The International Refugee System: Part IV - The System

By Samantha Montano, M.S. 

Thoughts on the Syrian War, the international refugee system, humanity's affinity for like-looking people, and how those all fit together and how this situation can inform our future, particularly when it comes to climate change refugees.

Reminder: Your education is your responsibility.

So... this whole refugee thing doesn’t seem to be working out for either the refugees themselves nor the countries they are passing through, nor the countries they’re relocating to… Is this what is supposed to happen? 

Yes, this is what is supposed to happen. The UN set into motion the creation of an international refugee system after WWII in the form of what is today called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The refugee system, to the extent that it's appropriate to call it a system, began after WWII for the purposes of resettling refugees throughout Europe. Five million refugees went through the system at the conclusion of WWII. The resettlement was done through the UN, specifically the newly created UNHCR. This new system worked to the extent that WWII refugees were resettled but it was also clear that WWII was not the only producer of refugees. In fact, they found refugees are a constant reality of an unpeaceful world (duh). After WWII, there were a whole bunch of other wars, all over the world that required individuals leave their countries because of very real safety concerns. Whether they are refugees from war, genocide, climate changes, disasters, or political conflicts more broadly, there have constantly been millions of individuals that need to be resettled. So, since it's creation UNHCR has continued to coordinate the resettlement of refugees around the world. 

Is the system working or is it failing? The answer to that is critical to understanding what needs to be done to fix the actual refugee system (globally, not just for Syrian refugees) because regardless if the system is supposed to work like this or not the one thing I think we can all agree on is that the performance is unacceptable -- it's not working.

The refugee system, since its creation, has been constantly overwhelmed. If a system is overwhelmed from its founding isn't that an indication that the system was never created correctly from the start? How could we expect the system to be sustainable? How could that system extend and expand as needs change? 

The international refugee system is, and has been, completely overwhelmed, underfunded, and understaffed for its entire life. World leaders do not make refugees a priority until it is politically or economically beneficial to themselves. Questioning the altruism of world powers is probably futile so the take-away here is that refugees are not a priority of the international community, nor are they likely to be in the future unless they are in some way politically or economically relevant to a powerful country.

The average person likely knows very little about the refugee system. Misconceptions and blatantly inaccuracies that are perpetuated by mainstream media, social media, individuals, and governments have created a negative stereotype of refugees. This image has perpetuated a complete lack of understanding and an unwillingness to assist refugees worldwide (this is particularly the current case in the United States). The political reactions we’re seeing now, not even from conservative candidates, but just from average people online… it’s disturbing to see how deep-seated these fears and hate towards refugees really are.

Around the world, they are the international body that is supposed to be managing refugees. When somebody needs to leave their country they are supposed to be able to go the UN to get the resources needed to be removed from their country and resettled someplace else until such time as they are able to return to their home country. UNHCR has consistently been underfunded and unsupported by the major industrialized nations. These countries that are supposed to be the leaders of the world have not been participating in this system.

But it’s not just the UN (and their numerous agencies) who are involved in managing refugees. As alluded to in previous blog posts the individual governments of each country (both national and local levels), NGO's (international, regional networks, local nonprofits in each country and abroad), online activists (groups and individuals), emergent groups, and corporations/ businesses. 

The government from the home country of refugees, the second countries, the third countries, and any countries that have a stake in any of the aforementioned countries are all involved in the movement of refugees around the world. I think it's pretty clear how difficult it is to get two countries to agree or coordinate on even less controversial things so the notion that dozens of governments could come together and coordinate a response to the controversial movement of millions of people is truly laughable. 

There are not only the international organizations that have become involved in this situation such as IRC, MSF, OxFam, CARE, etc. but also the organizations in each of the countries involved that are providing food, water, temporary housing, and the necessities for permanent resettlement. Then there's all the new organizations and groups that form in the short term to address specific needs that are not met by existing organizations and government (e.g., the convoy of Germans that drove to the border to drive refugees in their personal vehicles). There's also the online community, the impacts of which are less studied. The internet and its compondents are used as a tool for all of these pre-existing groups but it's also used by individuals. Refugees can tweet their experiences first hand. They can explain their needs first hand and people on the other side of the world can meet their individual needs directly, bypassing the larger developed system all together. 

Is that the future? Do we not need nonprofits and intermediate organizations and groups if the people with the resources can speak directly to the people who need the resources? Has twitter and other social media sites replaced the need for intermediate organizations whom often take a cut of the donations (even if for responsible reasons such as overhead costs)? 

Perhaps that's the future but it seems a long way off. There's another reality about the current refugee system that is rarely, if ever discussed by mainstream media -- the trend towards the privatization of the refugee system. If it never occurred to you that the refugee system is being privatized it’s because it’s not something that has been advertised (NGOs and the UN remain the most visible organizations).

Here's an example using Greece again. With the influx of refugees, the Greek government hired a corporation to open detention centers to house the refugees as they arrived. As more an more refugees arrived the camps were filled over capacity. Instead of opening more camps, which the Greek government had given the money to do, the corporation forced the refugees to sleep outside in the open. Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights group have called the camps “inhumane”. 

Let's be clear on something -- a privatized refugee system (regardless of what country it is in) is objectively a horrible idea. Think privatization of prisons in the US but times 15 million people. By privatizing the refugee system you financially incentivize creating more refugees. There is no incentive for a company to resettle the refugees because they will lose profits. There's also no incentive for these contractors to provide any kind of humane treatment.... which is evidenced by the detention centers in Greece (and other places). (Also the privatized refugee system collides with the homeland security industry and the military industrial complex in a way that I haven't fully wrapped my head around and that could probably be explained better by some kind of cartoon). Ultimately, in privatized camps refugees are treated inhumanely and are left to ad-hoc their way through the situation with no guidance or oversight.

There’s also no accountability (with the exception of Amnesty International which seems to work their way in now and then). Privatizing the refugee system signals that host- governments do not care. It is easier for them to just pay a corporation to deal with the problem. If you create a system that accepts refugees and then immediately turns them out to get jobs, and a place to stay, and education and for them to be financially independent on their own, which is what you want, the corporation can't keep making money. But if you keep people constrained to perpetual refugee status the corporation can keep making money. Again, companies have no incentive to move the refugees outside of the detention centers AND while the refugees are in the detention centers there’s no incentive to treat them in a humane way.

The privatization of refugee camps is especially bad news for NGO's. It ties their hands in terms of what they can do to help refugees not to mention that now businesses are competing with NGO’s to secure government grants.

It’s not just that we need to address the current refugee crisis, although we do. It’s that we need to address the refugee system. It may have been sufficient in 1945, but the world is different now. We can do more. We are headed down a very dangerous path -- this current situation is indicative of the road we will be traveling down for the next decades, if not centuries. We need to build an international refugee system that has the capacity to deal with the millions that become refugees annually.