This chapter considers how international solidarity can help states to meet their responsibilities concerning refugees and contribute to improving their protection and finding lasting solutions to their problems. It begins by describing international solidarity and the impact of refugees on host countries, goes on to describe responsibility-sharing practices among states, and then describes efforts to strengthen international solidarity. It concludes by restating evolving challenges and the need for responsible states, international cooperation and meaningful solidarity to address them.

The international refugee protection system is founded on national responsibility and states complying with their legal obligations towards refugees and others at risk, on the basis of treaties and customary international law. At the same time, the system depends on international solidarity, the principle by which ‘global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes costs and burdens fairly (…)’. Solidarity is important because responsibility for refugees otherwise rests with the host state. Countries most affected by refugee flows regularly appeal for more international support. However, no clear parameters describe how states should help one another with hosting refugees; and the perceived need for solidarity is often driven by the politics and visibility of each crisis.

In the face of protracted refugee situations and new emergencies, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called for ‘a new deal on burden sharing‘. The solution to growing tensions in the global refugee regime, he has said, is ‘quite simply, more international solidarity‘. The 1951 Refugee Convention establishes the scope of state responsibility towards refugees and its preamble explains that national responsibility and international solidarity are mutually reinforcing concepts. A similar approach was articulated in regional instruments for Africa and Latin America, and in the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Since the Cold War, the dynamics of refugee policy and of international solidarity have been complicated by a divergence of interests between refugees and countries in the developed world which enforced new measures to restrict access by asylum-seekers, and divided discussions in UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee along North-South lines.

In 2000, UNHCR launched a series of Global Consultations on International Protection to explore ways to revitalize the international protection regime, which resulted in a far-reaching Agenda for Protection. In 2002, the Convention Plus process produced constructive discussions and framework documents, but did not result in any firm agreements on burden-sharing. In December 2010, participants in the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges endorsed a broad-based notion of responsibility sharing across the full cycle of forced displacement. An Expert Meeting convened by UNHCR in 2011 agreed that strengthened international cooperation is needed, but noted that its meaning and scope required further definition.

A Liberian motorcycle taxi driver gives a lift to an older refugee from Côte d'Ivoire.

A Liberian motorcycle taxi driver gives a lift to an older refugee from Côte d'Ivoire.

Impacts on hosts

Most of the literature on refugees distinguishes between refugee-hosting and donor countries. Host countries tend to be lower and middle-income states in the developing world and shelter the largest numbers of refugees. States which are close to areas in crisis are called upon to host the majority of the world’s refugees. At the start of 2011, developing countries hosted 80 per cent of the 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. More than half of the 20 countries with most refugees in relation toGDPwere least-developed countries (LDCs). However, comparing refugee populations from one region of the world to another is not always straightforward. The costs generally fall into three categories: costs to the state administration; costs to the economy, environment and infrastructure; and costs for the host state in terms of its security, social fabric and relationships with other states.

Investigation into refugee-hosting has tended to focus on negative elements, whereas refugees can and do make positive contributions to their host countries and communities, and UNHCR and donors try to ensure that communities derive advantages from hosting refugees. Yet consideration of the impact of hosting refugees rarely extends to developed countries, some of which receive very large numbers of asylum-seekers and grant asylum and offer resettlement on a large scale.

Sharing responsibility

Responsibility sharing is the expression of solidarity in practice. International cooperation to share burdens and responsibilities for refugees has focused on addressing the impacts of refugee hosting, primarily through financial and technical support or through refugee resettlement.

Financial and technical support

Financial support for the costs of protecting and assisting refugees and displaced persons has long been a part of the framework for international cooperation. In recent years, several innovations have been introduced in the funding of humanitarian operations: pooled funding, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and UNHCR’s Global Needs Assessment (GNA). UNHCR’s budget reached a record level in 2011, receiving over US$2 billion in voluntary contributions, but this covered less than 60* per cent of needs identified. Further, three-quarters of all contributions received by UNHCR came from just ten donors, and more than half were provided by just four: the United States, Japan, the European Commission and the United Kingdom. In addition, many countries provide technical assistance to help host countries to improve their ability to receive and protect refugees, and to resolve refugee problems. Capacity-building can encompass a wide range of activities, from the development of emergency response capacities to the establishment of national asylum systems to refugee resettlement, integration and community development activities.


Resettlement is another important means by which states can share responsibility with refugee-hosting states—although no legal obligation exists for states to participate in resettlement. Considerable potential remains for resettlement to play a greater role as an instrument of responsibility sharing. A persistent imbalance remains in the global resettlement effort, with around two-thirds of all resettled refugees taken in by the United States and only 10 per cent by countries in Europe. Moreover, UNHCR cannot always count on a positive response to its emergency resettlement appeals, as it discovered in 2011, when it appealed for resettlement places for refugees—mainly Somalis and Eritreans—who had fled the conflict in Libya. Within the European Union, a pilot scheme was set up in 2009 for intra-EU responsibility sharing through the ‘relocation’ of beneficiaries of international protection from one member state to another, and in 2011 the European Commission suggested that the EU might consider institutionalizing a relocation arrangement.

Other arrangements

Formal agreements to share responsibility for hosting refugees or asylum-seekers can help to avoid unilateral burden shifting and reduce the risk of chain refoulement (forced return). Examples include the 2002 agreement between Canada and the United States and EU’s Dublin II Regulation. Finally, there have been periodic discussions about new forms of access to asylum procedures, ‘embassy procedures‘ or ‘protected entry procedures’ by which asylum seekers and refugees would apply directly from their first country of asylum to enter another potential asylum country.

Box 8.4 The European Union’s ‘Dublin II’ Regulation

Strengthening solidarity

Solidarity in the international refugee regime ought to serve as a means to improve the availability and quality of protection. Three principles underpin UNHCR’s efforts to promote international cooperation and solidarity. First, international cooperation is a complement to states’ responsibilities and not a substitute; states cannot devolve their responsibilities to international organizations. Second, the underlying objective of cooperative arrangements must be to enhance refugee protection and prospects for durable solutions. Third, cooperative arrangements must always be guided by the basic principles of humanity and dignity, and aligned with international refugee and human rights law.

In December 2011, UNHCR organized a landmark ministerial meeting aimed at strengthening both national responsibility and international solidarity with respect to refugees and stateless people. All UN member states were invited to the meeting: 155 participated and 102 made concrete pledges on a wide range of refugee protection and statelessness issues. A significant number of pledges related directly to improving their national protection responses and many pledges related to durable solutions for refugees—with some 20 countries, particularly in Africa, committed to facilitating local integration for long-staying refugees. The most significant breakthrough related to statelessness, with states parties to the two statelessness conventions rising to 71 and 42 respectively. The consideration of new factors that give rise to displacement provoked lively discussions at the meeting, with several states pledging to work to obtain a better understanding of cross-border movements provoked by factors such as climate change and environmental degradation. In the final Communiqué, UN member states pledged to help countries that host large numbers of refugees to meet their needs, while working to promote refugee self-sufficiency. In the years ahead, UNHCR will face the challenge of holding states to their declarations, and ensuring that they are translated into concrete action.

Concluding remarks

As recognized at the Ministerial Meeting in 2011, patterns of forced displacement are constantly changing and the international community’s response needs to evolve accordingly, to ensure that protection and assistance are available for all people who are driven from their homes. The primary responsibility rests with states—host countries as well as the countries of origin of refugees and IDPs—who are required to govern in a way that protects the rights of refugees and stateless people on their territories, as well as of their own citizens affected by conflicts and crises. It is the responsibility of the wider international community to demonstrate solidarity by helping states to shoulder these responsibilities in a consistent and effective manner.

Finally, the nature and scale of refugee flows, internal displacement and statelessness puts national and international systems under considerable pressure. The Ministerial Meeting provided a strong international reaffirmation that no government can deal with these problems in isolation. But solidarity is not only a matter for states. Civil society organizations, communities and individuals often make the most meaningful contributions to improving the state of the world’s refugees.

[Note: Figures marked with an asterisk (*) were corrected on 4 June 2012.]