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.
Read: America’s system for resettling refugees is collapsing
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.