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The Politics of Refugee Protection Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2022

Introduction

The recent refugee crisis in Europe has brought the issues of refugee and asylum seeker rights to the forefront of international politics. With continuing conflicts in the Middle East, the number of refugees seeking protection has been growing over the past years, and it is likely to grow further if the political situation remains unfavorable. Moreover, people may also seek asylum for reasons other than war, which contributes to the number of people in need of support. Consequently, international organizations have been actively involved in the protection and support of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. International organizations are crucial in this context because they can facilitate agreements on government actions protecting refugees, monitor issues related to refugee rights, and help to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are protected in their host countries (Gil-Bazo 2015). Ensuring the successful work of international organizations in this area, therefore, helps to foster collaboration on the issues of refugee rights and resolve or mitigate these issues promptly.

Still, there have been concerns that the actions taken by the Council of Europe to protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers have been insufficient (Bulley 2017). The present paper will show that the effectiveness of the Council of Europe in this regard has indeed been limited. The paper will first review the background of the literature to explain the issues of migration and provide insight into the functions, roles, and organs of the Council of Europe. Then, the review will present the literature on the practice of other international organizations, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Based on this information, the paper will also evaluate the response by the Council of Europe in terms of its capacity, mechanisms used, and effectiveness. As the paper will show, the work of the Council of Europe in the area has not been sufficient, and improvements are required to enhance the protection of refugee rights.

Background

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Refugees and asylum seekers represent the people who are the victims of forced migration. Based on the explanation by Shasthri (2013), the history of asylum-seeking in Europe began in 1685 when 250,000 French Protestants fled to other European states to avoid religious struggle. Political asylum-seeking became prominent following the French revolution in the late 18th century and increased in levels during significant conflicts, including World Wars I and II (Shasthri 2013). The necessity to protect refugees has become particularly evident in the early 20th century after World War I: “with the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920 it was argued that the international community owes an obligation to prevent the abuses and gross violations of human rights and also a positive duty to provide refugees’ protection’ and constantly endeavor to find solutions to their problems found a new emphasis” (Shasthri 2013, p. 246). As a result, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers emerged among the core areas of focus in international law and diplomacy.

In modern times, the issues of refugee rights have not lost their relevance. According to research, forced migration is a serious issue in the contemporary world, and people are forced to seek asylum due to political conflicts, religious prosecution, terrorism, and even environmental struggles (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). The steady growth in the number of refugees fleeing due to armed conflicts or political tensions has put pressure on international organizations and bodies to establish mechanisms of guiding the states’ responses to the problem. Still, many countries impose restrictions on the protection regime, including preventing the entry of asylum seekers through extraterritorial procedures and deterrence practices, such as administrative detention and visa restrictions (Shasthri 2013). Issues of human rights and ethics are particularly important in the question of asylum-seeking since the competing principles of security and generosity affect countries’ responses and their consequences for society (Vietti and Franzini Tibaldeo 2015). In this context, official international organizations have the opportunity to affect local policies through binding agreements and legal action in cases where violations of human rights have been detected (Goodwin-Gill 2017). The use of appropriate mechanisms of action can assist in protecting the rights of refugees while also taking into account the interests of individual countries and their security.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe is an international organization that was established in 1949 to improve collaboration between countries of the European region on the issues of law, human rights, and democracy. In contrast with the European Union, the Council of Europe has 47 member states, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden, The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Italy as the founding members (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). The organization has several important bodies, which include, among others, the Congress of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers, and the Parliamentary Assembly. The primary way in which the Council operates is through conventions and agreements that are binding to the states that signed them (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). However, the Council has also been involved in the study of local and global problems and their potential solution, the facilitation of negotiation between countries and their bodies through conferences and meetings, and in the education and training of diplomats and policy experts (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). In relation to these functions and roles, the Council of Europe has been involved in a number of issues pertaining to its focal areas, which included international crime, climate change, and human rights violations. The problem of supporting the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers has also been considered by the Council, with some action taken to support member states in accepting refugees and ensuring their welfare without compromising their citizens’ interests (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). However, as will be shown in other sections of the paper, the authority that the Council of Europe has paired with its substantial reach of countries in the region could assist it in addressing the issue of refugee rights in the future much more effectively.

Practices to Support the Rights of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers

Research in international relations often focuses on specific issues that affect regional interests or the global society at large, which is why the support of refugee rights is a relatively popular field of inquiry. Reviewing past literature on the subject could help to evaluate whether the response issued by the Council of Europe is sufficient and determine the levels of its compliance with best practices and scholars’ expectations. Furthermore, studies of the ways in which other organizations have addressed the rights of refugees and asylum seekers could also highlight pressing concerns relevant to the Council of Europe’s area of work.

International Organizations and Refugee Rights

Research gathered on this topic can be divided into two topics, with the theoretical relationship between international organizations and refugee rights being one of them. Indeed, scholars have produced a significant number of articles, books, and chapters that focus on the role, importance, activities, and authority of international organizations in supporting refugee rights. Research by Gil-Bazo (2015) focuses on the developments in international law relating to the issue of asylum that has influenced the role of international organizations in refugee rights protection. The scholar states that “It is now well established that international human rights law protects individuals against refoulement” (p. 2). Consequently, international organizations have been engaged in processes of establishing internal flight alternatives, monitoring and protecting refugees against human rights violations, and supporting the very principle of non-refoulment (Gil-Bazo 2015). In the European region, the work of such organizations has been particularly important due to the increased number of refugees and asylum seekers in the past years, as well as because European Union (EU) law establishes legal protections for individuals who qualify for it but are not considered refugees in the technical legal sense (Gil-Bazo, 2015). This enables various international organizations operating in the European Union to address and negotiate protection for forced migrants even if they do not have legal refugee status. The two organizations that have gained the most attention in research on refugee rights and protection of asylum seekers, besides the Council of Europe, are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

UNHCR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or the UN Refugee Agency, is one of the most prominent international bodies in the area of refugee rights and forced migration. Established in 1950, the organization pursues the goal of protecting the lives, rights, and futures of refugees, people seeking political asylum, and stateless persons (). The organization has been involved in a variety of activities related to the forced migration of people in the second half of the twentieth century and remains active today. There are several core mechanisms by which the organization functions today. These include delivering information to policymakers on the needs of asylum-seeking and supporting states and organizations in developing relevant laws and policies, providing operational and humanitarian support to governments and individuals, and engaging in research on pressing issues in the area of refugee rights and forced migration (). It should be noted that “persons of concern to the UNHCR include not only those meeting the technical definition of refugee but also groups such as asylum seekers, people applying for refugee status; internally displaced people (IDPs), people displaced within their own countries; and stateless individuals, people without the protections of any state’s citizenship” (Field 2010, p. 516). Hence, the organization has been involved in many policy issues and humanitarian efforts involving persons under its mandate.

In contrast with the Council of Europe, the UNHCR does not have the authority to facilitate binding agreements between the states. For this reason, the organization is mostly involved in operational activities rather than in diplomacy and policymaking (Stevens 2015). The practices used by the organization to support refugees include placements, legal aid, financial and humanitarian support, and protection in displacement (Stevens 2015). The scope of UNHCR’s activities has been both praised and criticized. On the one hand, the organization offers valuable support mechanisms that could be used to relieve the situation of thousands of refugees (Field 2010; Stevens 2010). On the other hand, it lacks the regulatory authority that is essential to enforce any of its recommendations and initiatives (Field 2010). Consequently, the organization is relatively effective at doing what is possible in its current level of responsibility but lacks mechanisms to address the problems of refugees and asylum-seekers. in the long term.

International Organization for Migration

International Organization for Migration (IOM) is a different body that was originally instituted in 1951 as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. The function and role of the organization are rather similar to the UNHCR because its purpose is to provide guidance to governments on issues concerning refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). The organization also provides services and guidance to migrants, thus supporting them in protecting their human rights (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). Forced migration is only one of the areas of activity that IOM is involved in, others being facilitating migration, migration regulation, and development. One of the primary achievements of the IOM in the 21st century the signing of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. The organization is also involved in programs and initiatives aiming to provide refugee relief (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). However, it has been criticized for the lack of a “formal mandate to monitor human rights abuses or to protect the rights of migrants and other persons, even though literally millions of people worldwide participate in IOM-sponsored programs and projects” (Human Rights Watch 2003, p. 1). As a result, the role of the organization has been mainly guiding and supporting provision rather than regulatory. This affects the scope of practices that can be implemented by the IOM in response to refugee and asylum seekers’ concerns. Furthermore, the organization faced criticism for participating in returns of migrants and refugees to their countries of origins, despite having no mechanisms “to evaluate whether decisions to return are, in fact, made under duress or under circumstances that are directly or indirectly coercive, or to assess that conditions in certain countries are safe enough to allow for returns” (Human Rights Watch 2003, p. 3). Consequently, the degree of the organization’s beneficence to refugees has been criticized along with its level of authority in refugee-related issues.

Evaluation of the Council of Europe

Capacity for Refugee Protection

As evident from the discussion above, some international organizations that participate in the protection of refugees and are involved in relief efforts often lack the authority to influence the situation on a more significant scale. The Council of Europe does not face this problem due to the binding nature of its agreements. Despite not being able to force countries to sign, the Council of Europe has the authority to influence compliance with the regulations based on its “quasi-legal mechanisms of supervision” (Follis 2015, p. 55). Thus, the Council has the capacity to promote collaboration between nations and supervise the fulfillment of agreements, while its member states are responsible for local policies, procedures, and initiatives. This enables the Council of Europe and the various bodies within it to influence member states and support refugee rights indirectly. These characteristics make the Council of Europe potentially important to the question of refugee rights protection and prompt further evaluation of how this capacity has been used to protect human rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe.

Past Activity

The Council of Europe and its bodies were involved in a variety of situations that required political and legal support on the issue of refugees. For example, in response to the crisis in Kosovo, the organization has adopted two recommendations “on the evaluation of the humanitarian situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo and Montenegro [and] on the respect for international humanitarian law in Europe” (Tessenyi 1999, p. 498). However, these activities did not provide substantial regulation or relief of the situation in Kosovo since they did not involve any remedial action (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). In the 2000s, the activity of the Council was mainly limited to the evaluation of local refugee crises and the development of recommended solutions. For instance, Ochoa-Llido (2004) reports that “The Committee has shown its concern with the clandestine migration, and the human rights of illegal migrants and rejected asylum seekers, presenting the reports on the creation of a charter of intent on clandestine migration (Recommendation 1577 (2002)), on expulsion procedures in conformity with human rights and enforced with safety and dignity (Recommendation 1547 (2002)), on non-expulsion of long-term immigrants and on the human rights (Recommendation 1504 (2001))” (p. 500). Still, there were some more important accomplishments as the Council has instituted a platform for developing and signing agreements among member and non-member states in 2003 (Ochoa-Llido, 2004). These findings suggest that, despite promoting diplomacy in the region and on a global level, which undoubtedly supported the resolution of refugee rights’ issues, the response of the Council of Europe to major crises in the area has been limited.

Current Action

More recently, the refugee crisis in Europe has prompted new action from the Council of Europe. For example, the Council has been involved in legal protection of refugees in the past years. According to Ktistakis (2018), “the organs of the Council of Europe have recognized a series of procedural measures to protect asylum seekers in order to ensure that the proceedings are fair and that the examination is objective and carried out individually” (p. 11). This action is important to prevent discrimination and wrongful procedures in courts deciding the fate of refugees. It supported the mission of the Council of Europe with regard to preventing human rights violations by ensuring that the extradition or expulsion of migrants complied with human rights standards developed by it. Still, the activity of the Council has faced some criticism in recent years. For instance, researchers argued that the support provided by the Council to non-member states was limited, and thus the scope of its influence is also restricted (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). With respect to Europe, it has also been argued that the recommendations and requirements provided by the Council are often loose and can be misinterpreted, thus hindering meaningful action (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014). Additionally, Follis (2014) argued that the regulations and procedures that exist within the Council of Europe present challenges to establishing control over states who do not wish to allow it. The article concerns the reports of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea and the issues with government reporting of them. Follis (2014) concludes that, although the Council was able to conduct an investigation, its enforcing power is limited to the agreements and clauses signed by the states. Hence, despite the continuous involvement of the Council in the affairs of its member states concerning refugees and asylum seekers, the problems of human rights violations persist, and it is not clear whether the Council could help to address them in the future with its current level of authority.

Conclusion

Overall, the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers are a pressing concern for national and international politics in the modern world. Continuous crises, including political, military, and environmental, force thousands of people out of their homes and into other states. In order to navigate this refugee crisis successfully, various international organizations have established bodies and initiatives to support refugee rights. In most cases, these organizations are involved in providing humanitarian aid, legal assistance, and guidance to governments and individuals. The organizations that are widely researched, including the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, generally lack the mechanisms to offer long-term solutions to issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers.

The Council of Europe is among the most prominent organizations in the region, and it includes nearly twice as many states as the European Union. The primary purpose of the Council is to support collaboration between states on issues pertaining to law, human rights, and democracy. The binding nature of the agreements signed by its member states increases the potential influence of the Council in comparison with other international organizations. Still, the Council lacks formal control over its member states beyond the subject of agreements. This limits its power to interfere in violations of refugee rights, as evident from the discussion of its past and current activities. Therefore, while the Council has the potential to assist in resolving the refugee crisis in Europe, its activities to this day have not been sufficient, and further developments in policy and authority are required for it to have a significant influence.

References

Bulley, Dan. 2017. “Shame on EU? Europe, RtoP, and the Politics of Refugee Protection.” Ethics & International Affairs 31(1): 51-70.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona, eds. 2014. The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Field, Jeannie Rose C. 2010. “Bridging the Gap Between Refugee Rights and Reality: a Proposal for Developing International Duties in the Refugee Context.” International Journal of Refugee Law 22(4): 512-557.

Follis, Karolina S. 2015. “Responsibility, emergency, blame: reporting on migrant deaths on the Mediterranean in the Council of Europe.” Journal of Human Rights 14(1): 41-62.

Gil-Bazo, María-Teresa. 2015. “Introduction: the role of international organizations and human rights monitoring bodies in refugee protection.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 34(1): 1-10.

Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. 2017. “The politics of refugee protection.” In International Refugee Law, edited by Hélène Lambert, 145-160. London: Routledge.

Human Rights Watch. 2003. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Human Rights Protection in the Field: Current Concerns. Web.

Ktistakis, Yannis. 2018. “European Immigration Controls Conforming to Human Rights Standards.” New England Journal of Public Policy 30(2): 10-17.

Ochoa-Llido, Maria. 2003. “Recent and Future Activities of the Council of Europe in the Fields of Migration, Asylum and Refugees.” European Journal of Migration and Law 5: 497-500.

Shasthri, V. Seshaiah. 2013. “The Role of International Organisations in the Protection of Refugees.” In An Introduction to International Refugee Law, edited by Rafiqul Islam and Jahid Hossain Bhuiyan, 245-266. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013.

Stevens, Dallal. 2016. “Rights, needs or assistance? The role of the UNHCR in refugee protection in the Middle East.” The International Journal of Human Rights 20(2): 264-283.

Tessenyi, Geza. 1999. “An Update on the Work of the Council of Europe on Refugees and Migration.” European Journal of Migration and Law 1: 497-501.

Vietti, Francesca, and Roberto Franzini Tibaldeo. 2015. “A Human Rights and Ethical Lens on Security and Human Dignity: The Case Study of Syrian Asylum Seekers.” Information & Security 33(1): 35-53.

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