Excerpt from Chapter 12: Questions of Principle

Identifying the optimal policies in relation to refugees is reliant on a set of principles, which may vary across different people. Therefore, before any approach option can be assessed, the principles must be defined. A feature of the current debate about the refugee situation is that it focuses on disagreements regarding policies rather than the underlying principles from which they are developed. Such a focus may never reach an agreement as two parties that cannot understand their differences in principles are unlikely to be able to agree on a preferred approach option.


There is value in identifying the complete set of principles relating to the refugee situation. If areas of contention and differing opinions are identified, the debate can then focus on how to progress, be it through compromise or authoritative direction. In order to develop the principles, a series of six sets of questions-of-principle have been outlined. Each set relates to a concept of protection: what, who, why, how, where and when to protect.


The following section outlines the six sets of questions-of-principle. Some are straightforward but many are contentious and difficult to answer. In order to frame the questions and assessment framework relating to the refugee situation, this book provides a position for each question-of-principle. The principles are the critical components of what policies should be aiming to achieve and how various approach options will be assessed.





Q1. What (or whom) to protect?


Since World War II, protection has meant the granting of access into a country, as well as the provision of accommodation, safety and potentially a durable solution as a permanent resident. Ideally all populations should be protected, as every life is important. However, if this is not possible and a trade-off was required, which population should be given the priority? Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding what to protect include:

  • Should the populations of refugees and asylum seekers be prioritised over those of the intake nations?
  • Should refugees and asylum seekers be prioritised over economic migrants and/ or IDPs?
  • Should specific groups of refugees and asylum seekers be treated differently? For example, should refugees from areas of geopolitical instability be given priority or should refugees who arrive at a signatory nation’s borders be given priority?
  • Should protection plans focus on the current numbers of refugees OR should they be scalable to deal with all potential volumes?


Q2. Who is protecting?


Nation States do the protecting with the support of non-government agencies, the most prominent of which is the UNHCR. Although desirable, not all nations are able or willing to help. Some are in a state of disintegration and conflict like many of the refugee Countries of Origin. Others have limited money and resources or are not willing to help for reasons beyond their resource capacity. Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding who should be protecting include:

  • § Should all nations help OR just the rich and liberal nations?
  • Should contribution be relative to resources (for example money, population, proximity and land)?
  • Should contribution be dependent on responsibility or obligation?


Q3. Why to protect?


The concept of protecting refugees has existed for centuries. Since World War II, the UNHCR has been increasingly visible in coordinating the effort of the world’s nations to support Forcibly Displaced People. Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding the rationale for protecting include:

  • Should it be to maintain and expand the basic human rights of all people as a cornerstone for civilisation – that helping others is helping ourselves OR should it be as a component in maintaining or enhancing global stability? If motives exist for both, is one more important?
  • Should protection be provided as a symbol of support for what is right and fair OR to affect a practical outcome?


Q4. How to protect?


The obligations of signatory nations with regard to the protection of refugees are set out in the Refugee Convention. In addition, many nations have additional obligations due to the instruments of international human rights law (covered in Chapter 4). In the current situation where protection standards are inconsistent and often in breach of human rights, what trade-offs, if any, are possible? Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding how nations should be protecting refugees include:

  • Should protection be based on emotion, logic or both?
  • Should protection be under the tenets of various treaties such as the Refugee Convention and the various human rights instruments OR should protection be more flexible to enable the protection of more refugees but encompassing less rights?
  • Should protection standards and prospects for durable solutions be dependent on location OR standardised regardless of location?
  • Should the numbers accepted for protection and a durable solution be standardised regardless of the asylum seekers OR should the numbers be dependent on characteristics deemed to affect assimilation. For example: culture, race or location?
  • Should protection seek voluntary repatriation as the primary option or resettlement and local integration?
  • Should protection efforts include interventions to improve the stability and viability of refugee Countries of Origin? Or, should a policy of non-intervention be followed?


Q5. Where to protect?


In addition to asylum seekers and refugees, there are Forcibly Displaced People who are still within their Country of Origin. In 2014 the number of IDPs (38.2 million) was much larger than the number of refugees (14.4 million) – 70% were estimated to be women and children. Once outside their Country of Origin, 80% of asylum seekers and refugees are housed in neighbouring countries. Neighbouring countries provide a range of benefits such as proximity and cultural similarities. However, the large volumes located in Countries of First Asylum, which are usually poor, also result in rudimentary conditions as the already limited resources are stretched. Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding where nations should be protecting refugees include:

  • Should protection be provided within the countries in which people are being persecuted? Or, only once they are outside?
  • Should protection be provided as close to their Country of Origin? Or, spread equally across all supporting nations?

Q6. When to protect?


Chapter 3 discussed forcible displacement throughout history and the high fertility rates of the countries that have repeatedly produced the most refugees. It is highly likely the problems regarding Forcibly Displaced People are going to perpetuate and arguably grow. Key questions-of-principle to define priorities regarding when nations should be protecting refugees include:

  • Should protection approaches consider only for today’s refugees? Or, should they consider the refugees of future years and generations?