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Why refugee protection needs reform

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Traditional Western notions of ‘protection’ tend to be characterised by paternalistic or colonial ideologies that envision the ‘powerful’ swooping in to ‘rescue’ the poor and disadvantaged. In child protection this involves the ‘State’ or other actors stepping in to assume control of vulnerable children. In refugee protection this involves resource rich countries stepping in to ‘rescue’ refugees from harm and placing them into a system of registration and support that aims to ‘protect’ primarily through resettlement.

The emphasis of protection therefore is to step in and protect when someone is in need of protection. This may be necessary in some situations however the problem with it is that the process often involves the protected (the child or refugee) becoming subject to the control of the one with more power (usually the State). Power remains with the powerful and the protected often become trapped within a system that has taken responsibility for securing protection. It then becomes difficult to free the person from that system and they can lose self agency within it as they wait for a protection outcome to be negotiated on their behalf. What if we could turn this upside down and distribute protection power to the individuals in need of protection?

In social work there is an approach to power sharing called distributive justice. This approach is concerned with the fair and equitable distribution of resources and power to people in a society. Equality in the share of resources provides more individual power or choice to individuals which is argued will eliminate disadvantage and equalise justice. There remains some debate about who determines what is equal and just how possible true equality is in reality, but let’s not get into that here!

There is also a mathematics principle called the distributive law whereby you can multiply factors as a group or by the sum of the parts and get the same result. For example, 5x(6+4)=50 and 5x6=30 + 5x4=20 which added together also equals 50. I wonder if this law were applied to real life you could argue that a person’s ability to access protection is made stronger by the presence of protective factors that could support protection in multiple contexts!?

Taking these ‘distributive’ principles into consideration, protection may be better conceptualised as distributing power through knowledge, skills and resources to individuals or groups for them to act with that power to select appropriate protect pathways themselves, in multiple contexts, that are not dependent on others. Power is accessed through information, finances, skills, networks, purpose and leveraging the law.

The goal of protection should be to build up a protection toolbox for individuals that would enable them to ‘self protect’.

You may ask, is this even possible or would this approach let States off the hook? My point is that we have an international protection system that, whilst well intentioned, inevitably creates dependency and does not empower individual choice. How can we enable refugees to access skilled migration, study or other migration pathways as a means to accessing protection? How can we recognise the value of giving migrants legal and work status as a means for facilitating temporary protection, economic benefit for the host community and a greater potential for return to country of origin if safety conditions improve? Resettlement is clearly unsustainable as a sole protection strategy, yet it remains the best hope for many and the primary goal of international protection programs.

This approach does not however completely negate the need for State sanctioned protection at times where imminent or actual harm exists. Protection should exist on a continuum which is primarily focussed on prevention rather than intervention. Once you intervene it becomes much harder to undo that intervention and cycles of dependency are created. This is why protection that involves refugee camps can become so protracted. Imagine what refugees and communities could achieve if they had the right tools, regardless of their legal status.

Distributive protection as a concept would therefore involve a focus on programs that build a refugee’s protection toolbox and facilitate their access to protection pathways. This would require a shift away from programs primarily focussed on delivering short term aid or skills training alone towards programs that build agency and choice. I believe there are four key components to this:

  1. Networks – that support access to services, information, people and resources

  2. Knowledge – that support awareness of rights, opportunities, responsibilities and the law

  3. Agency – to facilitate individual confidence and capacity to make decisions about a protection pathway that is best for them

  4. Bridge building – interventions to assist people to overcome barriers such as trauma, discrimination and legal rights.

At HOST International we ascribe to this approach and aim to engage in work that builds individual and community protection capacity and motivate them to envision a brighter future. COVID19 has provided a great opportunity to rethink the way we ‘do’ protection and to consider strengthening the role of locally led services. Get in touch if you want to explore these concepts further with us or find out more.

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