The notion of "burden-sharing" in relation to refugees has a checkered history. The concept started life in the 1950s as a principle for promoting international solidarity among states receiving refugees. But over the past decade it has been used—or abused—by different protagonists to justify quite divergent policies: from the dispersal of asylum seekers or refugees among countries, to the evacuation of Kosovar refugees from Macedonia, to more recent proposals for reinforcing protection of refugees in their region of origin. Indeed, the concept has been so widely applied as to almost lose coherence. That said, it has proved remarkably resilient, surviving attempts to replace it with more euphemistic notions of "solidarity" or "balance of efforts." So what is the enduring appeal of this concept, and does it have a future?
The 1950s Concept
"Burden-sharing" was first used to refer to the need for sharing responsibility for protection of refugees in situations of mass influx. The preamble to the United Nation's 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states that granting asylum "may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries," implying the need for "international cooperation." Since then, this has been interpreted as requiring two main sorts of action. The first has been providing financial assistance for countries of asylum—usually less-developed states—to help them with the care and maintenance of refugees, mainly through funding the activities of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in countries of asylum.
The second type of action has involved what might be termed "physical" as opposed to financial burden-sharing: i.e., the dispersal of refugees among states. This type of "resettlement" approach was adopted to deal with the refugee crisis triggered by the Hungarian uprising in 1956, those fleeing Chile after the Pinochet coup in 1973, or schemes for resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from 1979 onwards.
Over the same period, dispersal systems were also being applied at the national level in a number of refugee-receiving countries, although not always under the rubric of "burden-sharing." Since the 1940s, West Germany and its reunfied successor state has been distributing refugees and asylum seekers among its federal states in proportion to the population of each state; Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK have also introduced more or less comprehensive asylum seeker dispersal schemes among different regions. Most of these systems are justified on the grounds that the concentration of asylum seekers in particular areas puts pressure on finite social goods, or creates social tensions—implying that financial transfers alone will not ensure an equitable distribution of the costs of receiving asylum seekers.
European Debates Since the 1990s
National dispersal practices were among the factors that inspired proposals in the 1990s for burden-sharing at the European level. There were two main strands to this debate:
Intra-EU Burden-sharing. First came a discussion on possible forms of burden-sharing of refugees or asylum seekers among European Union (EU) states. In 1994, Germany proposed a system of physical dispersal of temporary protection seekers, under which people would be dispersed among EU countries based on criteria of population, GDP, and size of territory. The proposal was rejected in this form, but a watered-down version did feature in subsequent EU legislation on temporary protection. This version called for states to take into account that responsibility for temporary protection seekers should be "shared on a balanced basis in a spirit of solidarity."
Since then, various mechanisms for distributing refugees or the costs of receiving them have been mooted, and a number adopted. In 1997, the European Refugee Fund was set up to provide financial assistance to EU states receiving large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees. The Kosovo Evacuation Programme in 2000 represented an attempt to promote physical burden-sharing among European states of Kosovar refugees staying in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), although it was based on unilateral quotas rather than a binding system.
A number of EU countries have also viewed harmonization of asylum legislation as a means of ensuring a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers among states. The idea is that countries with relatively generous asylum systems attract more asylum seekers, implying that a convergence of laws in this area would lead to a more just distribution. One could classify this as a form of indirect burden-sharing, whereby redistribution is achieved by trying to address the causes of the current inequitable pattern of distribution. The goal of burden-sharing was also codified in the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, although by this time the EU had abandoned the phrase in favor of the looser principle of "promoting a balance of efforts" among states.
Table 1: Examples of Burden-sharing Mechanisms
International Burden-sharing. The second set of issues in European burden-sharing debates has been the question of distributing costs among European states and asylum countries in regions of origin. As we have seen, the notion of burden-sharing first came into being as a principle of solidarity with first countries of asylum struggling to assist large numbers of refugees from neighboring countries. But as western European countries became increasingly concerned about the political and socio-economic costs of asylum and temporary protection systems, this notion began to take on a more explicitly self-interested dimension. So-called "reception in the region" was seen as a means of reducing refugee flows to Europe. Ensuring a higher standard of protection and assistance in refugee camps nearer to places of origin, it was argued, would imply reduced costs for western European states. In this sense, it was a form of indirect burden-sharing, whereby better financing of regional refugee camps would provide a greater incentive for refugees to stay in their regions of origin. Somewhat perversely, the classic 1950s concept of burden-sharing was being revived to relieve richer asylum countries of responsibility.
A number of proposals for reception in the region have been debated since the early 1990s. The more modest have argued for providing additional resources for the care and maintenance of refugees in regions of origin. More ambitious models have advocated the establishment of "safe havens" or "safe areas" to provide protection for refugees fleeing civil conflict. Other proposals have suggested establishing "internationally protected areas" (IPAs), which would be leased from host countries by the UN or groups of states. Most recently, the UK has come up with a number of proposals for reception in the region. Particularly controversial has been the idea of "transit camps" in the Balkans or Ukraine where asylum applications for EU countries would be processed. A second proposal for setting up "zones of protection" in regions of origin—starting with a pilot project in the Horn of Africa—was discussed at the June 2003 European Council summit, but rejected by Sweden and Germany.
The most frequent criticism of these proposals for reception in the region is that they would dilute European states' commitment to refugee protection by making it more difficult for refugees to gain access to these countries. But critics have also been concerned that acting on such proposals will have the effect of shifting more responsibility for reception of refugees onto countries less equipped to deal with it. Thus, many have argued that this sounds more like "shifting" than "sharing." It is a more-or-less blatant attempt to off-load politically sensitive problems onto developing countries.
Assessment: What Is the Burden, and How Is It to Be Shared?
Given the plethora of different proposals and mechanisms for burden-sharing, it can be difficult to sort through which are legitimate or workable. One central question is that of the criteria for distribution. Distribution may be based on two different types of consideration: justice-based or outcome-based. Justice-based systems will typically base distribution on static indicators such as receiving-country GDP, population, or size of territory. By contrast, outcome-based indicators are more concerned with the consequences of hosting refugees or asylum seekers: for example, the repercussions of reception and assistance on inter-ethnic relations or security, or on the standard of protection and assistance received by refugees or asylum seekers themselves.
Table 2: Distribution Criteria
In both cases, it is clear why countries that stand to gain from burden-sharing schemes would be motivated to participate in such a system. But what about those countries that would be required to accept more of the burden than in the absence of such a system? One important motive for participation may be what one might term the insurance factor: a burden-sharing system is a way of ensuring that in the worst-case scenario of massive influx, the burden would be shared with other countries.
But the crux of the matter is not just what constitutes "sharing," but also how one defines the "burden" to be distributed. If the "burdens" imposed by receiving large numbers of refugees were simply financial, in some cases it could be sensible for richer countries to pay poorer ones to assist refugees. Financial transfers could relieve Western countries of a politically sensitive problem, and countries in the region might be happy to receive increased financial assistance. As long as protection standards were met, this could be a positive-sum solution.
But this ignores the fact that where large numbers of refugees are received in areas of acute poverty or escalating civil conflict, the effects can be highly destabilizing. This was made abundantly clear in the case of the humanitarian evacuation from FYROM. While EU countries had originally been set on finding a "regional" solution to the refugee crisis in Kosovo, they had to opt instead for inter-regional burden-sharing because of the risk of the escalation of ethnic conflict in Macedonia.
The problem is that in many first countries of asylum, the societal tensions caused by the presence of refugees are not always adequately articulated or managed through democratic channels. Authoritarian governments may in any case place greater weight on securing financial assistance or political backing from rich donor countries, than on responding to local grievances about the presence of refugees. This implies that while receiving countries may not always be as vociferous in their objections to hosting refugees, the tensions are nonetheless there, and potentially far more explosive. The lesson for Western governments is to be cautious about shifting responsibility for reception to less prosperous or unstable states. It may be a quick route to mollifying electorates at home, but it can have damaging repercussions for refugee protection and for stability in regions of origin. Developed countries would therefore do well to pay more attention to outcome-based distribution criteria—the impact of inter-regional burden-sharing not only on protection, but also on internal conflict and security.