Pakistani immigrants row their engineless dinghy, which was drifting out of control, in rough seas between Greece and Turkey, early May 30, 2015.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

Nearly a century has passed since the League of Nations appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees, and the international community’s treatment of such displaced persons has come a long way since. Millions have been displaced by conflict and persecution, but have also found protection in the form of refuge in another country or through the opportunity eventually to return safely to their own. This success, however, does not mean that the current system for handling refugees is sufficiently effective or accountable. That there are nearly 55 million forcibly displaced persons around the world is evidence enough of that. More than four million people have fled from the civil war in Syria, and nearly two million of them are now in Turkey.

In situations of mass displacement, the international community relies on individual states to shoulder the primary responsibilities of their care, and to extend hospitality to those who cannot risk remaining in their own countries. No state is obliged to help any other state that admits refugees. Hence, few, if any, provisions to assist nations that accept refugees and displaced persons are codified by law, leaving the costs of their safe harbor sit on a nation’s own balance sheets. As a result, their reception of refugees frequently comes at a great cost, and with few, if any, assurances about how long the displaced people will stay. 

By definition, the refugee problem is an international one: Every state that admits refugees acts on behalf of the international community in defense of fundamental human rights principles. In turn, asylum states are entitled to expect the support of others, whether it is through financial, political, or material aid, or ideally, through more active efforts to mitigate the problems that create refugees in the first place. Tragically, such support is rare, and the cost of caring for refugees is disproportionately borne by those nations that are least able to afford it. Most refugee-hosting countries are in politically unstable regions like the Middle East and South Asia, and in neighborhoods mired in prolonged conflict, as in the case of Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Other states, particularly in the developed world, have externalized their responsibilities to the refugees, and have returned asylum seekers and other migrants to transit countries, other regions, or to their home country, irrespective of their claims to protection.

Turkey, for instance, has shouldered $6.5 billion in costs to host its Syrian refugees. The international community provides less than one-thirteenth of this sum. Turkey is by no means alone: Refugee-receiving countries from Jordan, to Kenya, and Lebanon face similar challenges. The World Bank had projected the Syrian refugee crisis will have cost Lebanon  $7.5 billion by the end of 2014, and Jordan’s King Abdullah was told in late 2014 that Jordan needed an additional $1.9 billion to cover the costs it incurred in providing for Syrian refugees.

The problem is that host countries rely on voluntary contributions, which allows other members of the international community to decide for themselves how much to contribute to aid operations abroad. As a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not have the power to take funds from UN member states. As a result, the required amount of aid regularly exceeds contributions: In 2013, actual contributions to the UNHCR amounted to roughly 45 percent of assessed needs, creating a critical funding gap. If the international community is to address these challenges, it must take the issue of state responsibility more seriously—both in terms of those who create refugees, and by supporting those that bear the financial burden of hosting them.

Mohammed Ilmi Adam, a 17-year-old Somali would-be immigrant, looks out of a window on a police bus after arriving at the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) Maritime Squadron base at Haywharf in Valletta's Marsamxett Harbour early July 10, 2013. 
Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters


Back in 1939, the eminent British international lawyer R.Y. Jennings concluded that refugee-producing states have legal and financial responsibilities to refugee-receiving states. In his view, conduct that results in “the flooding of other states with refugees” was illegal and made worse by situations “where the refugees are compelled to enter the country of refuge in a destitute condition,” as is frequently the case with today’s refugee flows. Nearly 80 years later, legal theory and practice have still not developed to the point where source states are held financially responsible for compensating receiving countries, or the refugees themselves.

But those countries that drive people from their homes should pay the costs of providing them with a humane life. An important step in this direction would be to allow refugee-receiving states or competent international institutions to draw on the assets of refugee source countries. From these funds, states and aid organizations could fund humanitarian assistance programs and offset their losses when dealing with an international refugee crisis. This, many would argue, could create a just system for caring for refugees and paying for it. States responsible for creating refugee crises might argue that those citizens who have fled do not deserve access to the funds for political reasons; they might be on the losing end of a civil war, or, according to some regimes, like the Assad regime in Syria, sponsors of domestic terrorism. But good information, documentation, and analysis, coupled with close tracking, auditing, and accountability, would assuage these concerns by allowing the international community to keep an eye on where the money goes and how it is spent, ensuring that humanitarian purposes are met.

The UNHCR could draw upon the United Nations’ now-considerable experience with sanctions, compensation, regulation, and other countermeasures to make states comply with international obligations. Where refugees flee persecution, the state of origin could be held financially liable for support costs, and subjected to sanctions. Syria is a clear-cut case: The UN Security Council, in two 2014 resolutions, has already determined that the regime is violating international law, that is, it is failing to fulfill its responsibilities to the international community. The UN Security Council could require all UN member-states to take such countermeasures in response. This kind of effort has precedent: Following the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, the Council acted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to affirm Iraq’s liability for any direct losses that resulted from its unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait. It created a compensation fund to be financed through a percentage of Iraq’s oil exports. This project gave birth to the UN Compensation Commission (UNCC), which has since adjudicated hundreds of claims. HadIraq not met its UNCC-mandated financial payments, funding was going to come from frozen Iraqi assets—Security Council Resolution 778 instructed “all States in which there are funds of the Government of Iraq, or its State bodies, corporations, or agencies, that represent the proceeds of sale of Iraqi petroleum or petroleum products” to transfer such funds to an escrow account set up by the United Nations.

A future program along these lines would still leave much to be worked out. State assets may not always be readily identifiable, for example. As evidenced by the international efforts to recover the assets of deposed dictators, such as Nigeria’s Sani Abacha and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, tracing an asset is not an easy task, especially if the states holding these assets are not fully cooperative. International experience with sanctions, when combined with other measures to combat money laundering, corruption, and the financing of terrorism, however, provide more sophisticated tools than ever before. In addition, the international community may have cause to target the wealth of certain individuals responsible for state policies and practices that resulted in the refugee outflow. This would, in turn, open another source of financing if done so fairly and within the rule of law. There is always the danger of such financial measures facing a veto in the Security Council, particularly if the conflict is internationally politicized, but countermeasures at individual or regional levels can then reemerge.

A group of 300 sub-Saharan Africans (bottom) sit on board the Italian Finance Police vessel Di Bartolo as their boat (Top) is left to adrift off the coast of Sicily, May 14, 2015.
Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters
International refugee crises can impose devastating financial demands on countries that take in the world’s dispossessed. Using the frozen assets of countries that created the refugee crises in the first place to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced would not only provide a material contribution to the protection of refugees, it would also deter states from pursuing costly and damaging conflicts. Although the amount of money that can be used for these purposes will vary, and redistribution efforts may sometimes be largely symbolic, such a policy would help square the circle of justice and send a resounding message of international commitment to workable alternatives to the problems of the world’s refugees. 

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  • GUY S. GOODWIN-GILL is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Emeritus Professor of International Refugee Law in the University of Oxford. He served as a Legal Adviser in the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1976–88.
  • SELIM CAN SAZAK is a researcher at The Century Foundation’s foreign policy program, where he is working on Middle East politics. 
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