Safe Passage and Asylum Key to Fulfilling the Responsibility to Protect

Refugees at a train terminal wait to cross the border from Greece into the Republic of Macedonia. Idomeni, Greece, September 6, 2015. (Thomas Campean/Anadolu/Getty Images)

The heartbreaking images of Aylan Kurdi and the mass of humanity seeking sanctuary in Europe have lent new urgency to the search for a solution to the region’s crisis of displacement caused, primarily, by atrocity crimes in Syria.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the international community’s adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, it is worth remembering that all states within the United Nations acknowledged their responsibility to use “diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” to protect populations from atrocity crimes.

One of the most straightforward and effective measures that could be adopted in fulfillment of this responsibility is the provision of safe passage and asylum to those fleeing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and the so-called Islamic State’s beheadings. Providing safe passage and asylum for Syria’s refugees is thus nothing short of a requirement of R2P. States cannot in good conscience proclaim their support for R2P on the one hand, while using the other to prevent the granting of asylum.

Just how many civilians are killed in an episode of atrocity crimes is shaped in large part by the capacity of the targeted population to flee from immediate harm—a key claim advanced in Benjamin Valentino’s Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century.

The more a targeted group is able to find refuge from violence, the lower the number of casualties from direct violence is likely to be. But as we all know, displacement increases exposure to other causes of harm and can sometimes place civilians at greater risk of atrocities. As such, international efforts to facilitate a population’s safe flight from harm and protect that population once it has become displaced are among the most significant ways in which lives can be saved in the face of atrocity crimes.

Today, the world faces an unprecedented crisis of displacement caused by a combination of massive new humanitarian crises, such as that in Syria, caused in part by atrocity crimes and the international community’s failure to find long-term resettlement places for those displaced by past crises.

The relationship between R2P and the protection of refugees was understood from the outset. Indeed, R2P itself grew out of earlier attempts to recast sovereignty in order to improve the protection of displaced populations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly argued that full implementation of international refugee law is among the steps required to fulfill R2P.

In 2008, Legal scholar Brian Barbour and the UN High Commission on Refugees’ (UNHCR) Brian Gorlick argued that “there may be no easier way for the international community to meet its responsibility to protect than by providing asylum and other international protection on adequate terms.”  They were right to do so. The granting of safe passage and asylum is without doubt one of the most effective, if not the most effective, ways of directly protecting people from atrocity crimes.

What is entailed here is simply the full implementation of the 1951 Convention on the Protection of Refugees and subsequent 1967 Protocol through the existing mechanisms, including UNHCR, already established to achieve that goal. Simply put “asylum”—a term not often associated with R2P—as others have argued, ought to be a key element, of the principle’s repertoire of responses to atrocity crimes. That is why, for example, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on R2P, Jennifer Welsh, has pointed out that Jordan is among the few countries that can claim to have fulfilled their responsibility to protect by accommodating Syrian refugees.

Barbour and Gorlick identified a number of specific measures to support the protection of refugees who flee atrocity crimes, which included:

  • ensuring that neighboring states open their borders and make it as easy as possible for threatened people to seek asylum;
  • providing support to the receiving states to ensure that they are able to adequately house, shelter, and protect refugees;
  • relieving the burden on receiving states by facilitating the movement of refugees to third countries for temporary protection;
  • significantly expanding the availability of long-term protection and resettlement options to reduce the number of displaced people worldwide;
  • advocating strongly for the granting of asylum and protection to potential victims of atrocity crimes;
  • ensuring that the unique protection needs of women and girls are addressed; and
  • improving understanding of the reasons why people are fleeing a particular situation in order to increase the amount of information available about atrocity crimes.

In addition, they suggested a range of ways in which R2P’s first two pillars – relating to the primary responsibility of the state and the provision of encouragement and assistance—could be utilized to enhance upstream protection, such as through urging states to prioritize the development of legal processes for the determination of an asylum-seeker’s status, measures to tackle the underlying protection needs of victims and the causes of displacement, and action to reduce statelessness. These are all necessary, but as yet too often overlooked, components of R2P’s implementation. They should be at the forefront of efforts to implement the principle.

Today, the international community confronts a chronic crisis of displacement. According to the UNHCR, at 59.5 million, there are more displaced persons today than at any point since the end of the Second World War. Of these, 19.5 million are refugees. In 2014, 126,800 refugees decided to return home, while between them some 26 countries offered permanent resettlement places to 105,200 refugees. More than two-thirds of those places were offered by one country—the United States. At that rate, assuming no new crises causing displacement, it would take more than 84 years to safely return or resettle all the world’s refugees.

With each year that passes the gap between the number of refugees and the global capacity to safely return or resettle them is growing. Meanwhile, developed states are generally tightening their own refugee and immigration policies, making it more difficult for the forcibly displaced to find asylum while making frontline states shoulder the principal responsibility for housing them. In 2014, the principal host states were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan – many of which have their own profound insecurities. In total, some 86% of the world’s refugees are housed in the developing world, and some 25% in UN-defined Least Developed Countries.

The granting of asylum may be one the most straightforward and effective ways in which states can fulfill their responsibility to protect, but the gap between demand and response is growing rapidly. This needs to be addressed urgently through the reaffirming of support for asylum and redoubling of efforts to protect refugees and displaced persons. The ambitions of R2P will not be achieved without the adoption of bold measures to reaffirm faith in the right of asylum.  This requires nothing short of a sea change in the way that the UN’s member states relate to asylum and the protection of refugees.

In order to encourage this necessary change, the UN Secretary-General and UNHCR could consider convening a high-level panel or taskforce to examine the current crisis of displacement and recommend concrete steps that can be taken to better protect refugees and displaced populations from atrocity crimes. The UNHCR could also consider appointing its own special envoy or adviser specifically focused on R2P and asylum to act as a constant reminder that achieving the commitment to R2P requires the provision of asylum, and to prod states to live up to their own solemn commitments.

This is a responsibility that we all must shoulder together.