Changing approaches to reception and accommodation of displaced populations
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (“Convention”) is the foundation for global responses to reception and accommodation of displaced individuals and populations (refugees). In the aftermath of World War II, the UN Refugee Agency was focused on displaced populations in Europe and is now engaged with supporting displaced populations around the world. The number of forcibly displaced people in the world is almost 70 million, unprecedented numbers that are demonstrating the shortcomings in the Convention system. The traditional understanding and response to displaced persons has been the creation of camps, typically in rural settings, administered by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The global regime for dealing with displacement continues to face many challenges as the nature of displacement has changed. With the majority of displaced persons being internally displaced and the overwhelming impact of the Syrian refugee crisis, the traditional approach of UNHCR-administered camps is proving inadequate for accommodating extensive flows of people over an extended period of time; two key characteristics of contemporary displacement. To that extent, the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (“Declaration”) and the resulting Global Compact on Refugees (“Compact”) have been adopted in the hope to re-adjust the traditional approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations, emphasizing self-reliance, less pressure on host countries, more access to resettlement and further support for voluntary return.
States Parties to the 1951 Convention have the primary obligations to displaced persons for reception and providing necessary support for those seeking asylum for as long as individuals are present in the State Party. The most recent refugee crises have demonstrated the need to rethink traditional approaches to displacement and reception and engage in more locally-based and context-specific approaches as originally envisaged by the 1951 Convention. Further, given the extensive numbers of displaced persons around the world, the UNHCR itself cannot undertake the primary responsibility for displaced persons. States need to take a more pro-active role. In this regard, it is also necessary to revise the political will and mindset around displaced persons to develop more creative approaches to reception that seek to develop sustainable models with a more specific human security approach. Displacement is, unfortunately, becoming a semi-permanent status for many; namely, displaced persons cannot be seen as a temporary issue that is quickly resolved.
The most evident example is the Syrian refugee crisis with 5.6 million Syrians having fled the country as a result of an armed conflict that shows no signs of ending. Plus, it is unlikely that many of displaced Syrians will be able to return to Syria for at least a generation, if at all. In Europe, a place of refuge to more than a million Syrians, the Convention signatory countries have had a difficult time processing an unprecedented number of asylum applications in the midst of the refugee crisis. This is due to an over reliance on the UNHCR to handle initial reception and resettlement and an absence of political will to accept Syrian refugees. The role of the UNHCR is supposed to be supportive of the States Parties in receiving displaced persons but States have deferred responsibility to the office for both reception and settlement. The Syrian crisis sets an ominous precedent for upcoming humanitarian crises as it shows how the current global regime struggles in its initial response as well as providing long-term sustainable solutions for displaced persons. It is imperative that we seek out alternative approaches to reception and accommodation of displaced persons to meet the challenges facing the world today, particularly approaches that are locally based and context specific while supportive of human security.
The 1951 Convention
It is crucial to acknowledge that the locally-based and context-specific approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations is not an original patent of the Syrian refugee crisis. The 1951 Convention was drafted in a time of locally-based solutions to displacement. Under the Convention the States Parties are at the forefront of reception and guarding the safety of displaced populations. Both the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees affirm that refugees have rights that are to be provided to them by their host-countries, all with active and informed participation of host communities. Namely, the most important of these rights include: housing (Article 21), education (Article 22), work (Articles 17-19), public relief and assistance (Article 23), freedom of religion (Article 4), access to courts (Article 26), freedom of movement within the territory of the host-country (Article 26), and identity/travel documents (Articles 27 and 28). In other words, the 1951 Convention supports the self-reliance of displaced populations and ensures that host-countries, including host-communities, are the primary bearers of this mandate. The UNHCR is described as a “supervisory body” for upholding the Convention and is only mentioned in Article 35 where the States Parties undertake to cooperate with the Office of UNHCR.
However, in practice states have outsourced the bulk of their responsibilities to the UNHCR. With respect to the already strained UNHCR mandate and an exponentially increasing number of emerging crises, the fact stands that the organization has no logistical capability of addressing the needs of such a large number of displaced persons. The operational budget of UNHCR has also dropped significantly in recent years, making its mandate more demanding to exercise.
In relation to current migration there is a prevalent perception of refugees as economic migrants and a security threat, making it difficult to address refugee crises adequately. This has resulted in the absence of a connection between the Convention and the lived reality of displacement. Starting with reception, asylum determination processes take 15 to 21 months on average. Given their heterogeneity and complexity, refugee status determination processes are by nature difficult to reconcile with prescriptions of administrative clarity and convenience. At the same time, with the unprecedented and exponentially increasing number of asylum applications, it has become more exigent to implement, in an efficient manner, systems for reception so that displaced persons and communities can gain the security of certainty allowing them to start rebuilding their lives. The international community, especially those countries who are party to the 1951 Convention, have demonstrated an absence of political will and creative solutions in helping displaced persons, only contributing to continued insecurity.
Historically, despite clear definitions that set the foundation of refugee assistance, the world’s governments had been content with handing the primary responsibility of refugee reception to the UNHCR. With the Syrian refugee crisis, it is possible to identify a transition from the primary responsibility sitting with the UNHCR back to national governments under the New York Declaration and the subsequent Compact. However, there remains a gap that is yet to be filled by effective response mechanisms, be it on a national, regional or global level. The difficulty lies in the fact that states remain tied to the predominant approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations and have shown little interest in taking on primary responsibility, in order to alleviate the burden of UNHCR and most effectively address the unprecedented number of displaced persons.
It is imperative to assess the success of different reception and accommodation approaches in order to gain knowledge of more flexible approaches. Some of the more intriguing and flexible approaches have come from states that are not party to the 1951 Convention and who are in the global South. The success of these approaches is grounded in the creation of locally-based and context-specific approaches for receiving and accommodating displaced populations. Such approaches emphasize the pivotal role of governmental coordination of refugees’ self-sustainability and self-provision of livelihoods.
In addition to the case of Malaysia from 2006 and the case of Nigeria from 2007, the country-case of Saudi Arabia portrays the alignment of political will with on-ground practicalities in receiving and accommodating displaced populations in order to ensure their self-reliance, leading to better long-term sustainable solutions to displacement. The reception and accommodation approaches to displaced populations in non-signatory countries have been underexplored. They are, however, important to examine given their potential to: (i) illuminate the state of displaced populations in non-signatory countries demonstrating that the Convention principles can be applied in a variety of approaches, and (ii) successfully show a transformation from traditional approaches to encompass self-reliance of displaced populations.
Saudi Arabia: Reception and Accommodation of Displaced Syrians
Since 2011, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has diligently worked to develop a context-specific, comprehensive approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations, which, given the regional context, focuses on displaced Syrians. The Saudi government has embarked on revising and modifying its immigration system in order to accommodate displaced Syrians, and later Yemenis. Displaced Syrians have come to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia post-2011 on a visit visa and are officially referred to as Syrian visitors. As of December 2018, there are 673 669 Syrian visitors residing in Saudi Arabia, with the number of 2 570 972 visit visa renewals from 2011 until the beginning of 2019.
The reception and accommodation approach to displaced populations that has been implemented with displaced Syrians within the Kingdom rests of five core pillars:
- Legal status regulation: Syrians are eligible for indefinite and free renewal of visit visas, with overstayers exempted from fines and deportation (Ministry of Interior).
- Access to education: Syrians are included in a state scholarship program, resulting in 141 604 Syrians children being enrolled in public schools from 2011 to 2018 and more than 7 950 seats allocated to them in public universities in the past seven years free of charge.
- Access to healthcare: Syrians are enabled access to government hospitals free of charge and without valid health insurance.
- Access to the labor market: Syrians are eligible for a special program for Syrian and Yemeni visitors; in the three years since the creation of the program, more than 14 000 work permits have been issued for Syrians on a visit visa (Ministry of Labor and Social Development).
- Social integration: Syrians are eligible for housing across the Kingdom with no limitations, thus enabling them greater proximity to nationals and other communities within the Kingdom.
The mechanism of indefinite renewal of visit visas for displaced Syrians was put in place immediately. The overstayers have been continuously exempted from fines and deportation, a measure that also includes displaced Yemenis and Palestinians. It is also important to mention that the renewal of visit visas is free of charge. Moreover, with the onset of conflict in Yemen, 15 819 Syrians fleeing the violence were given indefinite visit visas, several thousands of whom remain in the southern part of the Kingdom, which demonstrates that the context-specific nature of the Saudi approach is flexible enough to accommodate changes, both internal and external.
The Saudi approach shows how a spectrum of legal statuses for displaced persons provides more effective avenues for self-sustainability and human security of displaced populations, leading to more durable solutions, both in the short-term and longer-term.
At its core, the Saudi approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations morphs the traditional understanding of the visitor status and applies it in order to assist those in need, which shows the congruence between its local context and administrative practicalities. It provides numerous facilities for displaced Syrians, including: social integration into the Saudi society, job opportunities, exemptions from fees and fines, free medical treatment in government hospitals, enrollment in schools in all stages. To that extent, displaced Syrians have been engaged with on all official levels and the Kingdom has been active in accommodating them without a time constraint.
It is necessary to bear in mind that numerous factors shape displacement and that the primary responsibility to uphold the system, historically exercised by the UNHCR, ought to shift back to a locally-based and context-specific approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations. Within this process, it is important to recognize that the 1951 Convention places primary responsibility upon the States Parties and not the UNHCR for the security, wellbeing and self-reliance of displaced populations.
With the Syrian refugee crisis, the international community has tried to solve the inadequacies of the traditional approach to reception and accommodation of displaced populations, which is demonstrated with the recent shift toward a development-centered approach under the New York Declaration and the subsequent Compact, thus alleviating the primary responsibility of UNHCR. However, traditional immigration systems of individual host-countries have struggled to keep pace. Nonetheless, these countries have also shown little understanding or interest in more flexible approaches, in particular those developed and practiced by non-signatories to the 1951 Convention. With the New York Declaration and enough openness to study successful examples of context-specific accommodation models for displaced populations, the global community has much to gain by adopting more flexible approaches to displacement. With the help of the New York Declaration and the subsequent Compact, context-specific approaches to reception and accommodation of displaced populations, such as the approach of Saudi Arabia, can be scaled up to the signatories as well, thus assisting them in the way forward.
In an ideal scenario, the root causes of mass displacement of people would be addressed before displacement occurs. Given the emergence of new, larger and more temporally extended refugee crises, it is imperative to seek more creative and more context-specific solutions. To that extent, these approaches need to be locally-based, context specific and directed at the long-term sustainable human security of displaced persons. This is no easy task. It is clear that seeing displacement as a temporary matter, best left to the UNHCR to manage, is not furthering security for those displaced. The 1951 Convention provides a foundation for states to take more flexible approaches to displacement and we have examples of effective flexible approaches, with non-signatory states leading the way. The scale of the challenges to the international community to effective support displaced populations is immense making new and innovative responses necessary.
 All information listed above is provided by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development through interviews undertaken by the author.