On Saturday, the international community observed World Refugee Day, an annual celebration of the courage of all those forced to flee their home countries. It arrived this year only two days after the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) announced that 60 million people are now displaced worldwide—the highest number ever recorded. We are in the throes of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. 

Despite the new engines of population displacement—climate change, regime change, the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war—the international community continues to address the new refugee population with old strategies, providing basic humanitarian aid in the nations to which refugees flee. This food-water-shelter approach addresses many immediate needs, but fails to respond to the long-term crisis we face: Tens of millions of people can never safely return home. Where will they go? These men, women, and children—and more than half are children—deserve more than a Band-Aid solution.

The international community, led by the United States (which takes more refugees than all other countries combined), must make more serious, sustained, and systematic efforts to alleviate the burden that the current system places on already-fragile host countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. Failure to do so will not only allow one of the worst displacement catastrophes in decades to continue unabated, but also seriously decrease our credibility in a volatile region; We must show our allies that our foreign policy aims are not just militaristic, but also humanitarian.

At the close of World War II, the United Nations agreed on a universal definition of a refugee and identified a few limited rights of refugees, including the right to resettle to a safe country. Ever since, the international community accepts refugee resettlement—permanent relocation to a safe, new country—as essential for those with no alternative.

And yet, in practice if not ideology, the international community has failed to uphold its commitment to this cornerstone of human rights. The bureaucracies of our refugee systems are not designed to facilitate timely, safe refugee resettlement, and legal obstacles prevent millions from ever reaching safe ground. 

To effectively confront today’s refugee crisis, it’s essential to recognize these legal barricades for what they are: as potentially life-threatening to refugees as any food shortage. 

We at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) take this on. We provide legal services to refugees overseas for free—as one would donate food or shelter—to make the resettlement bureaucracies more accessible and effective. Our approach outsources pro bono legal resources from the United States and Canada, where they are available in great supply, to the countries where refugees most often arrive first—where free legal services are scarce. A student-centered organization, IRAP builds legal teams for refugees from participants at law schools, law firms, and corporate counsels.

A legal advocate empowers refugees to fully explain why they need to resettle to a safe country, and protects their dignity and rights within the resettlement system. Studies show that displaced individuals are four times as likely to win resettlement in the United States if a lawyer represents them. 

IRAP law students conduct interviews on the ground in Jordan with clients seeking safe resettlement. (Photo by Susannah Stevens)

The takeaway is clear: Ensuring that refugees have the tools to navigate resettlement processes is the foundation of a democratic and functional resettlement regime.

To date, we’ve provided legal counseling to more than 10,000 refugees in the Middle East and North Africa through a system that turns every dollar we spend into $10 in pro bono legal assistance.

As tens of thousands are forced to flee each day, we constantly assess how we can leverage lessons we’ve learned from those 10,000—and counting—cases on the ground into precise policy reforms. We aim to swiftly identify systemic problems as they emerge and use those field-level insights to catalyze broader change.

By homing in on legal issues, we see potential reforms that are as system-changing as they are achievable. At a time when refugee and migrant rights are a hard sell—1,800 have died in the Mediterranean this year while EU states quibble over asylum quotas—IRAP helped pass five different pieces of enacted law through the 113th Congress, the second-least productive in American history.

We’re encouraged by the peer organizations similarly endeavoring to make refugee resettlement more effective, transparent, and just. RefugePoint facilitates more effective UN-NGO partnerships and helps identify thousands of the most vulnerable refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa, who otherwise would fall through the cracks. Asylum Access has pioneered legal aid for refugees to ensure their rights in the countries to which they first escape, and has effectively refocused the discussion from “refugee needs” to “refugee rights.” 

These advances improve accessibility to legal aid for refugees and hopefully herald a new international understanding of how refugees’ legal rights support their long-term needs.

This is about sustainability. Today’s approach to refugee protection will never produce long-term solutions for millions of refugees, and consequently will continue to place untenable strain upon the countries to which refugees first escape. This can’t go on indefinitely. Already we’ve seen Syria’s neighbors tighten their borders in an effort to manage the burden of hosting so many vulnerable people. Yet several of these nations have privately conveyed a willingness to reopen their borders if the international community takes resettlement more seriously. 

Meanwhile, the status quo reveals the shameful limits of Europe and America’s professed commitment to global human rights. The hypocrisy of resettlement countries tarnishes their international reputation and, as resentment builds, risks threatening their national security. Last week, the United States announced that it may be building six new military bases inside Iraq. We must match this projection of military power into the region with a show of humanitarian support. 

Rather than blindly conforming to business as usual, we’re calling for a proactive adaptation that will preserve the refugee protection system before it hits its imminent breaking point.

For IRAP, this means building a formal body of refugee law through training a thousands-strong legal network, developing guides and treatises, and growing institutional knowledge. It means establishing refugee resettlement law as a practiced area of pro bono law. It means training a new generation of refugee advocates—more than 3,000 students thus far—poised to ensure a more effective international resettlement system, in which America fulfills its humanitarian commitments to make refuge for the world’s most vulnerable a central piece of its foreign policy. 

The international community will need these expert minds and resources if it’s to find permanent relief for the millions of refugees at risk. 

Currently, the international community privileges only the most immediate and material of refugees’ needs, as the number of refugees worldwide climbs ever higher. To overlook their legal rights is to willfully ignore the nature and severity of the refugee crisis. Failing to strengthen legal avenues to protection is tantamount to acceptance of the 60 million displaced today and a tacit invitation for those numbers to continue to swell. 

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