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T. Alexander Aleinikoff & Leah Zamore, Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime (2019).

T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore’s compact-but-ambitious new book, The Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime, seeks to transform the international refugee system by proposing a set of legal reforms centered on redistributing responsibility northward, increasing mobility, and better enforcing rights. The authors’ reform vision was developed through decades of research and practice experience.

The legal-political discourse on refugees in the United States focuses largely on disputes over quantities and definitions. How many refugees should be admitted each year: 50,000, 125,000, or (as in fiscal year 2018) 62? Should gang- and domestic-violence be considered persecution and thus valid grounds for asylum? The ways in which these issues are resolved can mean life or death for many displaced people. But even granting all of the reforms that domestic refugee advocates seek would protect only a small fraction of the world’s forcibly displaced. The great majority of the approximately 27 million refugees would still be trapped in poverty in the Global South – effectively confined to underfunded border camps or to urban areas – in either case, largely blocked from the formal economy and from effective redress of rights violations.

The authors therefore deserve credit for adding their voices to the growing set of scholars and practitioners arguing for more radical changes to the international system. The first part of the book documents how the international refugee protection system evolved through the twentieth century: Initially a system designed to substitute other states’ legal protections when a state withdrew its own protections from one of its nationals, it became one centered on ad hoc humanitarianism. The authors then identify a series of policy reforms. Their key proposals include expanding the scope of harms that trigger protection by moving away from “persecution” as the basis for entitlement to protection, bolstering the shared responsibility of the Global North vis-à-vis the South, and expanding third-state resettlement as a durable solution.

Aleinikoff and Zamore acknowledge that they are not the first to call for some of these changes. The more provocative aspects of their proposal, however, part ways with other elements of the so-called modern “liberal consensus” for reform. Most notably, the authors critique the emerging consensus of aiming to keep refugees closer to home. They take issue with views – such as those espoused by social scientists Alexander Betts and Paul Collier – who generally believe that mass re-settlement in other parts of the world is not politically feasible on a sufficiently large scale, and that integration into the economies and communities of the region will do the most good for the most refugees. In contrast, Aleinikoff and Zamore think that liberalized global mobility should be a centerpiece of any comprehensive plan. Refugees, they argue, should be afforded great latitude in their choices of where to relocate based on their cultural, community, religious, and labor preferences.

In their commitment to prioritizing mobility and choice, Aleinikoff and Zamore join those endorsing greater refugee self-reliance. But, and drawing a contrast with the liberal consensus, they caution against too much self-reliance, which underappreciates how vulnerable many refugees truly are. They are wary of what some would call neoliberal-oriented policies: approaches that put undue faith in deregulation, offer employment without robustly protected rights, and rely on other market-based solutions. As applied to financial and development programs in developing countries, the authors believe that these sorts of policies have performed poorly, and they see little reason to expect better results here.

Without taking a side in these debates, I was struck by the scope of the authors’ reform vision. Yet any such call for expanding global rights of entrance, mobility, and non-return, is bound to face questions of inequity: “Why is group X more deserving than group Y?” In that vein, I would appreciate hearing why those who take “necessary flight” (to use their proposed standard) should enjoy greater long-term immigration rights, freedoms, or subsidies than other non-privileged would-be migrants. Neither “persecution” nor “necessary flight” is a neatly binary concept; persecution and necessity exist in degrees. Many would-be migrants have suffered appreciable harms in their country of nationality— poverty, famine, disease, violence, or natural disasters. Most of them would, of course, make many positive contributions to their host society. But for many of these, their departure would be considered economic: neither strictly “necessary,” nor resulting from Refugee-Convention-style formal “persecution.”

It is unclear, therefore, why policy should provide dichotomous privileges, with those deemed to meet these amorphous legal thresholds having the national borders and checkbooks of the world opened to them, while those falling just short remaining trapped. Indeed, some refugee advocates oppose significantly expanding both the class of people receiving protection and the basket of benefits they receive, largely because doing either would dilute the very concept of “refugee,” backfiring and reducing public support for refugee-protection programs. Of course, this line-drawing critique is not new: for decades, the 1951 persecution standard has been criticized as creating an artificial and unjust dichotomy. Decades of global conferences, discussions, and scholarship have thus far not produced a politically workable substitute.

Despite not fully addressing all the issues it raises, The Arc of Protection adds much to the discussion about possible ways forward for the international refugee regime. I urge practitioners, scholars, and policymakers in the field read it and seriously consider its proposals.

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Cite as: Kevin Cope, Rethinking Responsibility for Refugees, JOTWELL (July 1, 2021) (reviewing T. Alexander Aleinikoff & Leah Zamore, Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime (2019)),