A Pivotal Moment for the US Refugee Resettlement Program

Overview: International Refugee Protection System

Overview: International Refugee Protection System

THE FIRST MAJOR STEP towards establishing a refugee protection framework was in 1921 when the League of Nations, under pressure from major humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees.3

This agency at first only administered temporary aid for Russian refugees. One reason for the singular focus on Russian refugees was the fact that the Soviet Union was not a member of the League of Nations and League members were hesitant to offer aid to people fleeing their allies. These political dynamics were also a major disincentive for League members to develop a universal definition of the term "refugee" because they were afraid of forcing themselves to offer protection to refugees living within League member countries.4

In addition to its limited scope, the High Commissioner for Refugees faced other shortcomings that limited the effectiveness of the protection it offered. For instance, the majority of League members did not support the High Commissioner financially or politically, and the members that did offer support required that League funds only be spent only on administrative expenses and not on direct relief. 

Despite these limitations, the appointment of the High Commissioner signified the first formal acknowledgment by the international community of the international responsibility to protect refugees.5 This acknowledgment also coincided with the development of legal norms regarding the protection of refugees and the establishment of refugees as a special category within international law.6

After WWII, and in part in response to the shortcomings of the High Commissioner, the United States helped lead the creation of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), with the stated goal of resettling WWII refugees and displaced persons. This focus on resettlement was unique because the High Commissioner had originally sought to ultimately send refugees back to their country of origin (a process called repatriation).7 During the negotiation process leading up to the establishment of the IRO, member countries disagreed on whether to focus on resettling refugees or repatriating them. Whereas the Western bloc insisted that the IRO resettle refugees, the Soviet Union opposed resettlement. Ultimately the IRO decided to offer resettlement in the host country to individuals with “valid objections” to repatriation based on fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. This broader definition represented a significant change in the international community’s approach to refugee protection because previous frameworks had only assisted specific nationalities of refugees, such as Russians or Germans.8 The IRO also marked a significant step towards more widespread refugee resettlement. 

In response to a recognized need for a more comprehensive and systematic approach to refugee protection, the United Nations held a special conference on refugees in July 1951. There, the United Nations General Assembly approved the 1951 Refugee Convention, which replaced the IRO with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).9

The Refugee Convention, and the Protocol that followed it in 1967, established the current framework that continues to define the legal status of refugees and establishes standards for their treatment. The Convention and its Protocol define a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

All signatories of the Convention and Protocol agree to provide refugees residing within a given country, at a minimum, the same standard of treatment as foreign nationals living in that country.10 Additionally, article 33 of the Convention institutionalizes a norm of international refugee law that had been generally accepted before 1951—respect for the principle of non-refoulment. The principle of non-refoulment prohibits signatories from returning a refugee to a territory where “his/her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."11

It is important to note that only 142 countries have ratified both the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.12 Many of the countries that have not acceded to either document do not have national policies in place to provide support for refugees. In Malaysia, for example—a country that has not ratified either the Convention or its Protocol—the UNHCR makes up for the country’s lack of national refugee policies by conducting refugee reception, registration, documentation, and status determination of asylum-seekers and refugees. Thus, the Convention and Protocol provide a strong impetus for signatories to adopt a national system for fulfilling the principles outlined in both documents. 

And although signatories agree to follow the elements of the Convention and its Protocol for individuals seeking asylum in their country, they do not have an obligation to accept refugees for resettlement.13,14 In order for a country to accept resettled refugees it must have a system for receiving and supporting these individuals and often must collaborate with a wide variety of government agencies, international organizations, and domestic non-governmental organizations. As of 2012, only 26 countries accept resettled refugees.15,16.

Throughout history, the international community has cooperated to resettle large numbers of refugees displaced by major crises. One notable example of this type of cooperation was the response to the Indochinese refugee crises in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Following the US war in Vietnam and the 1975 communist victories in the former French colonies of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), hundreds of thousands of individuals sought refuge.17 In response, more than 20 countries, led by the US, Australia, France and Canada, cooperated to resettle 623,800 refugees between 1979 and 1982.18 This effort represented a nearly 200% increase in the international monthly resettlement that had been occurring previously.19 This response to the Indochina refugee crisis demonstrates the power of a multi-country cooperative approach to resettlement, although it's worth noting that the US played a major role in creating the refugee conflict in the first place. 

The international system for protecting refugees originated, in part, from a collective recognition that people fleeing persecution and violence deserve protection, but concern for the safety of displaced persons was not the sole factor—geopolitical strategy played an important role in motivating countries to develop a refugee protection system. And throughout, including up to today, the definition of who has a "right" to receive protection continues to evolve in large part based on social and political currents. (See the Haas Institute's forthcoming report Moving Targets for more on this historical analysis.) 

Although the motivations for expanding the international refugee protection system have been complicated, the resulting international response has become increasingly structured and multilateral. This process led to the development of the UNHCR, which currently oversees and coordinates the international response. 

It has become clear throughout history that the refugee protection regime is at its strongest when many countries make major contributions. The US has historically played a major role in setting an example for other states, which has helped facilitate the development of the current framework. In order for this international framework to effectively respond to current and future crises, the US will need to continue to provide strong support. 

  • 3. Loescher, G. (1993). Beyond charity: International cooperation and the global refugee crisis. Oxford University Press.
  • 4. ibid.
  • 5. ibid.
  • 6. ibid.
  • 7. ibid.
  • 8. ibid.
  • 9. Feller, E. (2001). The evolution of the international refugee protection regime. Wash. UJL & Pol’y, 5, 129.
  • 10. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol: Relating to the Status of Refugees.” September 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2015 http://www.unhcr.org/4ec262df9.html
  • 11. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1977). “Note on Non-Refoulement” Accessed 4/2/17. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/excom/scip/3ae68ccd10/note-non-refoulement-su...
  • 12. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.” Web. 26 Mar. 2015 http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html
  • 13. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2012). “Frequently Asked Questions about Resettlement.” Accessed 3/29/17. http://www.unhcr.org/4ac0873d6.pdf
  • 14. The distinction in international law between asylum seeker and refugee is important. Refugees have been granted refugee status by UNHCR because they had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are individuals seeking refugee status
  • 15. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria (implementation in 2012 onwards), Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary (implementation in 2012 onwards), Iceland, Ireland, Japan (pilot programme), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, the United States of America
  • 16. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.” Web. 26 Mar. 2015 http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html
  • 17. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2000). “The State of the World’s Refugees.” Chapter 4. Accessed 3/29/17. http://www.unhcr.org/3ebf9bad0.html
  • 18. ibid.
  • 19. ibid.