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Refugees and displacement

Alex Aleinikoff: Let's start with how we define ‘refugee'

The countries doing the most to support refugees are among the least-developed in the world. How do you convince other states to shoulder a fair burden?

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

The scope of the displacement crisis simultaneously boggles the mind and feels like a grim statistical recitative: Over 65 million people are currently displaced, and close to 23 million are refugees -- more than at any time since World War II. Uganda, which accepted 2,000 refugees per day in 2017, can barely open enough settlements to keep pace with the number of people fleeing violence in South Sudan, the Congo, Burundi, and Somali. All of this while the gap between humanitarian aid and need is growing deeper and Western governments are tightening their borders.

Alex Aleinikoff

But former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner on Refugees Alex Aleinikoff remains optimistic about prospects for a solution. “The numbers are very large, and the times that people stay in exile has gone up dramatically,” he tells Displaced hosts Grant Gordon and Ravi Gurumurthy on this week’s episode. “On the other hand, in a world of seven billion people, 20 million refugees...and 40 million internally displaced people...are entirely manageable numbers. We need to talk about the huge needs of the people who have fled. But at the same time, if the world got together and really wanted to do something...this would be solved.”

The linchpin to any durable solution to the refugee crisis is creating mechanisms for states to equitably share the burden of caring for and resettling refugees. Perhaps not surprisingly, this discussion looks a lot like negotiations on how to distribute responsibility for another global ill: Climate change. Some have proposed a cap-and-trade system on refugees; others have put forward formulas that would take into account a state’s historical acceptance of refugees, ability to resettle new refugees, or share of blame in creating a refugee crisis when determining refugee allocations.

In this episode, Aleinikoff shares why he thinks those proposals are quixotic, and describes an alternative solution to spur states to work together on refugees. And we dissect some of the arguments in Aleinikoff’s forthcoming book, The Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime, including how the context in which UNHCR was created has shaped how it responds to refugees, whether to expand the formal definition of refugee to include all forced migrants, and why one of the most promising and innovative solutions to the refugee crisis is to boost refugees’ mobility by enabling them to travel outside countries of first asylum.

What I would really like to see...is an organization of refugee voices. I'd like to see political action by refugees. It’s very easy for me, sitting in a studio in New York City to say that; it’s very hard for refugees to do that, who feel vulnerable. But with advocates and movements there can be refugee voices that demand to be heard, and we can facilitate that.

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Related Reading

Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.