More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled their home country in the bloody civil war that is now nearing its third-year anniversary. These refugees, including more than 1 million children, constitute the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a generation, but it is only one of several protracted challenges for the United Nations and private international relief organizations.
Hundreds of thousands of Africans have also fled from conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria. All told, there are now more than 10 million refugees worldwide, most of them housed and fed in camps meant to be temporary but over time more akin to permanent settlements.
These refugees benefit from a legal regime established after World War II. In history’s world-ever humanitarian crisis, Europe had more than 6 million displaced persons on a continent with its infrastructure ruined and its political institutions broken down. Under U.N. auspices, the nations of the world agreed in 1951 on a treaty, the Convention on the Status of Refugees, that provided for recognition of refugees and protected them from forced repatriation to their home countries.
The treaty was initially limited to Europe, but in 1967 a second treaty the Protocol on the Status of Refugees allowed for expanded coverage to refugees worldwide. More than 140 countries, including the United States, are now parties to the 1967 treaty.
As important as the treaties’ life-saving protections may be, however, they are less than a complete solution for refugees, according to a leading U.S. expert and ranking United Nations official. As Alex Aleinikoff explained in a lecture at Georgetown Law School in late November, most of the refugees cannot return to their home countries, will not be integrated by their host countries, and will not be accepted by other countries. “Nonsolutions have become the norm,” said Aleinikoff, the school’s former dean and now the U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees.
The Syrian refugee crisis as well as the others have gained the world’s sympathetic attention. Print, photo, and TV journalists have visited the camps and brought back moving stories of people uprooted by conflicts, like this multipart package on Syrian refugees published in The Washington Post earlier this month [Dec. 15].
Readers and viewers moved by the emotional impact of these accounts, however, can easily overlook the longer term challenge that the refugees present. As senior correspondent Kevin Sullivan writes, the refugee camps “increasingly look like permanent cities” with “thousands of children” being born in makeshift maternity wards. Jordan’s Zatari refugee camp, with 120,000 people, is now that country’s fourth largest city, Sullivan notes. In his lecture, Aleinikoff noted that the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, with more than 450,000 residents, now ranks as that country’s third largest city.
Aleinikoff rightly emphasizes the successes of the current legal protections for refugees. Immediately after World War II, millions of Russian refugees were repatriated to the Soviet Union, many of them sent to long-term imprisonment or death in the Siberian gulags.
The 1951 treaty formalized the international law principle against forced repatriation known by the French term nonrefoulement. “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion,” the treaty states.
Along with the principle of nonrefoulement, the treaty provides for recognition of refugee status, minimum conditions for treatment of refugees, burden sharing among nations, and monitoring of refugees’ treatment. But, as Aleinikoff noted, the treaty guarantees those rights only to those who meet its definition of refugee, which does not include those who flee from poverty or generalized violence.
Even those who qualify as refugees, however, have only limited rights. Refugees have no right to work and no right to move, Aleinikoff notes. Those limitations, he observes, may be the price that refugee advocates have to pay for host countries’ open borders. And despite the best efforts hundreds of thousands of refugee children are not being schooled.
Even though more refugees are receiving assistance than ever before, “no one believes that our current system of care and maintenance is ideal,” Aleinikoff says. Kept in “refugee dependency” for what is now an average tenure of 17 years, hundreds of thousands of refugees are simply “forgotten persons,” he says.
Aleinikoff’s discussion indicates that solutions require not only more money but also political will and creative thinking. Countries outside the affected regions must be willing to accept more refugees to ease the burdens on neighboring host countries. As Sullivan noted, Lebanon has absorbed 1.6 million Syrian refugees, more than one-third of its prewar population of 4.4 million. In this regard, the United States is lagging badly. Through September, the United Stats had granted permanent status to only 90 Syrian refugees, according to a later story in the Post [Dec. 28]. The administration now says it wants to do more.
Aleinikoff also urges that refugees be given training in the camps along with opportunities to develop productive communities for example, through farming. Donor countries support such initiatives, Aleinikoff says, but host countries, fearful of the impact on jobs for their own citizens, are “a harder sell.” Whatever the politics may be, the refugees’ plight cries out for attention, even as the conflicts that they fled continue with no resolutions in sight.