The World Is Turning Its Back on Refugees

The UN Global Compact on Refugees furthered a dangerous narrative: that refugees are worth saving only if they’re useful.

Palestinian women walk after fetching potable water in the Al-Shati refugee camp (also known as Beach Camp) in Gaza City, September 10, 2019.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Last December, the United Nations General Assembly formally endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees, which was supposed to help people driven from their home country to find shelter elsewhere in the world. The ability to flee threats of violence and persecution is recognized as a fundamental human right, and some countries embrace their duty to provide a haven. Other countries, however, largely turn refugees away as an economic drain or security threat. The former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon predicted that the new voluntary compact—signed by 164 nations, the United States not among them—would “allow for better burden-sharing among host countries, while elevating the voices of refugees and civil society groups.”

Twelve months later, though, refugees around the world remain in danger. The compact that should be helping them has failed instead. The well-meaning document sought to recast refugees as an economic benefit to nations that receive them. But by furthering the premise that refugees should be accepted because of their potential for self-sufficiency—rather than out of a commitment to upholding international norms and the rights of refugees—the global compact may actually worsen their plight.

The compact ostensibly seeks to ease the pressure placed on countries hosting refugees and to make refugees more self-reliant. It holds out hope that they can return to their home country if conditions improve. Failing that, the compact also attempts to ease their passage from the countries where they seek immediate asylum and toward third countries that might host them for the long term. Governments are encouraged to offer “labor mobility opportunities for refugees, including through the identification of refugees with skills that are needed in third countries.”

This is a dangerous way to think about people in need. While governments are bound to have pragmatic concerns about how many refugees they can afford to take in, the rights of those whose well-being is in greatest peril are neglected when only the “best and brightest” refugees are selected for resettlement.

Rather than further entrenching the right of states to select refugees with high economic or integration potential, the global community should move toward more effective and binding multinational solutions—such as a system of resettlement quotas based on a country’s GDP, and restrictions on the ability to define a resettlement scheme using criteria not specified in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Prior to the adoption of the UN Refugee Convention, governments around the world broadly considered refugees to be a subset of the larger category of “economic migrant.” After the Russian Revolution of 1917, displaced Russian and Armenian nationals were issued so-called Nansen passports—named for a Norwegian statesman who realized that displaced people needed travel documents—that allowed them to enter Western Europe to look for work. In the years between the two world wars, advocates for displaced people asked states to accept them on an economic basis. Under this framework, refugees were understood to be a special category of economic migrants, and receiving countries adopted refugee quotas that matched their employment needs.

The limits of this approach were made starkly apparent at the Évian Conference in 1938—the only significant international effort to address the plight of Jewish refugees. In the end, it was unsuccessful. National governments were unwilling to admit Jewish refugees under economic categories, claiming such individuals would be a drain on domestic economies. James McDonald, the high commissioner for German refugees at the time, underscored in his resignation letter in 1936 that “the present economic conditions of the world” were driving the refusal of European states and the United States to take in refugees.

This conference marked a pivotal moment in the history of Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany, and it ultimately contributed to the Holocaust. In retrospect, it also teaches an important lesson. Advocates for displaced people are motivated in part by pragmatic considerations about admitting refugees—assuming that governments are more likely to take larger numbers if they benefit from them economically—but this approach has had demonstrably tragic consequences in the past. Just as the economic excuses provided by Western governments before World War II were smoke screens, at least in part, for anti-Semitic views, similar justifications may be offered now as excuses for rich countries to exclude black- and brown-skinned refugees from the developing world.

The recognition that many of those denied refuge in the 1930s were later killed by the Nazis was a central driver behind the establishment of a legal framework that would ensure refugees’ right to claim asylum and protect them against forcible return. The result was the adoption of the Refugee Convention, which recognized that the term refugees has a meaning distinct from the broader category of migrants. Members of the former category, according to the 1951 document, have a set of rights to international protection—including the right to asylum—as a result of having fled from their home country because of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

As the two of us have documented in recently published research, governments worldwide are acting in ways that blur the distinction between refugees and migrants. Based on a broad review of empirical sources and primary field research conducted in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey from 2013 to 2016, we found that governments have been actively seeking more and more control over the selection of refugees. In practice, refugees have been treated like other types of immigrants, rather than being properly classified in a way that compels host governments to take responsibility for these individuals’ safety.

In the past year, the compact has failed to rectify this problem— or to produce any other tangible results. The pre–World War II instinct to admit only “successful” refugees is reflected in policies even of countries that are relatively generous in their admission of refugees. Denmark considers whether a refugee can “obtain employment within a professional field of particularly qualified labor,” and Canada considers a refugee’s work experience, language ability, and “other personal suitability factors such as resourcefulness.” The number of resettled refugees worldwide has barely changed, with about 1,000 fewer resettled in 2019 than in 2018. This outcome is hardly surprising, because the voluntary elements of existing refugee institutions have always been the most difficult to implement. Countries in the developing world provide havens for the overwhelming majority of refugees, and wealthy developed nations generally have not provided sufficient financial assistance—nor have they let more refugees resettle within their own borders.

Refugee governance failed before World War II because it relied on the voluntary collective action of states and tied refugee admissions to their economic potential. Last year’s compact moves us once again closer to this model. As a result, the overwhelming majority of refugees worldwide remain trapped in developing countries, and the few wealthy states that admit large numbers of refugees—such as Canada, Sweden, and Germany—do so on an increasingly selective basis. This compels refugees to take hazardous and often deadly routes to reach safety.

Especially when the United States, which was previously the largest Western recipient of refugees worldwide, has moved toward an overtly anti-asylum stance under President Donald Trump, advocates are trying their best to rally more support for the world’s displaced people. Yet when these advocates tout “refugees as a resource” and emphasize the economic benefit that refugees bring to receiving states, their framing risks eroding the distinctiveness of the refugee category and the protection it ought to entail.