Deepening Democracy, Deepening Divides: Can democracy and the international refugee regime coexist?

Waiting and hoping (Photo credit: Flickr cc)

A report on deepening democracy released by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security recognised that the enfranchisement of displaced populations, including refugees, ‘is critical for ensuring the integrity of elections and the establishment of democracy’. But this statement belies a deeper interaction, and even conflict, between the international refugee regime[1] and democracy.

What would ‘deepening democracy’ mean for the refugee regime? I suggest that strengthening democratic institutions could deepen divides between refugees and host communities. To ensure that the international refugee regime and democracy can successfully co-exist, we must think not just of deepening democracy, but of also balancing it with the rights of refugees.

Democracy and the International Refugee Regime: An uneasy relationship

The tension between democracy and the refugee regime can be seen on two levels. The first is the equation of democracy with human rights, as is evident in the Global Commission’s report, which describes elections as ‘tests of human rights’. States, however, were not created to serve the interests of all humanity, but rather those of a particular community: its citizens, or demos. Conversely, the refugee regime depends on states recognising the international right to asylum of non-citizens. When the interests of the citizen and the non-citizen clash, it is the citizen who often has the priority. Democratic processes may therefore not be a test of human rights, but rather the rights of the demos.

The Global Commission further recognises a need to increase the participation of ‘people everywhere…in the political decisions that affect them’. This is particularly salient for refugees, who are deeply impacted by the decisions of the host countries in which they live, and yet are disenfranchised from democratic decision-making. Refugees can only indirectly participate in democratic institutions through citizens who push for policies that safeguard refugee rights. The Global Commission’s call for wider enfranchisement is thus more feasible for those who remain internally displaced in their country of citizenship than for those who flee internationally as refugees.

A Case in Two Points: Canadian refugee policy

These two points of tension can be seen in the refugee policy of my home country, Canada, which has recently undergone several restrictive reforms. One of these reforms is the introduction of a ‘Designated Countries of Origin’ (DCO) list, which identifies particular states as ‘safe’. A country is considered ‘safe’ if the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration deems it to respect human rights, offer state protection, and not ‘normally’ produce refugees. A country must also meet two quantitative thresholds regarding the outcome of refugee applications: a rejection rate of 75% or more, and an application abandonment/withdrawal rate of 60% or more.

Refugee claimants from DCO countries have a faster claims process[2], and those whose are rejected can only appeal to the Federal Court system. Failed asylum seekers may be removed from Canada while their review is still pending before the Court.

The government argues that this system is necessary to ‘deter abuse of the refugee system’, save tax dollars on unfounded claims, and ‘ensure that people in need get protection fast’. The government thus claims to protect the interests of the demos over non-citizens, who are described as a burden on the Canadian system.

Civil society groups, including Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have called on fellow citizens to reject the DCO list. They argue that it increases the risk of refoulement, or returning refugees to countries where their life or liberty may be threatened. They also posit that the DCO’s group-based approach to refugee protection violates the personal focus of international refugee law, which considers the risk to the individual based on his or her context rather the application outcome of a number of people. Detractors further state that there is no reliable way to quantify when human rights abuses are severe enough to make a country ‘unsafe’, and that the DCO list discriminates against claimants according to country of origin, which is contrary to international refugee law. The DCO list continues to attract protest from Canadian citizens, who exercise their political voice to protect refugees.

A way forward?

The Canadian case demonstrates that democracy and the refugee regime have a dynamic relationship – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I do not outline a prescriptive answer about what this relationship should look like. What I suggesting, though, is that states must fulfill their international legal obligations, including non-refoulement. If democratic institutions are to survive and thrive they must constructively respond to the realities facing the international system. Refugee flows are one of them.

It is a poor foundation to assume that stronger democracies will necessarily safeguard the rights of all, and particularly in this case, the right to asylum. Instead of simply seeking to deepen democracy, we should therefore look for a better balance between the rights of the demos and refugees in order to ensure that both can successfully coexist.

Kelly O’Connor is an MPP student at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

This post is part of our Deepening Democracy series, responding to a September 2012 report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, on improving the integrity of elections. The series is being curated by the Blavatnik School of Government and hosted on Politics in Spires. It features contributions from students on the Master of Public Policy course at the Blavatnik School, as well as guest posts from Oxford and Cambridge scholars in politics and international relations.



[1] The main components of the modern international refugee regime are the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

[2] Thirty to 45 days instead of 60 days.

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