Updating the Global Refugee Regime

The international convention governing the global response to refugees, crafted in the aftermath of World War II, is unsuited for the challenges of today. To address current and future crises, the convention should be amended to increase funding, strengthen enforcement mechanisms, and reassess who counts as a refugee.


The debacle in Afghanistan has rekindled the global debate over how to manage refugee flows. There is widespread concern that the Taliban’s return to power will trigger new waves of people fleeing the country. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is preparing for more than a half-million people to leave Afghanistan in this year alone. The crisis in Afghanistan, like recent crises in Syria, Libya, and Myanmar, has exposed the weaknesses of the global system governing refugees – primarily, the deficiencies in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The refugee convention was designed for a different age. When it was developed, the world was recovering from the tragedy of World War II, and Europe was the epicenter of the refugee crisis. Today, the epicenter has shifted. More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. As a result, the burden of caring for refugees has shifted away from the West. Globally, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees – nearly 3.7 million – followed by Jordan (2.9 million), Colombia (1.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), and Uganda (1.4 million).

But this significant change in refugee dynamics has not produced any real effort to amend the multilateral framework. The result is a proliferation of transactional bilateral deals like the March 2016 agreement between Turkey and the European Union on Syrian refugees. This agreement essentially allowed the EU to escape its obligations under the 1951 convention by outsourcing its refugee policy. Such deals weaken the global rules-based international system on refugees.

Rather than crafting piecemeal agreements and deals, the international community should revisit the refugee convention and amend it in at least four ways.

The first issue to be addressed is funding. As things stand, the UNHCR has an annual budget of $8.6 billion, which is grossly insufficient to meet its mandated objectives. As a result, the agency is forced to engage in fundraising from governments every time there is a refugee crisis. For example, it is now scrambling to raise the money it needs to manage the Afghanistan situation.

Compare this to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which national governments have committed to leveraging $100 billion per year to fight climate change. As important as this objective may be, the asymmetry of committed resources is glaring. In its latest Multiannual Financial Framework, the EU has committed the equivalent of around $27 billion to financing international climate programs, while its yearly contribution to the UNHCR budget stands at $522 million, or approximately $3.65 billion over the MFF’s seven years. An appropriate response would be to create a permanent fund for refugees, akin to the Global Climate Fund, under the auspices of the UNHCR. Such a fund would enable the UNHCR to act more effectively and decisively, and, more importantly, greatly enhance its ability to help host countries.

Moreover, the definition of a refugee must be changed to include those displaced by the effects of climate change. Although many studies point to a potential increase in refugee numbers triggered by global warming, the 1951 convention does not recognize climate change as a bona fide justification for granting refugee status. But international humanitarian law is already evolving in this direction. In a landmark 2016 ruling, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that displaced persons cannot be sent back to home countries where their lives are threatened because of climate change.

The third change should be to strengthen enforcement of the international regime on refugees. The 1951 convention envisaged a very weak enforcement mechanism with a role for the International Court of Justice, which has jurisdiction to resolve disputes on the interpretation and application of the convention. But the mechanism has never been used, and the current system cannot properly address either past or potential violations of international refugee law. As a result, countries are not penalized for transgressions under the convention, which is why Italy and Greece have faced no real consequences for preventing boats carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East from approaching their shores.

One solution would be to create a standing UN Commission on Refugees composed of elected government representatives, like the UN Commission on Human Rights. Such a commission, in cooperation with the UNHCR, could exercise more direct political oversight of the refugee convention and improve the accountability of the current system of governance.

Lastly, global rules for the protection of refugees needs to be linked more concretely to the evolving understanding of the “responsibility to protect.” This concept, which the General Assembly adopted unanimously in 2005 to justify UN-mandated interventions, is limited currently to cases of mass atrocity, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. In light of the recent experience in Syria, Myanmar, and now possibly Afghanistan, governments should not be allowed to nurture conditions that destabilize their near neighbors by generating large outflows of refugees. A violation of this principle should trigger international action under the responsibility to protect.

Embracing these four changes would go a long way toward bringing the global regime on refugees into the twenty-first century. Given the growing number of people driven from their homes by conflict and climate change, there is no time to waste.

(Author Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat, is Executive Chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.)


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