What explains the unequal distribution of refugees in the world?

A startling 65,5 million people are forcefully displaced worldwide, many of whom lose their lives when embarking on a journey to Europe’s shores. Today, more than 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. So, the poorest countries in the world take in the most refugees. Have you ever wondered why that is?

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Ever since the 2nd World War, more people have been forced to flee their countries of origin, yet the number and distribution of refugees have varied across time. These variations can be connected to the changing patterns of global conflict, warfare, weather as well as the emergence or collapse of dictatorships. While European countries are increasingly engaging in a “race to the bottom”, in order to appear less attractive for potential asylum seekers, the majority of refugees are actually in countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon.

For many of these refugees, both children and grandparents, their lives are left in limbo in enormous camps without ever having the prospects of going to school or getting a job. The unequal distribution of refugees can be explained by the lack of incentives and desirability for countries to engage in cooperation on refugee protection. This creates a stark North-South divide in distribution, and one which very clearly illustrates the downward spiral of protection offered by European countries.

And how is cooperation lacking? The first can be seen through European countries pushing and externalizing their borders further away from European shores. With increased border-fencing, push-back operations and interception at sea, European migration policies have become increasingly securitized. By this, I mean that border practices or discourse convey the idea that asylum-seekers or migrants constitute a security threat, as opposed to individuals fleeing conflict and in dire need of protection, assistance and humanitarian aid. As we know, the European refugee crisis highlighted an emphasis on deterrence, detention and stronger regulations than we have ever seen before.

Instead of cooperating on asylum and responsibility-sharing, European countries started informal agreements with countries such as Turkey or Libya in order to allocate support for pushing back migrants with boats, as opposed to offer support for protection in the South, where the majority of refugees are living, and are in need of help. The support of Libyan vessels in deterring sea crossings only contributes to the exploitation, slavery and torture of migrants, and it means that European countries are removing themselves from the obligations under international law and international human rights instruments.

The current situation in Libya is a clear example of this: the UNHCR is now working to assist over half a million people, many of which have no legal prospect of every getting protection in Europe. European states are searching for strategic venues to restrict legal entries, and do not cooperate beyond these venues.

Another reason which can explain the unequal distribution of refugees is that there exists no regime on refugee responsibility-sharing (also known as burden-sharing.) The global refugee regime originates in the 1951 Refugee Convention, yet contributions and efforts to protect are just voluntary, and no one is obliged to help. Therefore, the North-South divide means that Southern states continue to struggle with influencing the North, and refugees are deterred from protection opportunities.

Likewise, Northern states need to be persuaded into helping the South, and they often need a carrot for doing so. While humanitarian aid and developing aid can be a good starting point, a coherent approach to responsibility-sharing among the rich and the poor is lacking, and it has been lacking for some time now. The incentives for contributing or helping refugees in geographically distant states are not enough, because a humanitarian motive appears to be insufficient for the majority of states. The inequitable refugee distribution in the world can therefore be attributed to how Northern states are only willing to help when they see a clear cost-benefit coming out of it. In addition to this, there is no institutional design or institutionalized norms for sharing responsibility. This is what results in a collective action failure for Northern states.

This is why we must wonder, why do we have a World Trade Organization, but no World Refugee Organization? Some studies actually find that liberalizing migration could double the worlds GDP. Not to mention the fact that European countries are faced with an aging population and could benefit from children and young individuals eager to make a life in a country where they can find protection and be treated with dignity. Yet, migration has not liberalized, but our economies are more open than they have ever been.

We fear openness to people and our borders, but we do not fear openness of economies, exports or capital. Of course, this can be explained through a negative public opinion towards immigration, and the balance of social and economic considerations held by voters in the North. Yet collectively, the global North has failed to cooperate to address the refugee crisis and its lingering aftermath. By postponing a global plan for refugees and removing a target of resettling 10% of refugees annually, Northern countries are not committing to an institutional design which can overcome the unfairness of distribution.

For these reasons, the recent suggestions from Scandinavian governments such as Denmark and Norway to provide asylum hot-spot centres in the South or Middle-East are quite concerning. Not only does this mean that rich countries continue to push-back their responsibilities, but it also means that we have less guarantees than ever that these hot-spots can actually function, or that assistance will be provided. Who will work there? Can the safety of refugees be guaranteed? How will refugee status be determined? What will happen to those refugees that reach European shores? How do you decide who will be returned? Where is the transparency? And most worryingly, have European countries actually demonstrated that they are interested in providing such hot-spots of assistance? Until today, it does not really appear that way.

Many questions remain unanswered, in the ever-growing lack of responsibility-sharing. If we look to the future then, the paradox of poor and conflict-ridden states receiving even larger shares of refugees and lack of assistance will continue. The very least we can do is continue to focus on providing dignity, happiness and a worthy life for people who live in the refugee camps.

This article was written before the political agreement on migration at the EU summit 28 June 2018.