How can international institutions better support refugees?

Despite the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, many refugees still face a tremendous amount of challenges. While the United Nation High Commission for Refugees was created to help mitigate some of these challenges, they lacks the ability to enforce many of the policies that could be effective in protecting refugees. International organizations can help protect the rights of refugees by partnering directly with the nations affected and supporting local efforts.

One example of this Yemen, which has been in a state of crisis for several years due to a rebel takeover of the capital. Yemen is directly impacted by both refugees coming into the country, particularly from Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as those fleeing the country. To help aid the Yemini government in managing the influx of refugees, the UNHCR worked with local community groups to provide essential services such as food, shelter, clean water, and educational services. Nicholas Martin-Archard discusses the important role of community centers in aiding refugees in Yemen. The UNHCR worked in Yemen to establish and support local community centers until the centers are able to run on their own. Even after leaving, the UNHCR continues to provide financial support and supplies.

In “Arrested Development? UNHRC, ILO, and the Refugees’ Right to Work.”, Adele Garnier states that there is a lot of room for cooperation among international organizations in protecting refugee rights, in particular between the UNHCR and the International Labour Organization. She argues that they share a “common areas of concern” in protecting refugee rights, one of which is the right to work.

While this method was incredibly effective in helping Yemen manage the incoming refugees, this method will not work for every country. In order for an international organization to be successful in supporting refugees, it must take into account the local conditions and values. However, the UNHCR can only come into a country to offer assistance if they are invited. In The Implied Human Rights Obligations of the UNHCR, Niahm Kinchin points out that although states still hold primary responsibility in protecting the rights of refugees under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, if an individual qualifies as a refugee under the criteria outlined in the Convention, they are entitled to protection from the UNHCR regardless of the signing status of the country that they are in.

While the UNHCR, as well as other international organizations, have made a generally positive impact on the ability of severely impacted countries to manage the protection of refugees, some also criticize the UNHCR for not completely filling their obligations as the main authoritative body on refugee rights. Ridvan Peshkopia states that “the UNHCR has demonstrated itself to be unfit for this role”. He proposes that they are unfit because they are not held accountable to the domestic actors of a country and that they do not need to be popularly elected, leaving little room for criticism of their policies and humanitarian standards. He also argues that while they are not beholden to domestic actors, they are still under the influence of their top contributors, with their main source of funding coming from the United States. While the United States signed the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, it was never ratified by Congress, they did not ratify the UNHCR’s guiding document.  Similarly, Gabriel Kholer discusses that both the EU and the United States are, in fact, in direct violation of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol by going against the non-refoulment policy as well as their refusal to ensure the refugees’ rights once they’ve entered the US and EU. This speaks to the UNHCR’s general inability to enforce its policies even among its biggest contributors.


While the UNHCR and other international organizations are, in theory, the highest authority in protecting and enforcing the rights of refugees, in practice, they are unable to do so with complete authority due to the nature of the United Nations as well as the principle of state sovereignty. The UNHCR cannot go into a nation unsolicited, however, by partnering more closely with local organizations within affected regions as well as government organizations, they can find solutions that satisfy both domestic and international standards.

In my interview I examined both the importance of the protection of refugee rights and the concept of “taking responsibility” for the protection of refugee rights.

Me: Is it important to ensure certain rights for refugees?

Interviewee: Yes

Me: Okay who should be in charge of enforcing and protecting those rights?

Interviewee: Well the big countries involved, like Russia, the United States, the EU, they’ve all been doing what they can but they could be doing more. They have a lot of pull [with international organizations] so they should be doing more.

Me: Do you think there is difference in the role or responsibility that these big countries play verses the countries that are right in the middle of it such as Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

Interviewee: Well I think it depends on the religions and ethnic groups in that area, because definitely the middle east has been an area of conflict for a while so those in one country might not be welcome in [the country that they are fleeing to], so it would be more on the bigger countries like the US to take in refugees and allow more people to come in.

Me: So building off of that what role would you see for the United Nations in helping with the refugee crisis?

Interviewee: Well when the United Nations was created it was supposed to be solving problems and coming up with solutions that all the countries can agree with so the UN by now, and the Security Council should have by now come up with some kind of solution for helping refugees.

At this point I described the research that I had found above about international organizations, in particular the UNHCR, working with local and governmental organizations to provide food, shelter, and other services. I also mentioned that the UNHCR can’t go into a country without being invited in and that the financial contributors to the UNHCR also have a lot of influence in decision making regardless of if they have even ratified UNHCR documents.

Me: So now that I’ve described the general role of international organizations, does this change what you think their role and the role of individual countries themselves should be?

Interviewee:  Yeah it does

Me: So one of the critiques that I’ve found is that as an international organization the UNHCR isn’t necessarily accountable to the country that they are in. Also the biggest financial contributor to the UNHCR hasn’t signed the guiding document of the committee.

Interviewee: So they can basically persuade them to do something that’s not necessarily lawful.

Me: Do you have any other thought on the subject?

Interviewee: No I don’t know much else about the subject.

In this interview I presented both the research question I was interested in pursuing and some of my research so far. When I first asked the general question of are refugee rights important and who should enforce those rights I got a different answer than after I presented some of my research. I found this to be interesting because not many people know the role that international organizations play in protecting refugee rights and after examining the question more it is still difficult to determine how international organizations can play a better role in supporting refugees.

  1. Garnier, Adele. 2014. “Arrested Development? UNHRC, ILO, and the Refugees’ Right to Work.” Refugee 30: 15–23
  2. Koehler, G. 2016. “The fundamental rights of refugees – Where have they gone?” Global Social Policy 16(3): 311–14.
  3. Melikian, Lia G. 2014. “NO COUNTRY FOR SOME MEN?: STATELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES AND LESSONS FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION.” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 43(281).
  4. Kinchin, Niamh. 2016. “The Implied Human Rights Obligations of UNHCR.” International Journal of Refugee Law 28(2): 251–75.
  5. Peshkopia, Ridvan. 2005. “Asylum in the Balkans: European Union and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assistance to Balkan countries for establishing asylum systems.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 5(2): 213–41.