During the past decade, the issues of asylum and immigration have risen to the top of the political agenda throughout the developed countries of western Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region.
Such concern is rooted in the widespread perception that the world's richest countries are threatened by an uncontrollable influx of migrants from poorer and less stable states, many of whom arrive in an illegal manner and who submit questionable applications for refugee status.
These fears have been compounded by the fact that asylum seekers arriving in the industrialized states are frequently transported by human smugglers, and because they are often young men who originate from parts of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa which are associated in the public mind with terrorism and militant Islam.
There is growing evidence to suggest that such people, whether bona fide refugees or not, contribute to the economy of destination countries by working in low-paid and low-status jobs that citizens are reluctant to accept. Nevertheless, politicians and voters in the industrialized states have tended to ignore this issue, preferring to focus on the high levels of public expenditure required to patrol borders, to process applications for refugee status, and to support asylum seekers with legal advice, accommodation, and social welfare benefits.
Responding to these different concerns, governments in the developed world have introduced a wide range of measures intended to obstruct or deter the arrival of people who intend to seek refugee status. These include more stringent visa and passport controls; restrictions on the rights and benefits provided to asylum seekers; and the establishment of international agreements to address the situation of migrants who transit from one country to another, sometimes submitting asylum applications in more than one state.
In some respects, such measures appear to have had their intended effect, as the number of asylum applications submitted in the industrialized states has declined in recent years. But there is also a growing awareness that restrictive asylum policies have fuelled the human smuggling industry, because irregular entry is the only means of entry available. Such policies also seem to have encouraged new arrivals to go "underground," rather than run the risk of detention and deportation by approaching the authorities and submitting a claim for refugee status.
Seeking to resolve this conundrum, a growing number of governments in the developed world have expressed interest in the notion of "protection in regions of origin." Indeed, this concept was a dominant feature of the discussion at the October 2003 meeting of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
In simple terms, the notion of "protection in regions of origin" is based on the principle that people who have fled from states that are affected by persecution, armed conflict, violence, and instability should be able to find a safe refuge and enjoy acceptable living conditions in locations that are as close as possible to the borders of their own country. It is also based on the assumption that such refugees will try to move on to more prosperous parts of the world if they experience unacceptably high levels of physical and material insecurity in their regions of origin.
According to its proponents, the "protection in regions of origin" approach could, if effectively implemented, avert the need for refugees and asylum seekers to make difficult, dangerous, and costly journeys to distant parts of the world with unfamiliar cultures.
In doing so, it has been argued, this approach would simultaneously deprive human smugglers of their customers, reduce the pressures currently placed on the asylum and social welfare systems of the industrialized states, and thereby discourage the kind of xenophobic sentiments that have emerged in many parts of the developed world. This, in turn, would enable a less frenzied and more rational debate on the refugee policies and immigration needs of the world's more prosperous countries.
A number of other benefits might be derived from the implementation of this strategy.
First, by reducing asylum-related expenditures in the industrialized states, the "protection in regions of origin" approach promises to make additional funding available for development assistance – aid that would bring long-term benefits not only to refugees, but also to the host country and to members of the local population.
Second, it has been suggested that if refugees can be accommodated safely in their regions of origin, they will be more likely to return to their country of origin once the persecution or violence that displaced them has come to an end. According to this argument, the tasks of repatriation and reintegration are also likely to be less expensive and simpler to organize in situations where refugees are located close to the borders of their own country.
Third, the "protection in regions of origin" approach would not necessarily prevent refugees and asylum seekers from being admitted to countries in the developed world. Indeed, proponents of this strategy point out that refugees whose security is at risk in their region of origin, as well as those who have special needs or family links abroad, would be able to benefit from organized resettlement programs, thereby ensuring their safe arrival and speedy integration in one of the industrialized states.
While these arguments all have certain merits, there is also a need to acknowledge that the concept of "protections in regions of origin" is presented with some important challenges.
Many areas that accommodate large numbers of refugees (northern Kenya, eastern Tanzania, and northern Uganda, to give three examples from East Africa alone) currently suffer from high levels of insecurity and low levels of development. Even if resources can be transferred from the domestic asylum systems to the overseas development budgets of the industrialized states (an unlikely scenario according to many commentators), can we really expect the speedy transformation of such troubled locations into havens of peace, safety, and economic growth?
Some doubts must also be cast on the suggestion that improved conditions in regions of origin will necessarily lead to a substantial reduction in the movement of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from the poor countries of the "South" to the rich nations of the "North."
The disparity in living standards between these two parts of the world seems certain to be maintained, and may well increase in the future, thereby prompting further international migration. Moreover, as a result of the globalization process and the expansion of transnational and diaspora communities, growing numbers of people in low-income countries have access to the information, resources, and social networks required for them to migrate – if not legally then in an irregular manner - from one part of the world to another.
In fact, one might even suggest that the process of globalization has undermined the very notion of "regions of origin." In the contemporary world, it is perfectly possible for Afghans, Iraqis, or Somalis to be close to their own culture and people by living in Amsterdam, London, or New York.
Most significantly, perhaps, it is not clear how improved protection in regions of origin, or an expansion in the number of resettlement opportunities for bona fide refugees, will curtail the movement of people whose primary objective is to improve their material circumstances and their prospects in life. If it is the case that a large proportion of the asylum seekers who arrive in the developed regions are actually economic migrants, then it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which they would choose to enter a refugee camp in their region of origin rather than move to find work in another continent.
In conclusion, it is important to recognize that many of the world's refugees currently find themselves trapped in deteriorating circumstances, more difficult and dangerous than those which they experienced five or 10 years ago. Security has become more tenuous and levels of assistance have declined, especially in those protracted refugee situations that have been forgotten by the international community and the global media.
Providing security and long-term solutions for such refugees is a humanitarian imperative. And to the extent that it can contribute to this objective, then the notion of "protection in regions of origin" must be welcomed. At the same time, we should not expect this approach to provide any easy answers to the asylum and migration dilemmas of the world's more prosperous states.
This article was written in a personal capacity.