Editorial: protection and livelihoods in regions of origin
By Jeff Crisp
During the past decade, the issues of asylum and immigration have risen to the top of the political agenda throughout the developed countries of Western Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. This concern is rooted in the widespread (if faulty) perception that the world's richest countries are threatened by an uncontrollable influx of asylum seekers from poorer and less stable states, particularly those who arrive in an illegal manner and who submit questionable applications for refugee status.
These fears have been compounded by the fact that asylum seekers arriving in Europe and other developed regions are frequently transported by human smugglers, and because they are often young men who originate from parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa which are associated in the public mind with terrorism and militant Islam.
There is growing evidence to suggest that Western Europe's new migrants contribute to the region's economy by working in low-paid and low-status jobs that EU citizens are reluctant to accept. Nevertheless, politicians and the electorate have tended to ignore this issue, preferring to focus on the high levels of public expenditure required to process large numbers of asylum applications and to support asylum seekers with legal advice, accommodation and social welfare benefits.
Responding to these different concerns, governments in the developed world have introduced a wide range of measures intended to obstruct or deter the arrival of people who intend to seek refugee status in Western Europe or to remain illegally in the region. These include more stringent visa and passport controls; restrictions to the rights and benefits provided to asylum seekers; and the establishment of international agreements to deal with those people who transit from one country to another, sometimes submitting asylum applications in more than one state.
In some respects, such measures appear to have had their intended effect, as the number of asylum applications submitted in Western Europe has declined significantly in recent years. But there is also a growing recognition that restrictive asylum policies have fuelled the human smuggling industry (because this is almost the only means of entry available to most asylum seekers) and have encouraged new arrivals in the region to go 'underground', rather than running the risk of detention and deportation by approaching the authorities with a claim to refugee status.
Seeking to resolve this conundrum, a number of governments in the developed world have expressed growing interest in the notion of 'protection in regions of origin'. This approach is based on the principle that people who have fled from states which are affected by armed conflict, violence and instability should be able to find a safe refuge and acceptable living conditions in locations that are close to the borders of their own country.
Proponents of 'protection in regions of origin' have argued that this approach to the refugee issue has a variety of attractions and potential advantages.
If implemented effectively, it might avert the need for refugees and asylum seekers to make difficult, dangerous and costly journeys from one part of the world to another. In doing so, it would deprive the human smugglers of their customers, reduce the pressures currently placed on Western Europe's asylum and social welfare systems, and thereby discourage the kind of xenophobic sentiments that have emerged in many parts of the EU. This, in turn, would enable a more rational debate to take place on the region's future refugee policy and immigration needs.
A number of other benefits might be derived from the notion of 'protection in regions of origin'.
First, by reducing asylum-related expenditures in Western Europe, it promises to make additional funding available for development aid - assistance that would bring long-term benefits not only to refugees, but also to the host country and to members of the local population.
Second, if refugees can be accommodated safely in their regions of origin, they will be more likely to return to their country of origin once the violence that displaced them has come to an end. The tasks of repatriation and reintegration are also likely to be less expensive and simpler to organize in situations where refugees are located close to the borders of their own country.
Third, the 'protection in regions of origin' approach would not necessarily prevent refugees and asylum seekers from being admitted to countries in the developed world. Indeed, proponents of this strategy point out that refugees whose security is at risk in their region of origin, those who have special needs or family links abroad will be able to benefit from organized resettlement programmes, thereby ensuring their safe arrival and speedy integration in one of the industrialized states.
While these arguments all have their merits, there is also a need to acknowledge that the concept of 'protections in regions of origin' is also confronted with some major challenges.
Many areas which currently accommodate large numbers of refugees (northern Kenya, eastern Tanzania and northern Uganda, to give three examples from East Africa) suffer from very high levels of insecurity and very low levels of development. Even if resources can be transferred from Western Europe's domestic asylum systems to its overseas development budgets (an unlikely scenario according to some commentators), can we really expect the speedy transformation of such troubled locations into havens of peace, safety and economic growth?
Some doubts must also be cast on the suggestion that improved conditions in regions of origin will lead to a substantial reduction in the movement of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from the poor countries of the 'South' to the rich nations of the 'North'. The disparity in living standards between these two parts of the world seems certain to be maintained, and may well increase in the future, thereby prompting further international migration. Moreover, as a result of the globalization process and the expansion of transnational social networks, growing numbers of people in low-income countries have access to the information and resources required for them to migrate - if not legally then in an irregular manner - from one part of the world to another.
Most significantly, it is difficult to see how improved protection in regions of origin, or an expansion in the number of resettlement opportunities for bona fide refugees, will curtail the movement of people whose primary objective is to improve their economic circumstances and their prospects in life.
Finally, there is a serious risk that states in the developed world will define 'protection in the region' in minimalistic terms, suggesting that as long as refugees enjoy physical security and their basic material needs are met, then they should have no need or right to seek asylum in other parts of the world.
Such interpretations of the concept should be challenged. In the early stages of a refugee emergency, it may prove necessary to accommodate refugees in camps and to provide them with emergency relief. But as a refugee situation persists, refugees should be granted a wider range of rights and opportunities, especially the ability to establish sustainable livelihoods. And that, in turn, will require refugees to enjoy freedom of movement, access to land, loans and the labour market, as well as educational and vocational training programmes.
Until such conditions are met, people who are trapped in protracted refugee situations and who have no prospect of finding a solution to their plight will continue to seek more productive lives in other parts of the world.
Jeff Crisp is Head of UNHCR's Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit. This article is written in a personal capacity.