Refugee Crisis Solutions:

What the U.S., Europe, and the World Are(n’t) Doing to Address the Crisis

by | Jul 13, 2019

The international community has come together, most recently in New York, to discuss the rights of refugees. The movement from discussion to action, however, is still in developmental stages. 

Once the need for durable solutions is recognized, movement is critical though—it’s what gives purpose to the discussion in the first place. Whether it’s secured pathways to safety, resettlement, access to public and private sector support, or social inclusion in host communities, there are many methods for addressing some of the biggest needs for refugee populations.

*If you are interested in further reading on the refugee crisis, this post is 1 of 4 in our series for “Refugee Awareness Month.” Click to see post #1 “What is a Refugee, #2 How Many Refugees Are There in the World? and #3 How You Can Help Refugees.*


  1. Why demand solutions?
  2. What is everyone doing?
  3. The Fair Share Model

Refugee Crisis Solutions: Why Demand Any?

Before we look at some possible models for addressing the refugee crisis, it’s worthwhile to consider why it’s important to demand solutions. It seems obvious: people asking for help as the flee devastating circumstances in their own countries. But, we shouldn’t forget that we are not the first generation faced with refugees. Although the number of refugees today is growing to unprecedented proportions, we should all be in agreement that something must be done, and it should be done better than it was done in the past…hindsight is 20/20. So let’s start there.

We Have a Moral Obligation

Eleanor Roosevelt’s biggest regret is said to have been that she did not convince President Roosevelt to accept more refugees before the devastation of WWII. Those regrets are echoed by some of today’s world leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who offered an official apology for Canada’s denial of a steamliner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees in 1939, saying, “We refused to help them when we could have. We contributed to sealing the cruel fates of far too many at places like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec. We failed them. And for that, we are sorry . . . .” But that remorse is meaningless if we just do the same thing again and again.

Two years ago, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator warned that the world faced the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The UN official warned that without a collective effort from the global community to provide for our refugees, they will, in remarkable numbers, starve amidst widespread famine or die of disease such as cholera. If we commit to action over apologies, maybe we won’t have to repeat the same regrets and apologies 70 years from now. 

MS-St.Louis-SteamlinerUnited States Holocaust Memorial Museum/National Archives and Records

It’s About the Economy too

In addition to the moral obligation that should incentivize able nations to help, an increasingly globalized world means the effects of not supporting global refugees will likely have bleak consequences for the global community as a whole.  In addition to the moral responsibility of the global community to take appropriate action, there are economic consequences to the world turning a blind eye (or just taking off its glasses).  Over half of the world’s refugees are under eighteen years old. The economic consequences will be severe not only for the countries where these children will become adults but also to the global economy as a whole.

So What’s Everyone Doing?

The European Union

The European Commission describes asylum as a fundamental right. Because free movement is one of the fundamental characteristics of the EU, member states have several agreements regarding the fundamental rights and the common framework for addressing migration to and through European borders.  Member states signed on to, “shared responsibility to welcome asylum seekers in a dignified manner, ensuring they are treated fairly . . . .” through the Common European Asylum System. The policy underlying this system is fair, efficient, and humane treatment of asylum-seekers and consistency in the law for those seeking refuge in EU member states.  When someone applies for asylum in the EU, they are supposed to be guaranteed minimum living conditions in terms of access to housing, food, employment, and healthcare.

Despite the written agreements between all EU member states regarding the fundamental rights of refugees, over 70% of the 530,000 people granted asylum in 2017 received that protection from Germany. Instead of approaching European migration as a collective European effort as put forth in various agendas and legislative agreements, the EU has remained more true to approaches aimed at reducing the number of migrants “arriving irregularly” to its borders.

The U.S.

Despite a 17 percent increase in the needs of refugee settlement from 2018 to 2019, the United States slashed its refugee limit to the historic low of just 30,000. 

Applying the Fair Share Model proposed by Reynolds and Vacatella, the United States’ fair share would be 6,911,438 of the world’s refugees, or 27.17%.  But, the current distribution is nowhere near this number with the refugee population in the United States currently at 815,608, or 3.2%. Although not new, the irony of the United States’ political aversion to refugees is not lost on most; the country founded after the arrival—only 400 years ago—of refugees seeking protection from religious persecution.

Not only does the United States fail to take responsibility for its fair share, but it further relies on the perilous circumstances of the journey to reduce the number of people able to seek help at its border.  Donald Trump’s campaign to build a wall follows this strategy. This is a substantial concern in light of the fact that between 1998 and 2019, 7,167 people are reported to have died while attempting to cross the Southwest border into the United States. And we have seen photos and heard news reports of people meeting that exact fate at the American border.

Despite the resistance to arrivals, the United States still has an “obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”


Developing Nations

While the concern for resources is a far cry from reality in the world’s richest countries, it is the reality for the developing countries that bear the bulk of the burden of providing refugee support.  There, resources are stretched thin. For example, Bangladesh, which currently houses nearly 4% of the world’s refugees, is struggling to meet the basic needs of the Rohingya people. Over 700,000 refugees fled over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh in the short span of three months. Nearly a million refugees are now in Bangladesh—the most densely populated county in the world.  It is now the location of the world’s largest refugee camp. The country is struggling to provide clean water, schools for the children, and protection from sexual abuse and exploitation for the large numbers of refugees fleeing the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.  Despite its struggle to provide adequate care for those coming into their country, Bangladesh has come forward as a beacon of hope for a humanitarian priority.   

Uganda, a poor country, ranks 162nd out of 188 on the Human Development Index. However, it is a country with a long history of providing support to refugees, and currently hosts around 5% of the world’s refugees.  In addition to the Ugandan government, private landowners demonstrate unique generosity and hospitality to refugees who have fled to their country, providing land for refugees to resettle in designated resettlement areas.  The government also provides access to Uganda’s national services for the refugees, over half of whom are women and children.

Uganda perceives the plight of refugees not only as a humanitarian responsibility but also an economic opportunity for its country: an opportunity to support this large population to contribute to the construction and development of the Ugandan society.  Hilary Onek, Uganda’s Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees explained, “Uganda has continued to maintain an open-door policy to refugees based on traditional African hospitality and not turning away anybody who is running to us for safety.”  With its humanitarian and economic efforts come the challenges of providing sufficient land, water, healthcare, and educational resources for those it hosts.

The actions of these countries demonstrate remarkable humanitarianism and leadership.  Their commitment to opening their doors to those asking for safety despite their own domestic struggles puts the kibosh on the argument that the richest countries in the world simply do not have the resources to provide the humanitarian aid necessary for their fair share of the world’s refugees.

What Should We Be Doing?

The Fair Share Model

But how do you determine how many refugees each country in the world should be responsible for? Sarnata Reynolds and Juan Pablo Vacatello took a first step in making responsibility calculable; a step toward concretizing the often theoretical or philosophical discussion of “what’s fair.” They offered a model not to provide a solution to the complex question of responsibility, but to provide a starting point for debate, facilitating tangible progress in reaching some agreement. 

The model determines the capacity of each of the 193 UN member countries to host and support refugees, quantifying the responsibility by a calculated number of refugees.  They used GDP, weighted as 75% of the calculation, and population, weighted as the remaining 25% of the calculation to determine states’ fair shares. The report here is packed with information that can get you thinking about what additional factors you think should be included in the calculation. 

The Responsibility Sharing Model was offered as “the first global model to measure the capacity of governments to physically protect and financially support refugees and host communities.” Looking at the capacity of the global community, Reynolds and Vacatello gave “alert” status to some countries i.e., those countries deemed too fragile or unstable themselves to be fairly assigned responsibility to take in on any portion of the world’s refugees. Having made that distinction for the purposes of the proposed model, almost a third of all refugees do in fact currently reside in the states assigned “alert” status.

Applying the Fair Share Model to the EU, the EU’s fair share should be 23.48% of the world’s refugees, or around 6,911,400 refugees. The current refugee population in the EU, however, falls 3,136,500 short of the calculated capacity, hosting only 11.7%, a large portion of which can be attributed to the generosity of Germany alone.  

Applying the Fair Share Model, the United States’ fair share would be 6,911,438 of the world’s refugees, or 27.17%.  But, the current distribution is nowhere near this number with the refugee population in the United States currently at 815,608, or 3.2%

The former United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Migration and Development, Peter Sutherland, rebutted the trends of distribution of responsibility (and there has not been a notable change since his 2015 statement) as “responsibility by proximity.” He meant that it is geographic proximity to the refugees’ home counties that the international community is allowing to determine responsibility for the humanitarian crisis.  Instead, “the world needs to get its act together” and provide a collective response to alleviate the plight of refugees regardless of geographic location.

With more discussion of the proper distribution of responsibility for refugees, there is an opportunity for us to better understand the factors at play and once responsibility is accepted, perhaps we can recognize refugee populations as potential contributors, not burdens, to host countries. A  much-needed shift in policy may allow us to accept the principle that “[m]igration is not a threat to be stopped; it is a complex phenomenon to be managed for the benefit and safety of all involved.”

Annie Bright

Annie Bright


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