The Arc of Protection Chapter 4

The Responsibility to Solve

PS Books is proud to be publishing a draft of a pathbreaking study of the international refugee crisis, along with informed commentary by a group of the leading experts in the field. This is the third chapter. Last week, we previously published introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and  Chapter 3. We will publish the remaining chapter of the series later today. The commentaries will follow. We are experimenting here, presenting a preview of a book, for comments, to which Aleinikoff and Zamore will respond in the final version of their book. For this reason, they welcome and are especially interested in responses from our readers. —Jeff Goldfarb


If the international system of protection is failing, whose job is it to fix it? In this chapter, we will press several arguments as to why states and international organizations have a responsibility to mend the system they have created and through which they control the movement, reception, and lives of the forcibly displaced. Our argument is to some degree a legal one, focusing on instruments and doctrines that have some force in international law. Perhaps more importantly, we make claims based on functionalism (what the protection regime requires, in a deep sense, if it is to stop failing) and on principle (one that attempts to provide a “moral fulcrum” for change).

I. Protracted displacement situations (PDS)

The Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya is one of the largest in the world, hosting more than 200,000 refugees. [1] It is the third largest city in Kenya. The vast majority of refugees in Dadaab are Somalis who have fled years of conflict and drought. Dadaab is in its third decade, and it counts among it residents, according to UNHCR, thousands of children born to refugees who themselves were born in Dadaab — three generations of refugees and two that may never have experienced life outside of the camp into which they were born.

Dadaab — and the dozens of other long-term displacement situations around the world — does not fit the typical ways in which the lives of refugees are depicted. We imagine people streaming over borders, bound for emergency shelters built and supplied by the international community. If the turmoil that drove them from their homes ends relatively quickly, they return home to take up their lives where they left off. If conditions at home do not make safe return possible, they find a permanent home in their host country or are resettled to a new home in a new land.

Occasionally things work out this way. In 2010, nearly 90,000 ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan fled violence targeting their community; they returned a few weeks later. In 2011, over 150,000 Ivorians fled post-election violence in their home country, the majority to Liberia. Aided by UNHCR and a number of other humanitarian organizations in villages close to the Côte d’Ivoire border and elsewhere, many returned with the successful installation of Alassane Ouattara as president. So too tens of thousands of Libyans received temporary protection in neighboring Tunisia and returned home after the downfall of the Qaddafi regime.

More typical, however, are “protracted refugee situations” (PRS) (to use UNHCR’s terminology) — ones in which refugees “continue to be trapped . . . for five years or more after their initial displacement, without immediate prospects for implementation of durable solutions.” [2] UNHCR has identified more than three-dozen PRS, involving nearly 12 million persons — two-thirds of the world’s refugees.[3]

  • Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq: Over the past six years, more than five million Syrians have fled the violence in which more than 250,000 people have perished. Efforts to end the conflict have repeatedly failed. Even if the fighting stops, many will be unable or unwilling to return, either because they fled the side that prevails in the conflict or because they have no home, or even a hometown, to which to return.
  • Somalis in East Africa: Nearly half a million Somalis are in Kenya and another half million Somalis reside in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen. The “Somali situation” began in the early nineties.
  • Eritreans in eastern Sudan: We associate with Sudan those who have fled violence in Darfur (in the west of the country), and more recently those fleeing violence near the new international border that separates Sudan from South Sudan. But Sudan also hosts more than 100,000 Eritreans in its northeast region. [4] They live in camps where UNHCR and Sudanese organizations have been providing assistance for more than 40 years. The majority of the refugees have in fact now been born in Sudan, yet they remain without Sudanese citizenship.
  • Afghans in Iran and Pakistan: Millions of Afghans have fled their homes over the past several decades. While about six million have returned home, nearly three million registered refugees remain in neighboring Iran and Pakistan — many having fled the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the late seventies and eighties. Most of the Afghan refugees live in urban or semi-urban settings, and many have found work (even if not legally authorized). The official policy of both Iran and Pakistan is that refugees should return home, but repatriation appears premature, at best, for hundreds of thousands of refugees given both their long stays outside the country and the continuing conflict.
  • Bhutanese in Nepal: In the early nineties, more than 100,000 Bhutanese found refuge in UNHCR camps in southeastern Nepal. Although UNHCR has worked with the international community to help resettle over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, nearly 10,000 remain in camps in Nepal.
  • Burmese in Thailand: Burmese refugees have lived confined in nine camps over the border with Thailand since the eighties. Despite the resettlement of tens of thousands of Burmese since 2005, 49,000 registered refugees and 50,000 unregistered asylum seekers remain in the camps.
  • Other developing protracted refugee situations: In eastern Chad, over 250,000 Darfurians live in twelve remote camps where they sought refuge after the conflict in Darfur escalated a decade ago. There are more than 50,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador, the majority in urban areas and the remainder in isolated regions near the border. In Tanzania, more than 60,000 Congolese are confined to the Nyarugusu camp, which opened more nearly two decades ago.

To read more please click here.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff is University Professor and Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School.
Leah Zamore directs the humanitarian program at the Center on International Cooperation.


[1] UNHCR, Dadaab Refugee Complex. (data as of November 30, 2017).

[2] See Core Group on Durable Solutions, UNHCR, Framework for Durable Solutions for Refugees and Persons of Concern (May 2003). UNHCR Exec. Comm., Conclusion on Protracted Refugee Situations, 61st Sess., December 8, 2009, UN Doc. A/AC.96/1080, No. 109(LX)-109 (December 22, 2009). However, for statistical purposes, UNHCR defines “major protracted refugee situations” as “refugee populations of 25,000 persons or more who have been in exile for five or more years in developing countries” while nonetheless cautioning that this “crude measure of 25,000 refugees in exile for five years should not be used as a basis for excluding other groups.” UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium 106-08 (April 20, 2006) [hereinafter UNHCR, State of the World’s Refugees], available here. Indeed, for certain purposes, such as resettlement policy and panning, UNHCR defines a PRS more generally as “any situation ‘in which refugees and find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo.’” UNHCR, UNHCR Resettlement Handbook 41, 288 (July 2011), available here; see also UNHCR Exec. Comm. of the High Comm’r’s Program, Standing Comm. 30th meeting, Protracted Refugee Situations, UN Doc. EC/54/SC/CRP.14 (June 10, 2004).

[3] UNHCR Global Trends, p. 22; see Forcibly Displaced: Toward a Development Approach Supporting Refugees, the Internally Displaced, and Their Hosts (World Bank Group 2017), PRS remained fairly constant 1991-2015, at 5-7 million (p. 25). Now that the Syrian situation has passed the five-year mark, the total number of refugees in protracted situations exceeds 10 million. UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016, June 12, 2017, available here; World Bank . Forcibly Displaced: Toward a Development Approach Supporting Refugees, the Internally Displaced, and Their Hosts , (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017).

[4] UNHCR 2015 Statistical Yearbook (Table 5).


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