Protecting refugees through support for governments and local organizations

The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was put into place to spell out the specific rights that refugees are entitled to. This UN Convention was rooted in the idea that humans are entitled certain fundamental human rights regardless of their association(or lack thereof) to a particular state. Some of these rights include property rights, freedom of internal movement, expedition of naturalization, and religious freedom. Despite these efforts, many refugees still face a tremendous amount of challenges. While the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was created to help mitigate some of these challenges, they lack the ability to enforce many of the policies that could be effective in protecting refugees. Similarly, other  UN organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund and independent organizations such as Refugees International work to help mitigate some of the challenges that refugees face, but are unable to enforce refugee rights nor are they able to hold states accountable for violations of international refugee law. Due to this problem of lack of both enforcement and accountability, I will argue that international organizations can best help protect the rights of refugees by partnering directly with the governments of the nations affected, supporting ground level and local efforts in order to empower communities directly impacted by the refugee crises, and providing structures for wealthy nations to adequately protect the rights of refugees.


One example of this is 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. In this case the UNHCR worked with both the Yemeni government and local to establish and support local community centers until the centers are able to run on their own. The UNHCR took on the project of managing these community centers with the permission of and consultation with the local communities that they would be in Martin-Archard states that although the UNHCR prefers to have local organizations of community members run the centers from the start, in some cases, such as in Yemen, this is not always possible. Over time, the AL Gaith Association was able to take over management of the centers from the UNHCR and now design and implement their own plans and strategies in order to support refugees. Even after leaving, the UNHCR continues to provide financial support and supplies. Martin-Archard also emphasizes the importance of understanding the community. International organizations can provide supplies and funding, but in order for their efforts to be effective and sustainable over time, they must know and understand the cultural norms and traditions of the communities they seek to serve. For this reason, supporting local organizations will have a more longstanding impact than international organizations simply going into a country and setting up a program.

While this method may lead to more success in protecting the rights of refugees, international organizations, in most cases can only work within a country if the government allows them to.This makes it difficult to support and protect refugees who are in countries that may not support the idea of international organizations coming in, as well as protecting refugees in countries where the host government themselves are committing some kind of human rights offenses. 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. 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.

The states most heavily impacted by the influx of refugee tend to be those in areas of conflict where the receiving countries themselves may be in a state of instability as well. However wealthy countries that are more removed from the conflict are also confronted by the issue of how to manage an influx of refugees. States such as the United States and those that are members of the EU were strong proponents of the 1951 Convention and continue to be on the the UNHCR’s top contributors. Despite this, Gabriel Kholer states 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. Kholer goes on to discuss three main factors that make the protection of refugee rights difficult in places such as the US and EU. The first factor is economics: who will financially support refugees? How will the country adjust their budget to accommodate refugees? These economic concerns play a large role in the EU and the US’s more restrictive refugee policies. The second factor is how the refugees will adjust socially. Many refugees come from a cultural background that is different than the “western” perspective most European countries and the United states have. Citizens of host countries value their own culture and may view refugees as a threat to their own culture. The last factor is political. Citizens of the host country may assume that refugees hold the same political values as the country they are fleeing and that this will somehow impact the political norms of the host country (Kholer 2016). While many of these issues could be remedied through better education about and exposure to people from a diverse background, these issues remain to play a significant part in the general attitudes of the host country towards receiving refugees and their treatment once they arrive.

International organizations can play a role in both educating and putting systems in place that can help ease some of the burdens that host countries face. One way to do this is by utilizing regional support networks in order to spread some of the burden more evenly. Volker Türk and Madeline Garlick in their article From Burdens and Responsibilities to Opportunities: The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and a Global Compact on Refugees discuss the idea of solidarity among states in the same region to help share the burdens and support each other country in protecting refugees. In North and South America, the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 called upon all of the signing states to work in solidarity with the other states and share the burden in taking in a protecting refugees from Latin America. Similarly, in the EU the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union called upon member states to work in solidarity and sincere cooperation with each other (Garlick, Türk 2016). While these frameworks on solidarity are a positive step towards regional cooperation among wealthier countries, they do not go far enough in outline supportive structures that can be used to better manage and support refugees.

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, in both areas of conflict as well as wealthy states, they can find solutions that satisfy both domestic and international standards.

This article from CNN discusses why some countries are obligated to take in refugees while others are not.

After watching my interview, I felt that a lot of my questions were all going in a very similar direction so they all had very similar answers. I think I did well with the general idea of my questions but in the future I would try to have a more diverse range of questions.

  1. Koehler, G. 2016. “The fundamental rights of refugees – Where have they gone?” Global Social Policy 16(3): 311–14.
  2. 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).
  3. Kinchin, Niamh. 2016. “The Implied Human Rights Obligations of UNHCR.” International Journal of Refugee Law 28(2): 251–75.
  4. 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.
  5. Martin-Achard, Nicholas. 2016. “The role of community centres in offering protection: UNHCR and Al Ghaith Association in Yemen.” Forced Migration Review 53.
  6. Türk, Volker, and Madeline Garlick. 2016. “From Burdens and Responsibilities to Opportunities: The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and a Global Compact on Refugees.” International Journal of Refugee Law 28(4): 656–78.