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Toward a New International Refugee Regime

With the world up in arms over Trump's immigration policy, we revisit a pathbreaking text on the global refugee crisis

The world is facing record numbers of persons displaced by conflict and violence, while the international refugee regime — put in place during the post-World War II era to provide international protection and assistance — is fundamentally broken. States have adopted policies to deny, deter, and detain asylum seekers. Persons recognized as refugees are routinely denied rights guaranteed by international law. A humanitarian system established to provide emergency care is now called upon to render services for long and indefinite periods of time. Perhaps most fundamentally, no formal process or dependable practice of international responsibility-sharing — vital to finding solutions to refugee situations and to ensuring the dignified and lawful treatment of refugees in the interim — currently exists. The result is that millions of refugees around the world experience a “second exile” — years spent in limbo with little opportunity to rebuild their lives or to contribute to the communities that host them. Most spend those years struggling to survive in just a handful of developing countries. The refugee crisis is not global; but the crisis of responsibility is.

In exploring these and other trends, we adopt a revisionist and critical perspective in our book, Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime, that examines the original premises of the international refugee regime and details how the regime has evolved, and devolved, over the past seven decades. We identify compromises at the founding of the system that attempted to mediate between and among humanitarian and development principles as well as the sovereign control by states over borders and membership decisions. We note that, in the early years, the tensions inherent in the system were largely avoided for a number of reasons (including Cold War imperatives and the limited, European-focus of the Refugee Convention). Today, however, these tensions have come front and center, and have helped to produce the systemic breakdown we are currently witnessing. To repair and reform the current system, we suggest returning to some of the regime’s foundational principles while transcending others. We argue for a focus on refugee rights, autonomy, and mobility. We also urge that changes are needed at the level of structures and institutions, especially when it comes to responsibility-sharing and to the infamous humanitarian-development divide.

Click here to download the full text of the Arc of Protection:Toward a New International Refugee Regime

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Alex Aleinikoff

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