Guest Blog: Tiffany Basciano on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees

In advance of International Human Rights Day, December 10, today’s post was written by Tiffany Basciano, Associate Director and a professorial lecturer in the International Law and Organizations Program at Johns Hopkins – School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). At SAIS, she founded the International Human Rights Clinic, which provides a unique experiential learning opportunity for graduate students.

Professor Basciano’s academic interests include international human rights law and rule of law development. She has provided expertise at various meetings with external stakeholders, such as discussing human rights education with a visiting delegation from China, as well as briefing the government of Myanmar on the Convention against Torture.

In this post, Professor Basciano advocates for more responsibility-sharing in the refugee crisis, providing snapshots of three refugee-hosting countries: Bangladesh, Uganda, and Turkey. Views are the author’s own.

All Hands on Deck: Responsibility-Sharing of Hosting Refugees
by Tiffany Basciano

Considering that the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognized the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international co-operation.
-Preamble, The Refugee Convention, 1951

At the end of 2016, developing countries continued to host a staggering percentage of the world’s refugees at 84%. With the recent movement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, as well as South Sudanese refugees topping the one million mark in Uganda, the disproportionate weight on certain countries is coming painfully into focus. Indeed, although the media gave much attention to the genuine difficulties faced by Europe in addressing migratory outflows from Syria and North Africa, it was Turkey, in 2016, that once again hosted the largest number of refugees in the world with close to three million, mainly Syrian, refugees. The mass movement of people fleeing from terrible violence is all too frequent. It is beyond time for developed countries to breathe life into the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and ease the inequitable, unsustainable, and unwise burden on the developing world. Below are snapshots of three refugee-hosting countries: Bangladesh, Uganda, and Turkey that illustrate the need for improved responsibility-sharing in the management of refugees.

Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated and poorest countries in the world, is hosting over 800,000 Rohingya refugees with 600,000 plus arriving in the past few months. The preexisting conditions in Bangladesh are just not conducive to addressing a cross-border humanitarian crisis of this scale. Surrounding communities in Bangladesh are already feeling the economic strain brought on by the refugee flow. Due to the current demands on resources and the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters, the potential for hardships for Bangladeshis and refugees alike is significant.

The hope is that the Rohingya refugees will be able to return voluntarily to Myanmar and live in peace. However, it is indeterminate when the point for safe return will arrive. Even if that point does arrive, will individuals choose to return, and if they do, will they be able to reclaim their land? Still, if the Rohingya were to remain in Bangladesh, the robust protections afforded to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are unlikely to transpire, as Bangladesh is not a party. In any event, Bangladesh is hesitant to grant refugee status to the Rohingya. Complicating matters further for the Rohingya is the oppressive legal black hole of statelessness. Thus, it will be an uphill battle to find an amenable resolution for all parties, which also adequately protects the Rohingya.

Refugees continue to cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh. With a tempered response from the United Nations Security Council due to pressure from Russia and China, it is unclear when the violence will stop. The conditions in the camps are dreadful with aid and direct assistance needed now. More of the international community must step up to protect the Rohingya refugees and help Bangladesh manage this crisis.

In 2016, Uganda, a small landlocked country in Central East Africa, registered the most refugees, largely South Sudanese, of any country. Currently, Uganda is facing several critical challenges, such as poverty, food security, and public health concerns. Their public health initiatives range from containing an outbreak of the Marburg Virus to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic to reducing Malaria infections. Such demanding priorities on top of hosting refugees complicates Uganda’s ability to manage a widespread crisis over the long term.

Often praised for its progressive policies, Uganda offers small plots of land, freedom of movement, and work authorization to refugees. Uganda’s famous hospitality has tangible benefits, such as clearing unproductive land and the growth of local businesses. However, there are also difficulties. A recent report indicated that some refugees in the Palorinya camp, suffering from a delayed food delivery, crossed back into South Sudan in search of food – a choice between starvation or risking death by conflict is not a choice at all. The conditions for local Ugandans have likewise been challenging. A devastating drought resulting in food shortages led to instances of Ugandans pretending to be refugees to receive food aid. Given underlying issues of poverty and food security, it is unsurprising that aid distribution to refugees has caused some tension with local communities.

Donor funding is desperately required to meet the needs of refugees in Uganda, but developed countries must also ease the strain of physically hosting over one million additional people. Because of the continuing conflict in South Sudan and corresponding refugee flows, it is hard to imagine how Uganda can sustain its hospitality indefinitely.

The case of Turkey adds a layer of complexity to the narrative. Although it is a story of the successes and challenges of hosting the largest refugee population in the world, it is also the story of how the European Union (EU) sold its soul to stem refugee flows into Europe and corral them in Turkey.

Turkey, which borders Syria, became a host-country for refugees, as well as a transit point for migratory flows into Greece. To prevent this type of perilous migration, in March 2016, the EU and Turkey brokered a deal. The deal called for Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing into the EU and for new irregular migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey to be returned to Turkey. In exchange, the EU would resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey on a one-for-one basis, provide significant financial support to care for refugees in Turkey, and fast-track visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. Since then, arrivals into Greece have decreased significantly, but not stopped, and the percentage of returns to Turkey of new arrivals has been minimal.

This deal came with significant political and moral costs for the EU. The EU is now at the mercy of Turkish President Erdoğan with refugees used as bargaining chips. Meanwhile, Turkey’s human rights record continues to complicate its accession to the EU but is conveniently good enough to be a third-party state to return irregular migrants – calling into question the EU’s principled leadership on human rights.

As much as European countries were concerned with integration issues and political backlash from the migration flows, Turkey also has similar, though seemingly underappreciated, concerns. Erdoğan faced a backlash at the suggestion of allowing Syrians to apply for Turkish citizenship. With millions of refugees, a language barrier, a high unemployment rate, and other factors, integration is bound to cause tension in Turkey.

The EU-Turkey deal is tenuous. It could unfold due to domestic politics within Turkey, or a souring of relations between the EU and Turkey. A failed deal would make the EU’s moral compromise all for naught. It is unfair and misguided to allow Turkey, a country approaching 81 million people to host almost 3.3 million refugees. As such, the EU needs to correct the imbalance and go beyond the deal to increase resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey to the EU.

One must commend Bangladesh, Uganda, and Turkey for providing safe haven to so many. However, global refugee crises of this magnitude cannot and should not merely be “contained” locally. These crises are an “all hands on deck” moment that requires developed countries to host a fairer share of the world’s refugees. To move forward, leaders need to condemn any rhetoric that unconscionably and wrongly scapegoats refugees for political gain (See U.S. President Trump for what not to do). The creation of welcoming political climates will make it easier for third-party countries to increase resettlement numbers or start resettlement programs – one of the several ways in which wealthier countries can improve the equity among refugee-hosting countries.

Stemming the violence that creates refugee flows would be an ideal charge of the international community, but it is wishful thinking in the current international security apparatus. Refugees and citizens of the developing world deserve the opportunity to not only survive but also thrive – a birthright for many living in the developed world. Whether for humanitarian, security, moral, religious, political, legal, or a combination of reasons, developed countries need to meet their global civic duty and ease the burden on the developing world for protecting refugees.

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