Power in the global refugee regime: understanding expressions and experiences of power in global and local contexts.

Author:Milner, James


In the aftermath of the Second World War, states formalized a global refugee regime. (1) This regime was created to perform two primary functions: to help ensure the protection of refugees and to find a solution to their plight. More than sixty years later, however, the regime has not predictably fulfilled these two functions. In an effort to understand the limitations of the global refugee regime, scholarship in the field of refugee studies over the past two decades has engaged with issues of politics and power. A focus of this work has been to understand the functioning of the regime at a global level and the factors that condition the ability of the regime to fulfill its core functions across contexts. (2) There has likewise been a sustained interest in the role that politics and interests play in constraining the regime, (3) or, more recently, in expanding the scope and functioning of the regime. (4) Likewise, a substantial literature has examined expressions of power in local contexts, with emphasis on the relationships between power, governance, and control, along with an understanding of how these expressions of power are experienced, resisted, and contested by a range of actors, including refugees. (5)

Indeed, reflections on power in the global refugee regime are far from new. Yet while this literature has made significant contributions to our understanding of the diverse forms of power within the global refugee regime and the consequences of power for the functioning of the regime itself, the study of power within the global refugee regime remains fragmented, based on conceptualizations of power and the context within which power is expressed and experienced. In fact, there has been limited sustained dialogue between approaches that examine the functioning of power within the institutions of the global refugee regime, primarily at the global level, and expressions and experiences of power in local contexts. Given the central role that power is seen to play in the functioning of the regime in various contexts, and given that these forms and expressions of power may function and be experienced differently in various contexts or "scales" of the regime, (6) fostering dialogue between understandings of power could usefully open new areas of enquiry into the functioning of the global refugee regime and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the regime's ability or inability to fulfill its core mandate of protection and solutions for refugees.

To this end, this article asks, What are the forms of power present in the global refugee regime? How is power expressed and experienced in diverse contexts? How can understandings of these diverse expressions of power be brought into conversation to encourage a more comprehensive understanding of the role of power in the functioning of the regime? In response, this article presents a heuristic framework for understanding power in the global refugee regime, which is intended to serve both as a common point of reference for contributions to this special issue and as a basis for future research. It draws from the broader literature on power and its functioning in the context of global governance to argue that power can be observed in the global refugee regime largely in accordance with the taxonomy proposed by Barnett and Duvall. (7) This taxonomy argues that power exists and can be expressed in four forms: compulsory, institutional, structural, and productive. In considering these four forms of power, it is argued that our understanding of expressions of power needs to include a discussion of how power is experienced and the forms of resistance and contestation that are present in diverse contexts. On the basis of this understanding, the article argues that the functioning of power in the global refugee regime can be usefully observed and understood in the day-to-day practice of the regime, particularly in the making and implementation of global refugee policy. (8)

Power and the Global Refugee Regime

In the early 1980s, Krasner characterized a regime as "sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given area of international relations," such as trade or the environment. (9) More recently, Betts has argued that regimes, in essence, have "two core elements: norms and international organizations." (10) In this way, the study of regimes assumes that regimes are created in response to the perception of a shared issue or concern, that norms are developed to provide a template for common agreed behaviour in responding to this shared concern, and that institutions are developed to facilitate cooperation in this area, both through providing a decision-making mechanisms where new and unforeseen issues may be addressed and by developing expertise and knowledge on how the norms of the regime can be upheld and applied in different contexts.

These core elements of a global regime are arguably present in what emerged as the "global refugee regime" in the aftermath of the Second World War. (11) The first element of the regime are the norms detailed in the 1951 Convention. These norms include a definition of who may benefit from refugee status, and the rights and obligations to be afforded to such individuals. At the same time, states created UNHCR as a specialized UN agency whose mandate is twofold. Article 1 of UNHCR 1950 Statute details that UNHCR, "acting under the authority of the General Assembly, shall assume the function of providing international protection ... and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees." Despite significant growth in the size of UNHCR and the scope of its activities since its inception, these two responsibilities arguably remain the core responsibilities of the global refugee regime.

But why do states create regimes, such as the global refugee regime? While some realist international relations scholars have largely dismissed the impact of regimes, (12) others have argued that states act through global regimes because it helps them "achieve their ends," either because they are able to determine the terms and outcomes of regimes, or because they are able to gain material and other benefits from participation. (13) Neo-liberal approaches tend to view regimes as important opportunities to overcome collective action failure and facilitate international cooperation to shared problems, (14) while constructivist approaches identify the potential for regimes, generally, and international organizations, specifically, to become independent actors in the international system. (15) Others have convincingly challenged early assumptions that regimes are "benevolent, voluntary, cooperative, and thus legitimate associations" (16) arguing instead that regimes are forums of contestation where actors seek to influence the functioning of the regime, notwithstanding the objectives of the regime and the norms it was supposedly created to propagate.

These perspectives are all arguably relevant to the study and functioning of the global refugee regime. For example, realists might argue that the United States has established itself as the hegemon within the global refugee regime, given the scale of its financial and other contributions to UNHCR, and that it understands this support of--and influence within--the regime to be an extension of its interests and foreign policy. (17) For their part, refugee-hosting states in the Global South may be seen as engaging with the regime as it serves their ends and ensures that they receive some international assistance, however modest, to respond to the mass arrival and prolonged presence of refugees on their territory. Neo-liberal perspectives, however, would argue that the scale of the challenges posed by refugee movements is beyond the capacity of any one state to resolve, resulting in the collective benefit of a regime to underpin a coordinated response. The growth of UNHCR over the past six decades also lends credence to constructivist arguments about the increasingly autonomous character of international organizations, independent from the intentions of the states that created them. Likewise, even a passing consideration of the functioning of the regime illustrates how it can very much function not as a consensus-building mechanism but as a forum of contestation, as argued by critical scholars.

In addition to highlighting the contestation implicit in relations between states and other institutional actors within the global refugee regime, critical scholarship also emphasizes the importance of including the perspectives of the subjects of interventions, and how they experience power, in our understanding of the functioning of the global refugee regime. Indeed, critical migration and citizenship scholars have demonstrated the benefits of using the perspective of refugees and migrants as an entry point to interrogate the functioning of global regimes, especially when understanding manifestations of power, resistance, and contestation in the local context. Unlike power in the global context, which tends to be expressed and experienced by states and institutions, manifestations of power in the local context have an intimate characteristic, as refugees and interveners are fused in an unequal power relationship where decisions and practices often have immediate and consequential effects on the daily lives of refugees. In these contexts, various technologies of power are employed to control the mobility, behaviour, and legal status of refugees. For example, Hyndman draws on the experience of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya to illustrate how coercion and disciplinary practices used by the UNHCR sought to control and produce desirable behaviour in refugees, which served a de-politicizing function. (18) Despite such attempts to silence and control refugees, Nyers and Rygiel argue that spaces of...

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