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The refugee problem - time for a “new order”

By Guy Goodwin-Gill - posted Friday, 3 March 2006

With 60 years or so experience now behind the UN's international refugee protection regime, it’s time for an audit. But what should be the premises of a new, revised and revived international protection system?

Beyond protection, the goals of any future international refugee protection system will surely include those which are now entrusted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement in a third state.

They will also surely include better provision in allocating responsibilities, a more sure funding base, and a greater involvement of, or access to, the political processes.


These processes are essential to resolving or mitigating the factors producing forced migration, and especially to firing up the commitment needed to end protracted situations.

After 80 or more years experience of international organisations working with refugees and towards solutions, we understand the basic principles and know the objectives of refugee protection. How, then, can we best achieve ends commensurate with human worth and dignity?

Two among many possibilities suggest themselves. The first involves an approach using UN resources, but without the present-day Office of the UNHCR.

In this scenario, relief and assistance would be entrusted to other competent agencies, such as the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization or the International Committee of the Red Cross. Protection would be a matter for national governments and possibly regional institutions.

The primary emphasis would be on the early removal of the necessity for flight by engaging the collective security mechanisms of the UN or member states acting under its authority.

In present-day discussions of UN reform the notion of “the responsibility to protect” is receiving a fair amount of attention, reflecting a deep-seated concern at the international system’s failures to deal effectively with crises such as the genocide in Rwanda.


The notion supposes an entitlement on the part of the international community to take steps to remedy a situation of humanitarian need, if the state or government responsible fails to do what is required. Its ultimate, but by no means only, sanction is military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

The notion also focuses the mind on some of the weaknesses of an international protection regime founded and constructed on early-to-mid 20th century conceptions of sovereignty. In the 21st century, it now encourages us to step out of the box which led states to insist that the UN should not get involved in costly humanitarian operations.

In addition, it proposes a fundamental rethinking of sovereignty in a way which would open up the reserved domain of domestic jurisdiction to international attention.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article is an edited and abridged version of the third of three lectures Dr Guy Goodwin-Gill gave in Australia in 2005 for the Kenneth Rivett Orations. Part 1 and part 2 have also appeared in On Line Opinion.

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About the Author

Dr Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is currently a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He was previously the Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford, the Professor of Asylum Law at the University of Amsterdam, and worked for over a decade for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Beyond self-interest: Australia’s post-Tampa choices - On Line Opinion
Refugee Council of Australia
Refugees - we’d like to help, but … - On Line Opinion

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