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[Research Reports] Economic Security and International Migration from the Perspectives of Human Security and International Cooperation

Midori Okabe (Professor, Sophia University)
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The Research Group on Economy-Security Linkages #12

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The essence of the protracted refugee problem

Human migration is a peaceful means of sustaining individuals' lives and promoting social success. However, it is also a human security issue that shows no sign of resolution. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than eight million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced as of mid-20201. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, forced displacement resulting from persecution has been reported in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, Yemen and other countries in the region of Africa commonly referred to as "the Sahel".

"With forced displacement doubling in the last decade, the international community is failing to safeguard peace", quite pertinently lamented Filippo Grandy, the High Commissioner for Refugees2. In addition to the international community's inability to contain the risk of creating newly displaced people, the lack of consideration given to effective measures addressing the current issue of human mobility lies at the heart of the protracted problem of refugees. As of the beginning of 2019, UNHCR reported that around 1.6 million people worldwide were in a "protracted refugee situation"3. This means that the international community's efforts to prevent persecution by state authorities, armed conflicts, systematic violence, human rights violations and natural and human disasters, which are the primary causes of the forced migration of people (including refugees), have been inadequate, with the systems of cooperation among states functioning particularly poorly. There are two key aspects to this failure: (1) the international framework of cooperation is often too asymmetric for developing countries to solve their problems, and (2) there is a gap in effectiveness between international organizations such as UNHCR and other multilateral cooperation systems.

Asymmetry in the international refugee protection regime

The absence of a permanent and comprehensive international system for refugee protection is now widely recognized. As is well known, UNHCR succeeded the Nansen International Office for Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organization (UNRRA) and the International Refugee Organization (IRO). Still, its establishment did not follow a process of transition to the new organization with sufficient continuity. This is mainly due to the temporary nature of refugee situations and the protection regime's ad hoc nature, which also reflected political constraints. When establishing UNHCR, the United States had placed high expectations on the organization as a successor to the IRO over whose activities it had exerted a strong influence. However, the United States changed its plans, mainly because Gerrit Jan van Heuven-Goedhardt, who did not necessarily follow the US's direction, was elected as the first High Commissioner. The United States implemented its own refugee policy during the Cold War, with UNHCR being given an extremely restricted mandate and budget.

When the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was revised in 1967 by the Protocol, the United States became a party (but only to the Protocol). It was the first time that the time and space constraints on the definition of refugees in the Convention were partially lifted. While the consultative process succeeded in encouraging African countries to participate, no legal settlement was reached to deal with the movement of people associated with contemporary conflicts in South and Southeast Asia. This is why many countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are not signatories of the two treaties collectively known today as the Refugee Convention. Japan and other East Asian countries also did not join the treaty at that time. Their non-accession to the Refugee Convention tends to be regarded as an issue of development in some of debates in Europe and the United States. However, it is important to understand that the phenomenon reflected a clear indication of rejection by Asian countries4.

While international cooperation in refugee protection functioned to solve the refugee problem among Europeans in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it appears not to have sufficiently benefitted other populations, even those in African countries that were parties to the Convention. One factor is that the definition of refugees under the Convention is still narrow (even after the revision). Specifically, vulnerability to armed conflict and other forms of violence alone is not recognized as a qualification for refugee status. Another crucial factor is that African countries' systems for refugee examination, protection and repatriation assistance are inadequate across the board.

This promted the perception of African countries' "incapability", and the international trend toward technical and human resources assistance was established. On the other hand, this means that international refugee protection systems today are asymmetrical. The components of "incapability" are complex and, in many cases, are other forms of intentional sabotage by the governments concerned, which fear that social friction stemming from the movement of people might lead to political conflict. This situation is shared not only by Asian countries that do not participate in the Refugee Convention but also by signatory countries in Africa and Latin America. The current framework for international cooperation has not served as a fundamental solution to these countries' situation. This is the background behind people's mass movement to Europe and North America.

"Collaboration" and "isolation" of international organizations

Another problem with the international cooperation system for the management of human movement is that international cooperation aimed at human security does not function as an effective multilateral system in light of its objectives. UNHCR has established policies such as the Good Offices approach and mandated refugee recognition, and independently expanded its activities as a UN agency5. In recent years, it has been working to improve the quality of refugee assistance in cooperation with other UN agencies in charge of peace-building, humanitarian aid, and development assistance.

However, such cooperation among international organizations does not enjoy the full support of states. Even many of State parties to the Convention are reluctant to accept refugees recognized by UNHCR. The World Bank and many other international organizations often argue that accepting the movement of people from developing countries, not just refugees, leads not only to assisting developing countries but also solving economic and population problems in developed countries. These ideas form the basis of the United Nations-led Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). There are certainly high expectations for the GCR and GCM. Still, they are nothing more than endorsements by countries of a comprehensive approach to dealing with refugee/migrant issues. These countries are unwilling to cooperate in the international division of labour of accepting people explicitly and implicitly encouraged by various organs of the United Nations.

The main reason for this is the lack of political opportunities in many countries to accept more migrants and refugees. Although many countries are still open to skilled workers, it is true that the social class most likely to compete with foreigners in the labour market has increased in political importance.It has become more and more difficult to dismiss as not well imformed the public concern that accepting refugees (or those who seek protection) is worrisome from the viewpoint of public security. Today, we also have access to a variety of information about immigration acceptance through various channels. We are beginning to realize that (subjective) biases in data selection by researchers affect estimates of the socioeconomic effects of immigration6.

In this regard, it has become clear from the academic perspective that only employers, i.e., companies and workers from developing countries, benefit from immigrants' acceptance. The beneficent idea that "well-to-do" people in rich countries accept "poor" people from poor countries is wrong from that premise in that it does not address the growing domestic disparities as globalization advances.

One of the essential activities of international organizations such as UNHCR is educating the international community. However, it is impossible to mobilize the state for altruistic acts. The reason for the isolation of international organizations is that states are not persuaded that shared acceptance (of immigrants and refugees) is in their national interests. States are hesitant to share the burden because this is an issue of economic security, not because they intend to reject international cooperation.

Challenges to ensure the effectiveness of international assistance

As cooperation among international organizations advances, countries increasingly choose projects that are advantageous to them. As a result, the current international cooperation system for the protection of refugees and migrants is becoming a system of shifting responsibility among countries. This is a matter of particular concern from the perspective of human security.

The misery of people from small children to the elderly being forced to live in harsh conditions, sometimes in refugee camps for generations or in extreme poverty, must be overcome. However, it is virtually impossible for developed countries to accept all those who need protection.

The international community needs to look more seriously at the issue of refugees and migrants, including the option of "not accepting" them. In other words, it is essential to deepen further the linkages between peacekeeping and peace-building, humanitarian and disaster assistance, as well as economic development assistance and human mobility management, and to make the United States and many other countries commit to them. In debates in academia and on the ground for supporting refugees and immigrants, acceptance or rejection is often regarded as a dichotomy. However, we should not allow human security's fundamental significance to be undermined by only concentrating on moral criticism for not accepting people.

1 "Forced displacement passes 80 million by mid-2020 as COVID-19 tests refugee protection globally" UNHCR, 9 December 2020 (

2 Ibid.

4 Davies, S. E. Legitimising Rejection: International Refugee Law in Southeast Asia. Brill, 2007. Also Okabe, M. "How states react to the international regime complexes on migration: a study of cases in South East Asia and beyond." International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 2021, 21.1: 65 -90.

5 Loescher, G. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path. Oxford University Press, 2001.

6 Borjas, G. J. We Wanted Workers: Unravelling the Immigration Narrative. WW Norton & Company, 2016.