Moving Targets: An Analysis of Global Forced Migration

Policy Intervention: Toward a TwentyFirst Century Refugee Rights Framework

Policy Intervention: Toward a TwentyFirst Century Refugee Rights Framework

This report has provided an analysis of global forced migration that looks at the broader dynamics of the unevenness of forced migration, with an emphasis on the legacy of European and US colonialism, neoliberalization, securitization, and the climate crisis. In this last section, we envision a set of policy interventions that could help establish a more equitable and comprehensive social, political, economic, and legal framework for identifying and supporting refugees. We recognize the issues and dynamics at the heart of forced displacement today are too large for any changes in solely refugee laws, policies, and institutions to transform. The goal of this section is not to pose recommendations that would first and foremost stop the production of refugees. Rather, we offer recommendations that help humanize refugees, and that account for the factors that have both caused mass displacement and that have undermined the potential for more comprehensive and equitable responses to such crises by community, state, national, and international actors.

POLICY INTERVENTION 1: National Management and Integration of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

CONTEXT There is the common misconception that, on the whole, refugees are a financial burden on countries within the Global North. Yet according to 2014 OECD study, the fiscal impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years in OECD countries is on average close to zero; rarely exceeding 0.5 percent of GDP in either negative or positive terms, thus highlighting how immigrants are neither a burden to the public purse nor are they a panacea for addressing fiscal challenges.254

At the same time, a 2016 study from the IMF, drawing on data from on existing immigrants to Europe from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia—used as proxies for the latest wave of refugees—found that people from those countries who have been in Europe for less than six years are 17 percentage points more likely to rely on benefits as their main source of income and 15 percentage points less likely to be employed. The study ultimately found that this gap does shrink the longer the migrants have been in Europe.255

As such, it is clear that integration is the policy and political terrain on which the benefits of immigration for receiving communities and societies may be unlocked, and on which the knowledge, skills, and training that refugees bring with them can be utilized to help fill gaps in the labor market. 256 Further, successful integration improves the opportunities available to those asylum-seekers themselves as well as their children.

Thus, governments and humanitarian actors will need to manage both the provision of short-term, emergency care—how the “European refugee crisis” and other such crises of forced displacement are currently understood— and the creation of long-term opportunities. The cost of not doing so would not only be the erosion of public trust in the governance of migration and support for migration itself, but also the loss of security for those who struggle to find it elsewhere, as well as the loss of the potential benefits to be derived from long-term residency in their place of asylum.257

RECOMMENDATIONS This report recommends policies that encourage national and local governments, as well as local communities, to take it on themselves to facilitate integration, namely: 

  • Policies that benefit society (and disadvantaged groups within it) and unlock the multiplier effects of integration: National and local governments and communities should consider innovative ways to empower newcomers to support the communities in which they live. Such support, for example, could range from refugee-centered employment opportunities to community-centered initiatives and volunteerism of all forms.258 A truly collaborative policy design and delivery that involves all levels of government, local businesses, community members, and a wide range of other stakeholders would not only facilitate successful integration. It would also encourage everyone to feel they have a stake in such integration, and ultimately support asylum-seekers themselves.259
  • Policies that reduce the criminalization of asylum seekers: Such policies would not only build public trust, they are also key to integration itself. Securitization—“ethnocidal” spatial segregation, militarized raids on immigrant communities and crackdowns on those cities and communities that where they are—not only fuels and is fueled by anti-immigrant stigma. It also undermines integration itself and fractures the well-established and longstanding connections asylum-seekers and immigrants of various sorts have to their communities.

POLICY INTERVENTION 2: Cross-Sector Governance of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

CONTEXT In the context of massive refugee flows into the Global North, there has been great pressure placed upon the infrastructure designed to manage such flows, such as asylum, reception, and integration systems. Further, the growth of refugee populations, and immigration populations in general, has put pressure on local schools and housing. Even further, these various pressures are distributed unevenly across geographies, exposing faults in systems of multilevel migration governance. For example, some national governments have been made to craft new agreements with local governments to help address the uneven distribution of refugees, making refugee acceptance compulsory when simple encouragement through financial incentives would fail.260

On top of this strain in governance, new partners have entered the picture, seeking to engage with refugee issues. Such groups, ranging from volunteers to social enterprises and private companies, have ultimately made migration management and integration systems more complex and unwieldy. Thus, there is a need for national and local governments to not only recalibrate existing relationships but also accommodate new ones. Such goals and aspirations regarding the recalibration of governance should ultimately seek to be universal in its aspirations—to the benefit of societies as a whole. Yet, because of social, political, and economic disparities, they need be targeted—uplifting refugee communities and other immigrants in particular while understanding that such efforts will benefit the whole of society.261

RECOMMENDATIONS With national and local governments, and other transnational authorities (e.g. EU, AU, ASEAN, etc.), increasingly working in conjunction with new partners, we have highlighted the need for policies that increase the number, effectiveness, and resilience of such connections, namely:

  • Policies that incentivize the involvement of new actors: Civil-society and private sector actors bring much to settlement efforts, from enthusiasm and energy to media attention. Yet pending coordination of their efforts by policymakers, such civil-society and private-sector actors can also drastically increase the capacity for managing massive flows of asylum-seekers and facilitating their long-term integration. Such coordination efforts would need to incentivize longterm investment by such actors and thus ensure that support remains after the initial moment of crisis and after the novelty of support around it has worn off.262 Such coordination structures would be key to ensuring that refugees have a path to full social, political, and economic integration and inclusion, and that such structures are resilient.

POLICY INTERVENTION 3: International Accountability to the Crises of Forced Migration 

CONTEXT The recent and ongoing mass influx of displaced people has placed various pressures upon countries in the Global North in ways that are distributed unevenly between countries, thus exposing even more faults in existing systems of multilevel migration governance. The effects of the “European Refugee Crisis” at the EU level, and tensions over the fair distribution of asylum seekers and burden-sharing, have come to a head over EU-wide relocation efforts.263 Beyond the role that national and local actors must play, this report also points to the need to encourage effective international governance that places pressure on such actors in ways that account for the difference between countries, and, more critically, the historical backdrop of the manifold refugee crises at hand and the management of such crises. 

As this report outlined, the social and political origins of this mass number of forcibly displaced peoples are widespread, emerging in part from factors “external” to the countries and regions from which people have fled. Such external factors include imperial and colonial policies and practices of Europe, the United States, and other actors largely in the Global North—from military interventions and sprawling networks of military encampments, to global economies, trade policies, and other indirect forms of influence. In other words, the factors that have historically caused mass displacement and laid the ground for (and exacerbated) internal mechanisms of displacement need be figured into interventions in the global refugee regime.

RECOMMENDATIONS Forcibly displaced populations, including IDPs, are the world's shared responsibility and the burden must be lifted off countries in the Global South that host more than their fair share of such people. Guided by the structural inequity of both the origins of the conflicts that have displaced people as well as the origins of protections seemingly designed to protect them, this report highlights the need for reimagining international refugee governance in the Global North and the Global South, respectively. It recommends policies that account for differences between the two regions, historically and today, and the relative responsibility each has to manage contemporary crises of forced migration, namely:


  • Policies that expand resettlement: As a matter of historical relations and current capacity born of such relations, countries in the Global North should greatly expand their resettlement programs to increase the number of places available beyond the pledge to resettle or allow the lawful admission of some 360,000 refugees—still only a fraction of the 1.2 million refugees that required resettlement at the time of the 2016 pledge.264 Such expansions should be commensurate with capacity, as the inability to provide housing, work, and services to incoming asylum-seekers may undermine their integration. Such measures of capacity could include GDP as a percentage of population, the Human Development Index, and the availability of housing and services.
  • Policies that redistribute resources within the Global North toward resident refugee populations: New commitments from large private sector firms alongside other financial mechanisms may be used to redistribute resources from the general population toward refugee populations in the Global North. Such measures may include the imposition of additional taxes on transnational financial institutions (e.g. banks, Western Union, Money Gram, Xoom, etc.) that have benefited from the large cash remittance flow from immigrant communities to the countries from which they came. Such efforts could also be developed in conjunction with efforts to: provide refugees the legal right to work, for legal access to jobs allows individuals to support themselves and their families; facilitate opportunities for refugee entrepreneurship, which would avoid long-term dependence and create job opportunities for the host community; and expand access to education, a key determinant of life chances.265
  • Policies that expand responsibility sharing: While a global burden-sharing mechanism—one that sees countries accept refugees based on capacity, and that concentrates resources within the Global North where refugees are—may be politically out of reach, the international community could appeal to countries that accept fewer refugees to provide greater financial assistance for the principal refugee-hosting states, especially those in the Global South.266 Such financial assistance can be used to enact the same sort of policies that focus resources on the support and integration of resident refugee populations within the Global South.

Collectively, such measures would expand refugee protections to refugees, reduce the risk that comes with seeking asylum far from home, and improve the quality of life and life chances of displaced persons globally.267


  • Policies that end the neoliberal debt regime: The international debt-financing regime has put governments, firms, and households across the Global South under enormous pressure to survive.268 Becoming a part of global labor migrations has become one such survival strategy for people in these countries.269 Efforts should be made to push countries in the Global North to write off the excess debts of countries in the Global South, freeing them up to spend their money on development instead of interest payments on old loans and undermining the push for populations to become part of global labor migrations. Further, as the flight of capital is not always through legal means, efforts should be made to place penalties on bankers and accountants who facilitate illicit outflows, as should efforts to undermine the tax havens and “secrecy jurisdictions” that are key to such outflows.270
  • Policies that join sustainable development goals with refugee governance: In addition to dismantling the current debt regime that much of the Global South is locked into, and in addition to efforts to provide greater financial assistance to the principal refugee-hosting states in the Global South, as stated above, countries in the region should enact policies that strengthen the infrastructure and capacity for providing services and prospects for reliable employment to their respective populations, which would in turn help allow the integration of asylum-seekers and refugees. Thus, needed are efforts that move countries toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals reflect the understanding that ending extreme poverty, itself a core driver of forced migration globally, must go hand-in-hand with strategies that ensure sustainable economic advancement and that address a range of social needs, including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities.271

POLICY INTERVENTION 4: International Accountability to Environmental Crises and the Crises of Climate Change 

CONTEXT The UN Sustainable Development Goals also urge action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy—thus meeting human development needs while sustaining the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which global and national economies and societies depend.272 In other words, sustainable development, according to the UN, is the organizing principle for meeting human development needs while at the same time sustaining the balance of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which economies and societies depend.273 Yet global climate change has contributed to mass migrations and triggered manifold new conflicts, disproportionately affecting resource-poor communities in the Global South in particular. Thus, although sustainable development is a key entry point into the climate crisis and other such environmental crises, it must be carried out alongside other measures.

RECOMMENDATIONS As a result of the ways in which climate change—and current economic activities that undergird it—functions as a positive feedback loop for new and existing processes of displacement, and as a result of the ways in which global climate change has disproportionately affected resource-poor communities in the Global South, this report recommends policies that expand support for those affected by the climate crisis and other environmental crises. Namely, it recommends:

  • Policies that account for climate-induced displacement: There are three commonly proposed solutions to address the gaps in international protection for “climate refugees”: first, an expansion of the 1951 Refugee Convention; second, the development of a new international convention; and third, emulation of the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to bring together already existing international mechanisms. The second option to create a new convention with a new set of laws and guidelines would be diplomatically and legally challenging, and the third option of readapting the Guiding Principles on Internal Migration would undermine the status of “refugee,” as migrants would be seen as “environmentally displaced.” Hence this report argues that revising and expanding the refugee convention to include “climate refugees” is the most efficient and appropriate legal remedy.274
  • Policies that end international land grabbing: The scale and impact of recent land grabs has been unprecedented: more than 200 million hectares of land are estimated to have been acquired from 2006 to 2011 by foreign governments and firms globally, displacing people and more sustainable modes of land use. Following Johannesburg-based ActionAid International, needed are policies that: encourage participatory, inclusive mechanisms that prioritize the rights and needs of legitimate tenure users; ensure the free, prior, and informed consent for all communities affected by land transfers; prioritize the needs of small-scale food producers—particularly women and sustainable land use; and regulate businesses involved in land deals so that they are fully accountable for respecting human rights, tenure rights, and environmental, social and labor standards.275
  • 254. “The Contribution of Labour Mobility to Economic Growth” (G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ Meeting, Ankara, Turkey: International Labour Organisation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, World Bank Group, 2015).
  • 255. Shekhar Aiyar et al., “The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges” (Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, January 2016).
  • 256. Alice Beste, “The Contributions of Refugees: Lifting Barriers to Inclusion,” United Nations University: Institute on Globalization, Culture, and Mobility, August 28, 2015, articles/the-contributions-of-refugees-lifting-barriers-to-inclusion.html.
  • 257. According to Papademetriou and Fratzke, managing expectations of successful integration is key. Specifically, they state that economic and social integration may not be a reasonable short-term goal for all vulnerable newcomers—especially given acute pressures on housing and services and the extent of their physicaland mental health needs. Yet public confidence relies on evidence that refugees are quickly attaining self-sufficiency. As policymakers tread the fine line between allaying immediate public fears without jeopardizing future confidence, they must emphasize refugees’ potential economic contributions without raising expectations beyond what can be delivered. Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Meghan Benton, and Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, “Rebuilding after Crisis: Embedding Refugee Integration in Migration Management Systems” (The 16th Plenary Meeting of the Transatlantic Council on Migration, Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, 2017),
  • 258. Ibid.
  • 259. A key part of this is storytelling, which can be more powerful than facts and figures or economic arguments, especially if it emphasizes individual migrants’ histories and their embodiment of the values of their new communities. Ibid.
  • 260. Ibid., 9.
  • 261. For more on this policymaking strategy, see: “Targeted Universalism,” Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, accessed April 24, 2017,
  • 262. Papademetriou, Benton, and Banulescu-Bogdan, “Rebuilding after Crisis.
  • 263. Papademetriou, Benton, and Banulescu-Bogdan, “Rebuilding after Crisis,” 8.
  • 264. Randall Hansen, “Constrained by Its Roots: How the Origins of the Global Asylum System Limit Contemporary Protection” (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, n.d.).
  • 265. Ibid.
  • 266. As Hansen points out, some progress was made at the UN General Assembly Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016 and accompanying meetings of leaders and representatives from civil society and the private sector. But while the recent summit acknowledged the importance of sharing responsibility more equitably, it did not set out how, concretely, to achieve this goal. Ibid.
  • 267. Ibid.
  • 268. Sassen, Expulsions, 84.
  • 269. Saskia Sassen, “Two Stops in Today’s New Global Geographies: Shaping Novel Labor Supplies and Employment Regimes” (Santiago, Chile: UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, June 2008), 6,
  • 270. Hickel, “Aid in Reverse.”
  • 271. “United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda,” United Nations Sustainable Development, accessed April 18, 2017,
  • 272. “Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action,” United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, accessed April 24, 2017,
  • 273. “Future We Want - Outcome Document” (Geneva: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs), accessed April 24, 2017,
  • 274. Opponents of including climate refugees in the 1951 Refugee Convention argue that, if the legal definition of “refugee” expands, host countries will accept fewer refugees. The UNHCR argues that climate refugees would undermine the legal protections for refugees and that there is no need to amend the 1951 Convention. Senior Policy Adviser at UNHCR, Jose Riera, has stated that “we have existing terminology and existing protections. We don’t need to call people anything different from what they are, which is displaced persons.” Further, “climate refugees,” critics argue, could also pose a security threat as there is currently no accurate way to distinguish migration caused by climate change and displacement due to other external factors. In order to be granted refugee status, there must be claims that the migration was forced and not voluntary, which in cases of climate change prove to be difficult to establish. International law clearly distinguishes between forced and voluntary migration, which is complicated to establish with climate change. Environmental catastrophes, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, markedly displace millions of people in a short period of time with a clear culprit. However, many climate refugees are displaced by gradual processes of environmental change, such as desertification, rising sea levels, and drought, that are not as easily attributed to climate change and that are harder to demonstrate as persecution Yet the 1951 Refugee Convention was implemented at a time when climate change was not an identified phenomenon. As the contexts of displacement have changed—with our understanding of the particular causes of displacement also evolving—so must the definition of “refugee” change, as well as the protections guaranteed therein. Glahn, Benjamin. “’Climate refugees’? Addressing the international legal gaps.” International Bar Association, June 11, 2009.
  • 275. Alex Wijeratna, “Act On It! Four Key Steps to Stop Land Grabs” (Johannesburg: ActionAid International, May 2015),