How a new global consensus can provide true refuge to the displaced

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The huge increase in refugees worldwide is a major threat to public order. We need a new consensus to deal with this crisis and preserve long-held principles governing humanitarian relief and national control of borders. That consensus should include providing refugees with permanent homes in communities of refuge that include access to employment, education and other aspects of normal life.

A combination of developments caused the current crisis. First, our existing international conventions address limited categories of the displaced, leaving millions without assistance, including those seeking economic opportunity or fleeing civil and international conflicts, insecurity caused by criminals, ethnic hostility or life-threatening epidemics and other natural threats.

These factors have caused the number of those fleeing their nations to increase yearly, most of whom fail to find refuge. Per my calculations, between 2010 and 2020 the number of forcibly displaced persons increased from 40 million to 108 million. Of those, only 1.1 million were lawfully resettled, around 6 million returned to their home countries and some 6.4 million went to refugee camps. Most of the rest sought refuge regardless of legal authority.

Efforts to remediate the circumstances that cause displacement cannot offset the annual increases in their number. Some 114,300 refugees were resettled by the United Nations in third countries in 2022, an increase over 2021 but far fewer than the refugees seeking resettlement that year. U.N. figures show reducing this difference could be more difficult than providing placements, given that “in 2022, new refugees outnumbered those who went home by 37 to 1.”

The new consensus needed to deal with this crisis requires no change in the traditional humanitarian objective described in the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol to assist such persons in finding a place to live a normal life. It requires one key improvement to increase successful placements: providing qualified displaced persons with normal lives in communities of refuge. 

Communities of refuge will take time to build and only gradually provide relief to a significant part of the internationally displaced. But in the long run, they are an indispensable element of any successful new arrangement.

It is fair to question whether the international community is able or likely to provide homes to internationally displaced people when many nations have failed to house their homeless populations. However, people displaced by conflict or economic or health emergencies have different needs and capacities than most homeless people. 

Many refugees are able and eager to work, which makes providing for them less costly. Furthermore, while it is difficult to establish permanent housing for homeless people due to cost and local opposition, communities of refuge would be located in areas selected by the U.N. based on criteria that include cost and where local acceptance is more likely. This requires public funding, but each community can provide subsidies to employers and should ultimately become self-reliant. New towns for domestic residents have been reasonably successful; communities of refuge will be easier to establish if they are economically viable.  

Establishing communities of refuge should begin with a U.N. General Assembly resolution providing the High Commissioner for Refugees with the authority to develop them along the following lines:

  • Location. Communities should be located in places that generate the largest numbers of refugees and on the territory of states prepared to provide them with autonomy and the authority to perform their functions. They can be built anew or developed by improving existing refugee camps.
  • Indefinite Duration. Providing permanent homes to residents is essential. Camps that shelter refugees for up to three generations exist in several countries but provide few services beyond food and security. Communities must do far more, though they should not be considered permanent UNHCR-managed entities. Once a community of refuge is well-established, its control should revert to the territorial state. Spinning off successful communities should enhance the UNHCR’s ability to develop new ones.
  • Data Collection.  Each community of refuge should collect potentially useful information regarding its residents and information concerning potential employment to help them find work.
  • Internal Employment. Territorial states should give communities of refuge the authority to extend economic benefits analogous to those offered by tax-free zones to entities willing to establish employment opportunities within community borders.
  • Housing. Refugee camps have poor-quality housing, and as the number of the displaced grows, the quality of shelter provided could deteriorate further. Communities of refuge should help reverse this trend by providing adequate housing at costs residents can afford to rent and eventually buy. Neighborhoods should include parks, playgrounds and other community facilities.
  • Education and Training. Communities should go further than refugee camps in providing education and training that enhance employment prospects. They should identify job opportunities available for appropriately trained residents.
  • Relations with territorial states. Territorial states must delegate powers to communities of refuge to operate and extend tax and other benefits to employers. Each arrangement should reflect the circumstances of each situation since religious, cultural, economic and political concerns will vary.

Establishing communities of refuge will help reduce the human suffering and disorder of the current system over time by providing permanent homes to large numbers of internationally displaced individuals. That’s a consensus the world should be anxious to reach.

Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The author is grateful to Yacoub Yasin, Stanford Class of 2025.

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