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Closing the Gap

The distance between the paper guarantees of refugee children’s human rights and the reality most refugee children experience is enormous. How would it be possible to better align the practices of host nations, and other refugee response actors, with the human rights that the global community has agreed refugee children should enjoy? If the gap between rights on paper and rights in practice can be closed, what possibilities might emerge for refugee children? Could closing this gap allow exponentially more refugee children to enjoy a stable, fulfilling life in a country they can call home? That is, for them to be able to choose a “durable solution,” a choice currently available to only a tiny fraction of refugee children.

Asylum Access has spent the last decade in pursuit of this vision. Its belief is that making human rights a reality for refugee children and adults will open avenues that allow them to access durable solutions when and as they choose. The team also is aware of the politics around durable solutions, particularly around local integration. Unlike repatriation and resettlement, local integration is considered an unmentionable solution. In conversations with humanitarian aid providers and US resettlement agencies, I have been told that simply uttering the words “local integration” will end conversations and close doors—with host governments, donor governments, other aid agencies, and the UNHCR.

As a result, Asylum Access has generally proceeded cautiously when it comes to discussing local integration with refugee-hosting governments. It is understood that government officials in refugee-hosting countries may be reluctant to discuss (or to be seen to discuss) the subject. Most commonly, political unpopularity, or concern about integration’s shortterm costs, prevent discussions. In practice, however, I have not found local integration such a “third rail” as predicted. Host governments, in particular, face the obvious reality that refugees are remaining in their countries, often for decades or generations. To shy away from the idea that refugees might be, if not integrated, then at least present side-by-side with locals seems to defy reality. Integration of refugees is rarely a high priority for a government official because refugees are not voters; however, in many contexts, officials may be more willing to consider integration than is commonly assumed.

That said, Asylum Access’s discussions with refugee-hosting governments have primarily urged policies that acknowledge and, where possible, capitalize on the realities of refugee displacement. The focus has been on ensuring that host governments understand refugees may be present in their countries for decades or generations, thus to develop the legal and practical frameworks to safeguard that these refugees’ rights are not violated. Asylum Access’s arguments are pragmatic: Refugees are a de facto part of the country’s current society. This reality is likely to continue for a significant length of time. Therefore, the government should adopt policies appropriate to this reality.[1] The question of whether this situation is “permanent” in a categorical sense is usually left unaddressed.

  • [1] Asylum Access’s arguments to host governments also are pragmatic in another sense: We frequently employ arguments centered not on refugees’ human rights under international law, but onthe economic, social, and political interests of the host government. For example, in urging governments to allow refugees to work, we may point to research that shows permitting refugees to worklawfully offers economic benefits, while prohibiting refugees from working forces them into informal arrangements that tend to drive down wages and working conditions for all workers.
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