THE BLOG
09/30/2015 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Overcoming the Refugee Obstacle Course

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The obligation to provide protection for refugees is general and global: by all countries, for all refugees. Yet their movement across borders today is a perilous tangle of regulations that leave refugees and migrants unprotected, governments frustrated and their citizens outraged.

The problems are deeply rooted in the mix of national sovereignty and human rights reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It affirms that everyone has a right to leave a country, yet no one has a right to enter a country without its sovereign permission.

There is a landmark commitment to the protection of refugee rights, which stands as a profound rebuke to the indifference that met the refugees fleeing the Holocaust. This is the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Additional Protocol, both implemented by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The Convention states that no one with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" can be expelled or returned to the country of origin.

But this too contains contradictory implications that make it a Catch-22 for millions of refugees. They cannot be expelled but there is no provision for them to enter a country legally, and the decision as to whether they are a refugee can only be made once they reach the country of asylum. Here we see an enormous invitation to -- and an indirect funding scheme for -- illegal border crossing and smuggling. How else can you get in to establish your claim to asylum?

The obstacle course continues. Few of today's asylum seekers fit the classic 1951 model of a state persecuting an individual: Stalin targeting courageous dissenters. Those forced to move as a result of severe economic devastation, gang violence, civil wars, natural disasters, or climate change do not always meet the "persecution" on grounds of the "religion, race" etc. threshold for refugees and therefore are not guaranteed protection even though the threats to their lives are manifest. And flows of labor migrants seeking better economic prospects mix with refugees fleeing for safety, creating a crisis in the asylum-determination process.

These claimants are now overwhelming the asylum process on Europe's borders, as Greece, Italy and Hungary are bearing the brunt of the first arrivals (the first two generously). And Germany is likely to be facing up to 800,000 applications for asylum. The European Union seeks to redistribute the latest 120,000 through a formula that assigns quotas by taking into account population, national income, unemployment rates, and past asylum loads. But many members, particularly from Eastern Europe, reject the scheme. The 120,000 quota numbers represent a tenth of a percent of the EU's population. The US has just offered to take in 10,000 Syrians (less even than the European ratio to population) and up to 100,000 total asylum seekers in 2017.

At the same time 4 million Syrian refugees are housed in difficult conditions in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Refuge at the border with the hope of eventual return to a peaceful Syria is in many respects a better solution than resettlement in Europe or the United States. It falls well short of the best solution -- quickly resolving the Syrian crisis itself. But it requires resources to make sure the refugees can establish decent lives with employment, education, health care and self-governance and not erode the quality of life of the local communities that are hosting them.

We need a comprehensive international agreement that recognizes the human dignity of all migrants and refugees while promoting the interests of countries of origin, transit, and destination. In the meantime, three measures would help meet the general obligation to protect and help overcome the obstacles refugees face every day.

First, hold the perpetrators liable. The Syrian Government and Islamic State are victimizing the people of Syria. Their abuses qualify for referral to the International Criminal Court, but in the meantime, as Guy Goodwin Gill and Selim Sazak have argued, let the UN Security Council seize the overseas financial assets of the Syrian state and ISIS and use them to pay for the maintenance of refugee camps on the Syrian border.

Second, strengthen the capacity of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to issue travel visas for individuals and families that cannot find adequate refuge on Syria's borders and that meet a preliminary determination of refugee status. These visas would free families from the smugglers by certifying them for legal travel to potential asylum countries and application there for asylum.

Third, share the refugee asylum burden globally. Applying the EU formula globally would result in a fairer and wider distribution of the responsibility for asylum. Adjustments can be made to ensure that the outsize populations of India and China do not produce an outsize burden. Steven Nam, a colleague in the Global Policy Initiative and professor of law at UC Davis, and I have calculated that the US share of the latest 120,000 asylum seekers to Europe, applying the EU formula to the top 40 GDP countries, would be 8,726 individuals, a totally manageable number. China would have a quota of 8,035 and Japan, 4,616.

Any top 40 GDP country with a political aversion to taking in refugees can substitute a voucher for a visa that provides ten years of economic support (approximately $3,500 per person per year) to a refugee family of four on the Syrian border.

There are more than 20 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world, a level not seen since WWII. The barbed wire fences being strung on national borders are not adequate responses.

Michael W. Doyle is the director of the Global Policy Initiative and University Professor at Columbia University.