International law

Interview: Refugees are a shared responsibility, says UBC Dean of Law

Canada shouldn’t develop ‘too much hubris’ about accepting a limited number of refugees
Photo: Rasande Tyskar

The United Nations Secretary General has called a high-level meeting for Sept. 19 in New York to discuss the international refugee crisis. Amid the xenophobic campaigns of demagogues in North America and Europe, it’s easy to lose sight of the international legal principles that should inform this public debate.

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Several of the world's leading experts in refugee law gathered in Vancouver in July to discuss the need for reforms stemming from the current intense levels of mass displacement. The two-day workshop produced a call to action with a central message for global policy makers and governments: the refugee crisis is a shared responsibility.

Catherine Dauvergne is dean of the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law. She organized the workshop, along with James C. Hathaway, founding director of the University of Michigan's Program in Refugee and Asylum Law. Dauvergne sat down with Ricochet to explain why Western governments need to make a financial commitment to help the countries with the most asylum seekers at their borders.

Catherine Dauvergne
Dean of the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law.

What persuaded you to organize the workshop?

International refugee law has been a fairly stable piece of international law since it first came into force in 1951, and it has been very successful. By “successful” I mean there are a huge number of states around the world who are members of the International Refugee Convention, so it's widely accepted.

For the first time since the Second World War, Western states are thinking of world refugee flows as a crisis.

Most states actually treat refugee law in a very law-like way. That seems an odd thing to say, but, for example, if you look at international human rights law, the human rights statements are all out there, but states tend to treat them more as aspirational goals, not as legal and binding. Refugee law is much more often treated as binding and legal.

But in a sense, this is what created the refugee crisis in Europe over the past year and a half. International refugee law has a core principle: if somebody arrives at your doorstep and says they're a refugee, then a state is obligated to take that claim seriously. European states are obligated to let people in, and then to figure out in good faith whether those people actually deserve refugee protection.

Accept first, question later.

Yes, so with that in mind consider the fact that there are now 60 million people who are refugees somewhere in the world. Yet if we look at the number of people who have arrived in Europe as refugees in the past year, it probably isn’t more than 1.5 million. Include Turkey, and that number might go up to 3 million or 3.5 million at the most.

So this means the vast majority of those 60 million people are still in the Global South. This, ironically, presents a really unique opportunity. Western states have always been the leaders, for better or for worse, so they have a de facto leadership role in developing international law. For the first time since the Second World War, Western states are thinking of world refugee flows as a crisis.

We want them to resist the urge to develop solutions that are only solutions for Europe.

That it has taken this long is a horrible thing to think, but it's also an opportunity to make changes to the way international refugee law works. The intention is not for governments to disturb this really good core of international law, but since it’s the first time in over 60 years that Western governments are paying enough attention, we might actually get them to work systematically on the policy pieces and implementation pieces.

Wealthier nations have the ability to provide asylum to refugees, yet the ones who seem to take the most refugees in, as you said, are the bordering nations that may not have the resources to even begin processing everyone. One of your recommendations is responsibility sharing among Western countries.

That's right. We really want to encourage world leaders to think about refugee flows, and to recognize the potential current crisis as a global phenomenon. We want them to resist the urge to develop solutions that are only solutions for Europe, because solutions for Europe won't touch Dadaab, and they won't touch the Central African Republic, they wouldn't have any impact in Southeast Asia where Rohingya people have been flowing out of Myanmar, or those flowing over the Thai border. Even though the focus is on Syria, there are a number of places in the world where there are very large numbers of refugees, and there are lots of Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan, who haven't reached and won't reach Europe.

One of the great strengths of international refugee law at the moment is that when it’s used correctly, it's capable of addressing the refugee crisis all around the world. The opportunity that's presented by the European crisis is that the strongest international governments are actually now involved. So what our group is calling for is to think about the crisis in its global dimensions, and to look for long-term solutions that would make an overall contribution to the whole shape of how the world deals with refugees, rather than just looking at short-term crisis-driven solutions that may work well for Europe, but not work beyond that or beyond this particular time frame.

Canada has been held up as a beacon to look to when resettling refugees. But does our commitment to accept refugees do enough? What could a country like ours do beyond welcoming newcomers?

Canada does some things very well and, certainly compared to other similarly situated countries, has a very strong commitment towards resettlement. Canada has really pioneered the idea of private sponsorship of refugees, which is the system that began during the Indo-Chinese crisis of the 1980s when the government began to allow individuals to sponsor refugees, which of course increases the national capacity to sponsor refugees. There's a lot that Canada can export about that idea.

Canada does some things very well, but it's important not to develop too much hubris about that.

But in terms of the global refugee crisis, Canada is very remote from the situations where most refugees arise. We really do have a geographical advantage in terms of picking and choosing who comes to Canada, and while I think it's important for Canadians to continue to contribute strongly to resettlement efforts, we also need to understand that if we take in 25,000 or 50,000 or even 100,000 people in a year (which is a number far larger than anybody's talking about), that is a tiny little drop in the bucket compared to what Angela Merkel did when she opened the borders in Germany and more than a million people walked in. If we think about how many more people that is than Canada welcomed last year, it would work out to something like 400 times as many. It's enormous.

Canada does some things very well, but it's important not to develop too much hubris about that. Canada is in a very privileged position of being able to say that we're going to take in 25,000 refugees, but that is not even comparable to the countries that don't have a choice, where people are just walking across the border, and the only way a government could prevent them from doing that would be to shoot them.

One of the political tensions is that the humanitarian impulse of many Canadians to do more on an individual basis for refugees is just about the best political impetus that we have in this country to encourage our government to do more, and so you never want to be out there saying Canadians are not good humanitarian people. It's also important to understand that what Canada is doing is important, but still small on a global scale.

The United Nations Secretary General has called a high-level meeting for Sept. 19 in New York. The Obama administration is having a parallel meeting that's happening on Sept. 20. I think it's very important for refugee advocates to urge the Canadian government to take particular ideas to these September meetings, that we think about ideas that can change the whole system at a much larger level, as well as ideas that can double or triple or quadruple the number of people who might be settled.

Resettlement, which Canada does comparatively well, is a very good solution for quite a number of the world's refugees and is a very neglected area. There aren't that many countries involved in resettlement, and the numbers are incredibly low, so it would be wonderful if we could make a real paradigm shift in the number of resettlement places that were available, but that paradigm shift is almost never going to be large enough to really change the system overall, so we really need both things.

Thinking of Germany, once a massive influx comes into a country, who does the onus fall on in terms of shelter, medical attention, even documentation? Is it on citizens, municipalities, or the federal government to provide these things?

With international refugee law, the first thing that happens is the state apparatus needs to make a system for deciding which of those people get to stay and which of them have to go home. International refugee law requires countries to open their borders and commit to treating individuals’ claims to protection, as de facto legitimate.

The first thing that happened in Germany was a massive up-scaling of the bureaucratic apparatus that appoints individual decision makers who will sit down and listen to people. Now this was a huge undertaking. There were pictures in every paper of people in week-long lineups to get their individual claims heard. Yet it’s likely that about half of the people who arrived in Germany will ultimately be told they have to go somewhere else because they don't fit the refugee paradigm. There were a lot of mixed flows of people, so some of those individuals weren’t actually from Syria. I would say that about 40 per cent or 50 per cent are going to eventually have to go home.

A second thing that has happened in Germany is the national government has to step up. Accepting newcomers is a little easier to accomplish with a centralized government rather than a federal government, but individual cities and towns have stepped in to take on many of these refugees and help distribute them throughout the country. The Canadian system relies much more on private individuals to take people in, whereas the German system is relying much more on government action, from the national, state, and local levels, to take people in.

The social outcomes in Germany are really mixed. First of all, one of the things nobody would expect is for that many people to be integrated within this short of time. The integration story is one that we need to inquire into five years from now, ten years from now. Then we could see who has stayed and what sort of situation they're in.

There has also been a widely reported series of criminal activities. Now I'm always interested in whether, comparatively, criminal activity within the refugee population is higher or lower than within the indigenous population. I don't have any data on it right now. We think about criminal acts as occurring per population. We know there's been a massive increase in the population. We would expect on a straightforward statistical level that for every million people, there are going to be a certain number of criminal acts. I actually don't know if crime has increased in Germany, or if it's simply the case that the population has increased. I would be really curious about that.

A lot of things have happened in Germany with this influx of people going off in all directions. I don't read German, but I think it would be very interesting to read the German press and track internally what's going on. Initially the German press and much of the German population was pretty supportive of Merkel, but in more recent months they've been very critical of her decision to open the border. She was the lead negotiator in the EU's refugee swap with Turkey, which was a highly controversial move of getting Turkey to agree to take people back when they were arriving in Greece. That was criticized, and after being partially implemented, the EU pulled back from it.

Your question about what has happened in Germany since this time last year is all very interesting and complicated at the same time. There have been very positive outcomes, and some quite negative outcomes. For a Western country, it's probably the first experiment on this scale, and certainly a time to act.

In terms of a global responsibility to act, how would you create a fiscal balance? Would that mean funding countries that have limited resources or capacity to accept and process refugees?

One of the things we've strongly advocated for is that the responsibility for refugees needs to be global. In order to have a true global responsibility sharing framework, we need to think about ways that different countries will contribute different things. That probably means that prosperous Western states need to think about transferring money to the states that are on the front line.

It's very unlikely that every country is going to be able to take in the same number of refugees, or that every country is going to take the same proportion of refugees to their population. That's just really implausible. It's always going to be the case that countries that are close to conflict are going to take in many more refugees. The current global reality is that those countries tend to be the much poorer countries in the world.

In order to support those countries to keep their borders open, other countries that are like Canada, or the U.K., or the U.S. that are much, much farther away, but much, much wealthier, probably need to think about making a fiscal contribution. Saying "To support Jordan, we'll take their 4 million refugees, divide them up, and fly them to all different corners of the world," well, that's not feasible. What might be more feasible is to say the Jordanian government ought not be required to bear sole responsibility for all the people who just happen to reach their borders.

That's really the idea of thinking about responsibility sharing on a number of different planes, not just welcoming people and protecting them, but also paying for that possibility, or paying for transportation, or helping out with the real causes of refugee flows. Our current global thinking on responsibility is really only about who actually reaches your borders. If we're going to have a better, more workable global arrangement, we need to make the conversation about responsibility more multifaceted than that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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