Graphic by The Gazelle Multimedia Desk

An Ethical Examination of Refugee Policy

The refugee crisis in Europe reached a fever pitch this past week, with depictions of a drowned Syrian toddler splayed across media outlets. The images ...

Sep 12, 2015

Graphic by The Gazelle Multimedia Desk
The refugee crisis in Europe reached a fever pitch this past week, with depictions of a drowned Syrian toddler splayed across media outlets. The images encapsulated the failure of international powers to manage the refugee tide, perhaps this decade’s greatest humanitarian crisis. While the past week has also shown increased generosity by numerous European countries and the United States, in accepting thousands more refugees, one salient issue remains: ethics.
For most of the world, it is a staple social policy to aid the homeless. Redistribution of some wealth for those most in need is largely deemed just. However, when it comes to those in dire need outside a country’s borders, many nations are less than welcoming. Countries often bar refugees from their lands using  fences, paperwork, and visa restrictions.
Those whose home countries are ripped apart by drug violence, ethnic cleansing, and civil war become illegals, terrorists and undocumented migrants in the eyes of their would-be savior states.
Granted, in much of the developed world, this personal ambivalence to the plight of the downtrodden is forgivable. You can ignore that hobo down the street because you know there are relatively decent services provided by the state vis-à-vis your taxes. However, on an international level, this is not the case.
There is not a strong multinational welfare system in which countries must donate to help the downtrodden. The UNHCR, the UN’s high commissioner on refugees and the closest thing to an international state-welfare system, is almost entirely dependent on voluntary contributions. In the personal scenario, envision a person in a suit standing next to the hobo asking for the same money.
This simplified situation of hobos and suited beggars would be fitting if countries, on the whole, were more generous than their more selfish constituents. Contrary to what one would hope, the UNHCR does not receive those buckets of international donations commensurate with their need. And, unfortunately, neither do the truly needy themselves.
As the UNHCR explains in its 2014-2015 budgetary report, “Despite the significant increase in contributions, only 55 percent of the 2014 comprehensive budgetary requirements were covered, leaving many of the needs of people of concern to UNHCR unmet.”
Assuming we have an ethical obligation as humans to help the homeless, the UNHCR situation raises a dilemma: what do we do? The way I see it, there are three different solutions. Countries could choose to personally help refugees more, they could increase voluntary funding for the UNHCR or they could make contributions to the UNHCR binding.
The first, while seemingly the most attractive in terms of state sovereignty, has perhaps the most documented record of failure in recent years. Countries assume that everyone will play their individual part, but really it is just some countries, and often the least prepared, that are left to deal with the problem. Globally, 86 percent of refugees are housed in the developing world, compared to 70 percent just ten years ago.
In terms of Syria’s 9 million refugees, over 4 million Syrians have fled the country since the crisis began, with nearly 2 million settling in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon and 1 million in Jordan. Syrian applications for refugee status in Europe, while expected to rise, are only 348, 540.
The United States, steward of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," has a meager 1,400. Finally, the GCC, the group of countries most geographically and culturally close to Syria, has accepted no refugees, perhaps because of low oil prices, sunken cash in the disastrous Yemeni civil war or the fact they don’t legally recognize the concept of refugeehood.
In the end, developing countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey foot the bill, as developed nations like the U.S., U.K. and UAE offer few to no shelter options, but plenty of lip service.
The second solution of increasing voluntary funding to the UNHCR is less proven than unilateral action, but it is also fairly ineffective. As seen in the aforementioned UNHCR report, the cost of making up for budget shortfalls through increased voluntary funding would mean countries roughly doubling their voluntary funding.
On increasing funding, the UNHCR states on its website, "The situation has become tougher with the onset of the global economic crisis, with prices rising and both government and corporate donors tightly controlling limited aid budgets.” Furthermore, while the GCC has outdone many other developed countries in UNHCR contribution numbers relative to GDP, there is still, and will be, little done by the world’s largest economic power.
Increased voluntary funding to the UNHCR is a ridiculous proposition when the additional costs are so high and the United States trust in the UN is so low that in 2012, 38 out of 100 senators voted down a ratification bill on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities because the UN legislation contained “cumbersome regulation” and threats to American sovereignty.
Thus, the final, and only conceivable solution to the refugee dilemma, is the institution of mandatory funding for the UNHCR. There are already UN provisions that mandate funding for items such as peacekeeping, which has served well as countries contribute to UN efforts and supplement them via unilateral action when they are feeling generous.
Of course, this measure would mean countries like the U.S., China and the UAE would be forced into plans that don’t completely jive with their respective national interests. That acknowledged, if we truly care about helping our fellow man, we must concede that mandated funding of the UNHCR is the best means to help refugees.
If developed countries feel no natural obligation to unburdening the developing world from the vast majority of global refugees, there must be an international body to counteract such deleterious inaction.
Today’s refugee crisis is ultimately one of great ethical consequence and it is either time for us to pursue the mandated funding of the UNHCR or accept that we as people don’t care about our fellow man. With the little hope I have left in this great and tumultuous world, I pray we choose the former.
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