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Book Review: The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Julian Lehmann. Julian Lehmann is a Project Manager at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, Germany. Julian is on Twitter @JulianMLehmann.

Review of The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime, by T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore (Stanford Briefs 2019).  

Spurred by Syrians fleeing their homeland, a number of high-level policy initiatives since 2016 have attempted to improve how policy actors respond to the plight of the displaced. The result is what Alexander Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore in their book The Arc of Protection fittingly dub a “New Liberal Consensus” on refugee protection, namely conservatism concerning the scope of how the term “refugee” is defined, a preference toward assisting refugees closer to their countries of origin, an emphasis on self-reliance and economic inclusion (including through development assistance), expanded legal pathways, and criticism of non-entrée policies. With their succinct contribution, the authors set out to identify the flaws of that consensus and outline the contours of a better system of refugee assistance and protection.

Aleinikoff and Zamore begin by sketching the evolution of the international regime (that is, institutions) on refugee protection, arguing that its core basis shifted away from permanent solutions toward an emphasis on safety and short-term assistance. The second chapter questions the “modern standard account” of what signifies international protection – that is, the response to refugee displacement. Under the modern standard account, refugees are provided with basic rights stepping in as a “surrogate” for a denial of protection in their home state. Aleinikoff and Zamore view this account as too narrowly focused on “substituting home-state action.”

In a third chapter, they contrast this account with their interpretation and vision of the “principles of protection”, which capture the full breadth that protection should cover in order to remedy the plight of refugee displacement: safety, enjoyment of asylum, solutions, mobility, and voice. The authors briefly argue for an obligation of states to permit the entry of refugees, as well as an expanded conception of non-return that, instead of concentrating on the harm in the receiving state, should focus on the question of what would be “fair and appropriate grounds for asking a person to go home” (safety). Beyond safety, they argue, international protection should also achieve freedom from want – largely through refugees being entitled with rights – rather than “care and maintenance” (enjoyment of asylum, solutions). Refugees should be granted a conditional form of free international movement through the revival of the historic Nansen passport (mobility) and through the political participation of refugees (voice).

A fourth chapter delineates which categories of displaced persons are currently provided forms of assistance and protection, developing the concept that an international response is warranted whenever a person has to leave their home state because life there has become intolerable. Finally, Aleinikoff and Zamore offer their view on a reform of the international refugee regime that advances their principles of protection through a “strategy and structure” for international responsibility sharing, more robust mechanisms for protecting refugee rights, and fostering refugee agency and mobility.

Aleinikoff and Zamore succeed in providing a concise, well-written and accessible account of the international refugee regime’s basic tenets and fundamental shortcomings for an informed academic and non-academic audience alike. While some of their more conceptual arguments on asylum access will likely prove controversial among lawyers, Aleinikoff and Zamore refreshingly avoid departing from the legal status quo – including when delineating their well-crafted principles of international protection and the personal scope of that protection. The authors – one of whom is a university professor and former member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) senior management, the other a senior analyst at the non-profit (research) Center on International Cooperation – are also visibly interested in balancing vision with practical answers on necessary change, with examples of positive practice highlighted throughout the book.

If the Arc of Protection has one weakness, it lies in not fully achieving that difficult balance of vision and practical answers. The refugee regime is presented as “fundamentally broken” and in need of a “fundamental rethink” that the state-interest-focused Global Compact on Refugees – a recent comprehensive soft law instrument brokered by UNHCR – does not offer. But when Aleinikoff and Zamore move to flesh out concrete proposals, they have a tendency toward greater caution and nonchalance than their eloquent analysis on the dysfunctionality of the current system would suggest. For example, to solve the problem of unbalanced responsibility sharing (a key contributing factor to many non-entrée policies studied by readers of this journal), they suggest a global action platform on forced displacement as an “institutional structure” that would bring together a variety of actors to “craft a comprehensive plan for emergency or protracted situations” – a suggestion that sounds similar to a mix of the existing Global Refugee Forum, regional solutions frameworks and humanitarian plans. In their ambiguity about the necessary level of change needed, Aleinikoff and Zamore call efforts for better cooperation between humanitarian and development actors as the “old humanitarian tune with development lyrics”, while at the same time hailing humanitarian cash delivery by humanitarian agencies in Jordan as a progressive form of assistance. Meanwhile, where their proposals are more ambitious, the book largely avoids addressing the necessary politics to achieve change, contenting itself with instances of precedent rather than confronting the underlying political dynamics that made such precedents possible.

Despite those few contradictions and omissions, the Arc of Protection is a highly stimulating read that will appeal to anyone seeking concise discussion on the inherent flaws of the refugee regime and on how to respond to refugees’ forced displacement.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Lehman, J. (2021). Book Review: The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/06/book-review-arc [date]


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