International Politics and Humanitarian Action
By Merrill Smith
To what extent do international politics impact UNHCR’s humanitarian action? Merrill Smith comments on the political interests that shape international refugee protection, from warehousing to “voluntary repatriation” to resettlement, and advocates a balancing of political and humanitarian concerns through integrative protection approaches.
Merrill Smith is the Director of Government Relations and International Advocacy for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the Editor of the World Refugee Survey.
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, international legal scholars, and most States consistently define refugee protection as humanitarian action rather than a political endeavor. A unique asset of refugee rights, among other human rights, are their relatively unambiguous respect for the internal affairs of sovereign states—the bedrock of the international order from the Peace of Westphalia to the UN Charter. The right to vote in host country elections, for example, is not among the extensive Bill of Rights of the 1951 Convention protection and understandably so. Refugee protection is inherently temporary and a host nation does not volunteer to alter its polity just by protecting refugees. The 1951 Convention does not invent or import new rights into a country. The most it asks is that hosts merely extend to refugees rights they already grant others—at most it asks them to treat refugees on par with nationals, it never privileges refugees above citizens. Refugee protection implicates international responsibility sharing but only to help host nations uphold these relatively minimal, yet vital standards. Allowing refugees the durable solution of naturalization may be a political choice, but the temporary local integration the Convention requires is not.
Refugee protection should not be interpreted as an act hostile to the source nation either. The humanitarian, non-political nature of refugee protection derives from the refugees’ respectively unambiguous crossing of what is often fashionable to deride as the “imaginary lines” of international borders. The locations of borders are indeed historically arbitrary and often defined by power more than right. But even if they often lie where the actual differences between one country and its neighbors seem smallest, they are where States assert their formal distinctions with greatest force. Of course, harboring another country’s exiles may imply at the very least that it is unable to protect its own citizens if not that it actively persecutes them. The humanitarian character of refugee protection, however, is the balm that prevents a source country from elevating a putative injury to its pride into a threat to its national security.
Human “warehousing” not only violates the rights of refugees, it also impinges on the national sovereignty of hosts and often threatens peace and security between hosts and source nations and their neighbors. Warehousing generally involves allocating vast chunks of territory to foreign administration, not only in the distribution of rations but in exercising several key aspects of sovereignty such as refugee status determinations and even basic law enforcement. Arbitrary justice systems that claim to be “traditional” or “customary” often apply reactionary, despotic standards that are in fact found nowhere in either the laws of the host or even the source nations, let alone international law.
Warehousing is also virtually an open invitation to rebel groups to violate the humanitarian character of refugee protection by using camps as bases of operations, sources of funds—either through levying informal taxes on refugees or diverting aid, facilities for combatant rest and recreation, or sandbox sovereignties where they impersonate governments administering captive populations. Rebel groups, however, are generally the small fry of refugee manipulation compared to some international donors. The United States has one of the most egregious records. Its deliberate arming of Afghan mujahedeen in the camps in Pakistan is only the most obvious example, complete with the most disastrous consequences. Host countries also use warehoused refugees along with expendable ethnic minorities among their own populations as human buffer zones between them and their neighbors.
UNHCR can only do what fits in the intersection of what international donors will pay for and what hosting countries will allow. To make the World Refugee Survey as visually interesting as well as factually substantive, we like to include illustrative photos of refugee situations. One source of high quality photos is UNHCR and, with proper crediting, they come at an unbeatable price, namely, they are free. Curiously, however, the depictions of refugee repatriation among them are so numerous one might get the impression that refugees do nothing but return and wonder how there could be any left! Of course, UNHCR advertises its aid to the repatriation of refugees because that is what donors and hosts most want them to do: help them wash their hands of refugees, not protect them. (See James Hathaway for a fascinating discussion of how the refugee industry coined the expression “voluntary repatriation” and christened it a “durable solution” whereas the 1951 Convention uses neither phrase. Only refugees’ re-establishment in their home countries—a much more demanding standard—triggers a cessation of their status.) I suppose photos depicting what the vast majority of refugees do for the vast majority of the time they are in exile—struggle, suffer, or just wait in stultifying rights-deprived environments—would be just too depressing either for states or for well-intentioned humanitarians.
Resettlement is notoriously politics-driven. The United States has set some of the most egregious examples with distinct historical favoritism toward refugees fleeing the persecution of communists rather than that of its own allies. Even family reunification priorities, however, are arguably more political than humanitarian. Lenin famously clarified the distinction of politics from justice as a matter of who-whom (rather than right-wrong). Communal nepotism is no more a humanitarian principle than overt political bias. Nevertheless, formerly resettled refugees are an effective political constituency for resettlement of their relatives rather than others whose need may be greater.
How do we keep politics out of refugee protection? We probably cannot do so completely, as long as it involves states and people with political ambitions. Human beings have interests. That’s normal. If we set ourselves up in battle against human nature we will surely lose, even as we escalate the sentimentality of our message. A better course of action might be to shrewdly balance some self-interested political constituencies with others to achieve more humanitarian outcomes. A good example of this is how the Malaysian Trades Union Congress entered the debate about granting some kind of work permit to Indonesian refugees from Aceh in Malaysia. Business leaders wanted captive labor without the right to change jobs. The labor activists recognized this as a threat to the labor standards and bargaining power of Malaysian workers. By coming out in favor of refugees’ right to work—without employer sponsorship restrictions—instead of taking a xenophobic approach, however, the MTUC helped win some 30,000 refugees’ right to work with freedom of choice and legal protection.
On the international scale, we might persuade donors that protection can be more effective if their aid would support more integrative approaches. We might persuade hosts that they may use this aid to strengthen their capacity to help refugees along with their own people with education, health, and other services rather than simply abdicating responsibility altogether. If donors and hosts allow it, we could promote community hosting alternatives to refugee warehousing, much as the best resettlement is done in the West but in the region even at perhaps lower cost.