rather their point of access to the international system. If states don’t believe that each and every new arrival becomes 100 percent their responsibility, they will be less inclined to unnecessarily lengthen their vetting process and hamper their transportation, which would simultaneously diminish the power of the refugee smuggling industry. Hathaway estimates that such an approach could lead to a third of refugees returning home within six years, another third remaining in contiguous countries and the final third finding a permanent home elsewhere.
Today, the Western world is yet to truly undertake a collective, systemic solution to the plight of the global refugee population. Instead, our discourse has centered around whether the refugee crisis should be our concern, rather than how we can ultimately resolve it. As a result, we have more or less perpetuated the state of limbo in which many refugees find themselves, while leaving a massive burden on less prosperous nations simply because of their geographical coincidence. A model like Professor Hathaway’s, which distributes this tremendous burden both sensibly and equitably, would lead to a more cooperative international community that lives up to its decades-old promises of bringing justice to the world’s most vulnerable and underrepresented population.
David Donnantuono is an LSA junior.