Footing the Bill

Refugee-Creating States’ Responsibility to Pay

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

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