Post by Nicholas Maple, as part of our Refugee Week series. The first post, about the Austrian-Jewish Exile Theatre in London, can be found here. The second post, about exile libraries, can be found here. Nick is an MA student on the Understanding and Securing Human Rights Masters Course. Nicholas currently assists with the work of the Refugee Law Initiative.
With new figures published showing the number of refugees in the world at its highest in nearly 20 years, a better understanding of regional protection mechanisms is needed to ascertain whether they can improve the response to the specific needs of refugees and create a more consistent and unified asylum process.
This week, to coincide with Refugee Week (17 to 23 June) the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) published its annual Global Trends Report for 2013 in which it highlights that we are currently witnessing the highest number of displaced people in the world since 1994. Due in part to the conflicts in Syria, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo, 45.2 million people were displaced in 2012, 15.4 million of whom were refugees and 28.8 million internally displaced persons.
With the increasing number of refugees comes the increasing need for international agencies, NGOs, governments and academics to focus on how these people are afforded protection at the international level.
The positive news as Erika Feller of the UNHCR notes, is a greater openness and willingness of states in recent times to create and build legal protection mechanisms for refugees, for example 147 states are now party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and/or its 1967 Protocol. However, advancements in refugee legal protection need to be backed up by the political will of host states in order to honour their international obligations.
Regional protection mechanisms have been suggested as a means of affording refugees greater protection, through a move to create a sense of shared responsibility for mass influxes of refugees, uniformed and consistent regional refugee and asylum policies and a commitment to promote durable solutions.
Can regional mechanisms be used to deal with mass refugee movements such as the one we are seeing from Syria?
It has been proposed by some commentators and NGOs that the EU needs to be more actively engaged in the refugee crisis that is unfolding in Syria in order to assist neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon with the unimaginable influx of refugees.
Over recent years the EU and in particular the European Commission have pushed for measures granting greater regional protection, for example introducing EU Directives (such as the 2001 Directive on Temporary Protection) and Regional Protection Programmes (RPP), both of which could be utilised to assist Syrian refugees and host states.
The Temporary Protection Directive was created in response to the conflicts that occurred in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo and is an emergency mechanism that can be used for large movements of displaced persons from non-EU states who are unable to return to their home state. In situations where national asylum systems cannot cope with the quantity of refugees the Directive would first of all increase consistency between member states in the manner in which they treat refugees[i] and secondly, share the burden of large numbers of refugees among all EU states. Therefore in the case of Syria, Syrian refugees would be granted immediate temporary protection and residence in EU states and the burden of responsibility would be shared rather than being dependent on geographical factors (i.e. States closest to Syria, such as Greece would inevitably bear the main responsibility).
An alternative is the creation of a special Regional Protection Programme (RPP) for Syria. RPPs have been established by the EU with the cooperation of UNHCR to create protection measures in countries that are host to vast numbers of displaced persons. This is achieved by focusing on three durable solutions; local integration, resettlement in a third country and return. Pilot schemes have been set up in Africa and Eastern Europe and involve, through financing from the EU, practical protection for refugees within non-EU countries through improved refugee status determination processes, capacity building and protection training.
These regional mechanisms are intended to create a sense of the collective duty of regional states for the plight of refugees, such as the ones currently fleeing Syria. As can be seen by the relatively small number of Syrians claiming asylum in the EU at present (21,000 between March 2011 and September 2012) and the vastly differing responses of EU states to the crisis (for example Syrian refugees in Greece face detention, deportation or transfers), it is suggested that a cohesive and collective regional response would go some way to creating a safer environment for refugees escaping from internal conflict.
However, further research is still needed into these types of regional mechanisms to fully understand their protection role. These systems, that to some degree ‘externalise’ a state’s asylum system have the potential to be manipulated to exert control over asylum procedures for a whole region in a way that could go against its original purpose. For example, a consistent EU approach to Syrian refugees is welcomed if it means all refugees from Syria are treated in a fair way, consistent with international law, however if the EU wide response to Syrian refugees is detention, things become far more complicated.
Towards this end, the Refugee Law Initiativeat the School of Advanced Study, University of London, will be holding a series of seminars on regional protection measures to start the next academic year, with the aim of looking into the effect these can have on the protection of refugees. During Refugee Week, it is an ideal time to reflect and refocus the international community’s attention on finding improved ways to respond to the ever-changing protection needs of refugees, with regional protection mechanisms being a relatively innovative and promising prospect.