The international refugee regime: stretched to the limit?

Author:Loescher, Gil
Position:Refugees and International Population Flows

International institutions traditionally have had difficulty addressing refugee problems, particularly during times of great disorder and structural change within world politics -- for example, during the First World War when multinational states and empires disintegrated and after the Second World War when the global structure shifted from a multipolar to a bipolar system. Over 70 years ago, the world community established an international refugee regime(1) to regularize the status and control of stateless people in Europe. Since then, international laws specifying refugees as a unique category of human rights victims to whom special protection and benefits should be accorded have been signed and ratified by over a hundred states and enforced for several decades.

Like international institutions, however, states also have been traditionally ambivalent about international cooperation over refugee issues. On the one hand, states have a fundamental, self-serving interest in quickly resolving refugee crises: Refugee movements create domestic instability, generate inter-state tension and threaten international security.(2) Thus, states created the international refugee regime prompted not by purely altruistic motives, but by a desire to promote regional and international stability and to support functions which serve the interests of governments -- namely, burden sharing and coordinating policies regarding the treatment of refugees.

On the other hand, state independence is also an issue: States often are unwilling to yield authority to international refugee agencies and institutions and consequently, impose considerable financial and political limitations on their activities. For example, the first intergovernmental activities on behalf of refugees during the interwar period (1921-1943) were limited to specific groups of European refugees. The series of international organizations created to deal with these situations possessed limited mandates of short duration. Although governments met in the early cold war period (1949-1951) to create the contemporary international refugee regime(3) and formulate rules and decision making procedures, they sought to limit once again the regime's responsibilities in the context of the emerging global refugee problem. The great powers were unwilling to commit themselves to indefinite financial costs and large resettlement programs.

Nonetheless, despite state reservations, significant intergovernmental collaboration on the refugee issue did in fact occur, and the responsibilities accorded to the international refugee regime steadily expanded, with assistance and protection granted to a progressively larger number of refugees. In the post-Cold War era, however, the number of displaced people in situations of internal conflict, state disintegration and environmental degradation is growing rapidly. The refugee regime -- ill-equipped to address the causes of a crisis, the numbers caught up in it or its consequences -- is once more in danger of being overwhelmed.

Having presented an overview, this article examines the dynamics of regime change through the five periods during which the international refugee regime confronted significant challenges to its authority and adapted to those specific needs: the interwar period; the immediate post-Second World War era; the period of expansion into the Third World during the late 1950s through most of the 1970s; the decade of the 1980s, when the regime faced long-standing refugee problems resulting from superpower involvement in regional conflicts; and finally, the post-Cold War era, during which internal displacements and repatriations in situations of civil conflict assume primary importance for international organizations and governments. Next, this article analyzes the characteristics of many of today's displacements, the challenges they pose to the international refugee regime and the kinds of policy responses required -- not only to alleviate human suffering, but also to contribute to greater stability and security in the future. Finally, the article concludes with suggestions for new alliances and new actors for forging a way through the present crisis.


The Interwar Refugee Regime

The international refugee regime came into existence in the aftermath of the First World War, when governments were confronted by massive numbers of homeless people devastated by the war and the breakup of multi-ethnic empires, mainly in Europe and Asia. Millions of uprooted people, rendered stateless by their governments, without national passports and, therefore, without identification or protection, wandered outside their home countries, searching for refuge. Fearing huge flows of displaced people, European governments rushed to erect protective barriers, close borders and expel thousands of individuals across national frontiers.(4) Such government reaction resulted in the creation of large refugee populations which threatened regional security in Europe and compromised the limited resources of private or public international agencies and individual European governments.

To reduce this source of interstate tension by actually addressing the problem of refugees, in 1921, Western governments established the first multilateral coordinating mechanism for refugees, the High Commissioner for Refugees, endowed with specific responsibilities for Russian and later for Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Armenian refugees. In the 1930s, the major European governments reached international agreements to protect refugees fleeing from the disintegrating Russian and Ottoman Empires. In later years, these governments extended the agreements to include those fleeing Germany and Austria. Such cooperative achievements were largely the individual work of the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen, who proved to be a highly innovative and successful advocate for refugees.(5)

Although still under the aegis of the League of Nations, the international response to refugees prior to the Second World War did not constitute an effective regime. Governments throughout this period, fearing pressure to recognize political dissidents of any state by a supragovernmental authority, refrained from adopting a universal definition of "refugee." Instead, Western governments designated only specific national groups as refugees, providing them with only minimal protection and keeping the mandate of the High Commissioner deliberately narrow. As the League's political effectiveness and credibility declined -- particularly after the withdrawal of Germany, Japan and Italy from its membership and after its failure to resolve the Manchurian and Ethiopian conflicts during the 1930s -- its competence to deal with refugee problems also decreased.(6)

The crucial impediment to genuine international cooperation towards refugees was the lack of any consistent or coherent international commitment to resolving refugee problems, a condition reflected in three beliefs held by almost every Western nation, particularly during the years of the Great Depression: First, they believed that tight fiscal constraints and high unemployment levels limited any humanitarian initiatives on behalf of refugees; second, that no particular foreign policy benefits would accrue from either putting political and moral pressure on refugee-generating countries, or accepting their unwanted dissidents and minority groups; and third, that national interests were best served through rigid limits on immigration.

These views prevailed in the United States, Canada and Australia, despite each country's having accepted a substantial majority of the world's emigrants, and having acted as safety nets for Europe's forced migrants until the First World War. After the war, however, governmental responses to pleas from public and private international refugee organizations for additional resettlement locations for the world's persecuted conspicuously lacked generosity.(7) Ultimately, the interwar refugee regime proved to be totally ineffective in responding to the Holocaust and other refugee crises facing the international community.

The Second World War displaced millions of people. At first, international efforts to resolve the postwar refugee problem followed the pattern set in the interwar period: They were temporary measures aimed at resolving an emergency situation. To this end, the Big Four set up in 1943 an intergovernmental body, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA),(8) whose principal function was to promote and oversee the repatriation of the millions of displaced people under Allied control. UNRRA was in no sense, however, a refugee organization: only incidently did it aid those refugees with fears of political persecution. Although it was authorized to give temporary relief to those under its care, it was not empowered in any way to arrange for the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons to third countries. Moreover, in accord with the terms of the February 1945 Yalta agreements and in response to Soviet pressures, UNRRA played an active part in Europe in the forcible repatriation of large numbers of people, many of whom had asserted fear of persecution.(9)

Early Post-Second World War. The Origins of the Contemporary International Refugee Regime

The contemporary international approach to refugee problems emerged fully only after UNRRA was abolished in 1945. Despite adamant opposition from the Soviet Union, Western governments undertook new initiatives to resettle Eastern European refugees. In 1947, the Western powers committed themselves to the creation of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which focused on resettling the remaining refugees and displaced persons created by the war and its aftermath.(10) With the establishment of IRO, the international community adopted, for the first time, a universal definition of refugee based on "persecution or...

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