International Instability – Born from the Migration of Refugees or a Product of Political Aversion?

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Migration can be thought of as a condition of evolving economic, social, and political climates. While migrants are often incorrectly interchanged with “refugees,” refugees are officially defined by the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention as “persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” Migrants, on the other hand, include persons who for a variety of reasons have moved from their customary residence. Although often motivated by different reasons, refugees are tied together in a common search for improved, less volatile lifestyles. 

As refugees flee insecure environments and seek protection in other countries, the treatment of refugees emerges as a contentious issue in international law and cooperation. Countries can be hesitant towards the resettlement of refugees into their country due to domestic political backlash, cheap labor displacing domestic workers, and strains on welfare benefits. With governments fearing the effects of refugees, refugee management — the admittance of refugees into a state’s sovereign territory — is highly disputed. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently released data finding that the number of forcibly displaced people grew from 41 million in 2010 to 78.5 million in 2021. With such a prevalence of refugees, the urgency of solving the cooperation problem of refugee management continues to grow. 

States often act in their own self-interest by not accepting refugees; rather, they count on a neighboring country to address the crisis for them. Oftentimes, the issue will end up being addressed by a country aiming to avoid international crises being born out of the initial threat of persecution the refugees faced in their home country. By acting uncooperatively, countries keep resources to their own citizens, avoid refugee resettlement costs which fall on taxpayers, and suppress domestic protests which hinge on terrorist stereotypes. Specifically, 82% of Hungarians surveyed by Pew Research state that their top concern of refugee crises was the economic shift in “jobs and social benefits,” followed by 76% who cited “the increased likelihood of terrorism in our country.” It is these views which motivate countries’ opposition to refugees. 

However, when countries act in their self-interest, the country whose borders are flooded are faced with unregulated unemployment and scarce resources. Countries who avoid this political and material cost to accepting refugees also face suboptimal conditions though. The Jordanian government, for example, faced domestic protests and international reputational costs regarding human rights crises after turning away 60,000 Syrian refugees. Denying refugees protection also causes greater future refugee crises. After the United States deported Salvadoran refugees in the 1990s, the resulting eruption of Salvadoran gangs against those who fled El Salvador has now led to even greater Salvadoran refugee populations seeking protection in the U.S. 

In the eyes of political scientists, the concern of refugee management can be framed as a tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which some cost of using a public good or common resource is internalized, hence market failure results from a public good being depleted or a common resource being underproduced. Put simply, no actor wants to be the contributor that incurs the cost of providing aid when everyone benefits from refugee management. International social stability and homeostasis among state borders is the underproduced public good in refugee management—states are unwilling to provide this non-excludable condition. International instability results from states acting in their own self-interest; for example, when claims of human rights violations were made after Greece rejected masses of Syrian refugees, Turkey then also neglected integration programs, leading to a proliferation of conflicts. Describing refugee management in terms of the free rider problem, issues with cooperation can be solved if the public good of international stability is provided by a hegemonic power or if free-riders are coerced into contributing. 

The recent refugee situation in Sweden as of 2012 reveals this international sense of failure which results from uncoordinated refugee management. As of 2012, the number of refugees making their way to Sweden increased to over 44,000 people. Swedish politicians accusingly claim that Sweden’s more liberal policies appeared exponentially more appealing to refugees when compared to the restrictions in neighboring European countries. While this shift in migratory flow may have left a greater population of refugees protected in Sweden, it has also left Sweden with rising unemployment and domestic riots against “open-door immigration policy.”10 Prior to civil unrest against refugee integration being seen in such numbers in Sweden, the government had not been as concerned about relative gains.6 However, once domestic attention centered on Sweden’s liberal take on refugees, the government too began to discuss power-maximizing ideas related to the theory of offensive realism where fear of other states drive competition and self-interest. As immigration spilt into domestic politics, Swedish policymakers adopted a harder front on refugees, hence removing itself as the country providing the public good of international stability. 10

Refugee management has long received international and national attention, hence multiple approaches to facilitate cooperation between states have been taken. The United Nations established the UNHCR in 1950 in response to the European refugee crisis of World War II, and delegated it the authority to “aid and protect refugees” as well as mandate the “local integration or resettlement to a third country.”7 Refugees have claimed to favor the authority of the UNHCR over that of a national government as this institution prioritized resettlement into a developed, wealthier “third country.” Refugees in Egypt have even gone as far to say that “we live in a country of UNHCR” after Egyptian authorities unjustly detained thousands of refugees seeking protection.8 With the UNHCR’s presence, human rights violations have declined. 

The work of the UNHCR continues to this day. With refugee management split between countries and the UNHCR, it is difficult to distinguish who is responsible for human rights violations. There have been concerns of bureaucratic pathologies as members of the UNHCR may prioritize donor money over refugee welfare, violating both states’ jurisdiction of refugees in their territory, all the while violating human rights. If these claims are true, the UNHCR may be intensifying refugee struggles, thereby demonstrating a failure in efforts to achieve cooperation. 

In one instance in 1967, the UNHCR expanded the 1951 convention to legal universal customary law for the treatment of refugees, inciting governments’ search for escape clauses. For example, Egypt and Israel have expanded refugee status to any forced migrant, hence legally making the entire international community responsible for these displaced people. Since 2012, as humanitarian emergencies continued to escalate in Syria, refugees have largely fled to Egypt. As Syrian civil wars continued and refugee influxes increased, Egypt tightened their refugee integration policies. Although Egypt is now one of 70 countries pledging to provide social programs (healthcare, education, etc.) to refugees, this country previously alienated refugee groups. By doing so, Egypt narrowed the zone of cooperative agreements for refugee crises. 

However, when the 1967 standard was drawn with a more global, flexible focus, compromises allowed governments more authority over certain refugee situations. Article 31 of the 1951 Convention also increased the UNHCR’s legalization as it delegated the ability to identify states as “safe” or “unsafe.” The first “safe” country a refugee enters is where they must seek asylum. This effectively addressed the cooperation problem of refugee management by obligating all “safe” countries to share responsibility for refugees’ protection. All “safe” states were coerced into contributing to international stability, rather than responsibility being claimed only by major powers such as the UK and US.Still, there are challenges associated with Article 31. States have complained that the UNHCR’s jurisdiction encourages states to exploit the flexible interpretation of “safe.” Firstly, UNHCR field offices collect information on refugee flows and human rights situations in each country it deems as either “safe” or “unsafe,” making countries question if UNHCR should have the jurisdiction to investigate or even gather this state information. Still, as states use the UNHCR’s list of countries to develop their own set of “safe” countries, they adopt a more flexible interpretation of Article 31; for example, France interprets a “safe” country as granting “uniformity” across gender while the UK does not.11 While effective in standardizing global standards, the UNHCR has not had complete success over managing refugees because it fails to describe state obligations on how refugee crises should be handled. The convention simply states that refugee management “cannot be achieved without international-cooperation.” 

Still, proceeding organizations were established to better delineate the parameters of when states must accept refugees, namely the International Commission on Human Rights. This branch of the Organization of American States promotes human rights under their jurisdiction over 25 member states. Take, for example, the Sale vs Haitian Centers for Human Rights US Supreme Court of 1993. In 1993, the US denied protection to Haitian refugees who were illegally traveling in naval ships, stating that they never entered American waters, hence the 1951 Convention’s “non-refoulement principle” was not applicable. With the responsibility of monitoring refugee cases, the International Commission on Human Rights declared that the US was unable to file this rejection as it violated universal human rights.12 This reveals the International Commission on Human Rights as an international organization whose monitoring system furthers solutions to this cooperation problem. 

To address the mistreatment and mismanagement of refugees, we must consider domestic politics, state sovereignty, and bureaucratic pathologies. While the UNHCR and the 1951 Convention on Refugee Status have had success in preventing many refugee crises, major shortcomings continue to exist. 

First, issues pertaining to the limited precision of the UNHCR’s and 1951 Convention’s scopes must be addressed. A more uniform definition of “refugee” in the 1951 Convention would decrease the likelihood of cases such as that between Haiti and the US because countries will have far more difficulty revealing escape clauses in the convention’s writing. If the entrance of refugees is standardized to the crossing of specific borders and pre-designed territories, country versus UNHCR disputes will be minimized. Additionally, if all countries were to have identical criteria for “safe” countries, they would then have the same expectations for refugee treatment. Not only would this better the living standards and integration of refugees, but it would also converge states’ expectations on which country is most likely to respond to a refugee crisis. 

For states concerned about their sovereignty, narrowing the scope of the convention via precision would also be seen as beneficial. Refugee situations would be either directly aligned with UNHCR definitions, or, rather, the state would adopt full responsibility over refugees. This immediate delineation of responsibility may even incentivize states to better address domestic refugee situations as they would not consider—or rely on—the potential involvement of an international institution. 

Works Cited 

 Definitions | refugees and migrants United Nations. United Nations. Available at:

  Thorin M. Wright & Shweta Moorthy (2018) Refugees, Economic Capacity, and Host State Repression*, International Interactions, 44:1, 132-155, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2017.1273915

  Stephen Castles, International Migration at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century: Global Trends and Issues (International Social Science Journal, 2000), pp. 269-281

  Thorin M. Wright & Shweta Moorthy (2018) Refugees, Economic Capacity, and Host State Repression*, International Interactions, 44:1, 132-155, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2017.1273915

  Wike, Richard, and Katie Simmons. Europeans Fear Wave of Refigees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs. N.p.: Pew Research Center, 2016.

Alrababa’h, A. and Williamson, S. (2021) Analysis | Jordan shuts out 60,000 Syrian refugees – and then sees a backlash. This is why., The Washington Post. WP Company. Available at: 

 Schwartz, S. (2019) Sending refugees back makes the world more dangerous, Foreign Policy. Available at:

  Fahim, K. (2022) Turkey deports hundreds of Syrian refugees, Human Rights Watch says, The Washington Post. WP Company. Available at: 

  John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)

  Brett Line, Linda Poon, How Other Countries Handle Immigration (National Geographic, 2013)

  UNHCR. “Information for Refugees, Asylum-seekers and Stateless People.” UNHCR Refugee Agency. Last modified 2001.

 Refugee context in Egypt UNHCR Egypt. Available at: