Power and influence in the global refugee regime.

Author:Milner, James

Understanding the politics of the global refugee regime has been an important area of research in refugee and forced migration studies for nearly three decades. (1) A specific focus of this work has been the challenge of fostering the various forms of international cooperation necessary for the regime to fulfill its core functions, detailed in the 1950 Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as ensuring protection for refugees and finding a solution to their plight. (2) Given the regime's demonstrated inability to predictably secure this cooperation and fulfil these functions, however, there has been a sustained interest in the role that politics and interests play in either constraining the regime, (3) or, more recently, in expanding the scope and functioning of the regime. (4)

While this literature has made significant contributions, it is striking that there has been limited overt and systematic engagement with notions of power in the global refugee regime. (5) Echoing the observation of Thucydides that "the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept," (6) this limited attention to power may stem from a concern that engaging with the interests of the powerful within the regime may legitimize the actions of such actors and undermine the functioning and legitimacy of the regime itself. There have also been concerns that discussions of power may stray from the analytical to the editorial, prompting some, like Chimni, to note that "what I am propounding here is not a conspiracy theory" but instead that "refugees are pawns and not concerns, and that human rights violations are often used to justify violence and the naked exercise of power." (7) Moreover, where the role of power within the regime has been examined, (8) power has arguably been conceptualized in a narrow sense, pointing to the need to develop a conceptualization of power that brings these diverse efforts into closer conversation while providing the basis for future research.

Regardless of one's views on the ways that power should be used within the global refugee regime, it is important for refugee and forced migration studies to develop a more systematic and comprehensive understanding of the sources and functioning of power in the regime. To paraphrase Lukes, there is a common importance in paying closer attention to power, whether that attention is motivated by a desire to "study, acquire, maintain, increase, reduce or destroy it" (9) In this way, it is important for our understanding of the politics of the global refugee regime to be complemented by a more systematic and rigorous understanding of power. While a range of actors seek influence, (10) how do we understand the factors that determine their ability to demonstrate power within the regime? Who has power? When? Under what circumstances? What are the various forms of power? While important insights have been gained on the exercise of influence in situation-specific and high-profile initiatives, (11) how can we understand and observe the functioning of power in the day-to-day practice of the regime? The answers to these questions will have important implications for theory and practice, within the global refugee regime and beyond.

These questions provided the focus for a workshop hosted at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, in late September 2015. (12) It was a time when the global media focused on events unfolding in Europe, which served as but the latest example of the global refugee regime's apparent inability to ensure predictable protection for refugees and a timely solution to their plight. More than thirty representatives of the research, policy, and...

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