Responsibility for Refugees

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.


How should responsibilities for refugees be distributed? According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees among a total of 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. 1 Developing countries hosted 86 % of this refugee population (up from 70 % ten years previously.) 2 Lebanon (26 %) and Jordan (9.8 %) have the highest per capita ratios of refugees worldwide. 3 Is this a fair distribution of responsibilities?

Considerations of fairness have been much to the fore in the political rhetoric of debates concerning current flows of Syrian refugees into the European Union (although to put this into perspective, from the beginning of the crisis up to the end of 2015, the total number of asylum applications from Syrians in the European Union reached 681,713, 4 while in the same period the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey amounted to 2.18 million 5). But at least one of the difficulties in this debate is that there is no agreement among states, globally or within the EU, concerning what would count as criteria of a fair distribution of responsibility for refugees.

The current EU crisis also illustrates a further question that is urgent in the contemporary context: what are the limits on state’s obligations to refugees? Is it, for example, sufficient to have done one’s fair share or, in the absence of established criteria, to have done what a good faith effort to work out one’s fair share required? Or do states that have done their fair share have an obligation to take up the slack consequent on others failing to do their fair share?

In ‘Refugees, Fairness and Taking up the Slack’ – available open access here – I argue that in circumstances where not all states do their fair share, human rights protecting states are morally obliged to do more than their fair share, i.e., that refugee protection takes priority over fair distribution of responsibility for refugee protection. However I also draw attention to the prudential point that effective refugee protection is likely to depend on states being willing to do their fair share. Combining these claims, I argue that states have a duty to come to arrangements that, as far as plausible, aim at ensuring a fair distribution of responsibilities.

If the political task is thus that of establishing effective mechanisms for determining fair shares and generating reasonable compliance among states, what are prospects for the fulfillment of this duty? The article provides some reasons for thinking that any general rule for directly determining fair shares is both open to reasonable disagreement and is liable to be skewed by states’ perception of their own interests. It further argues that we have little reason to be confident that states will support the establishment of effective compliance measures – a point sadly illustrated by the failure of EU cooperation in the current refugee crisis.

Refugee crises as political crises are always a combination of a crisis of production and a crisis of response. As things stand, there is little reason to think that both types of crisis will not continue to recur. What this suggests is that we need both to recognize that the existing refugee regime – for all its limitations – is a considerable political achievement – and to acknowledge the extent of the hard political work that will be needed to address current and future refugee crises.