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Debate: UN Refugee Efforts, US attitude to

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Should the US cooperate more with UN refugee policies?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Tara Mounce. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

Recently the US has seemed reluctant to let the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) take the lead on international refugee issues. While the issue of condom distribution in refugee camps has long been a point of conflict between the UN and Republican US administrations, new developments have included the setting of target figures for the number of refugees to be accepted, which have been seen by some as conflicting with the sudden and unpredictable nature of refugee crises. Similarly, there has been conflict over resettlement and forced repatriation. The question posed by this debate is who is in the best position to assess and respond to the needs of refugees.

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Argument #1

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Yes

The United Nation is the only legally recognised source of international authority. As refugees are an international problem they fall within its responsibility. It is therefore morally unacceptable for the US to ignore or try to avoid the responsibilities given to it by the consensus of global opinion that the UN represents.

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No

The United States' government’s primary responsibility under the US constitution is to its own citizens. If their interests or wishes diverge from international opinions then there is little reason for international opinion to win out. This is particularly important given that the UN’s decision-making processes are far from transparent or legitimate in many cases (for example, many countries' votes are cast by un-elected dictators). Overall, it is more moral for the US government to do what it thinks is right rather than what is internationally acceptable.

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Argument #2

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Yes

By their very nature, refugee problems are international and therefore are best responded to internationally. It is hard for NGOs and governments to coordinate their responses if they all work under different legal frameworks, often with different definitions of what constitutes a refugee. Uniformity of approach allows for a more speedy and comprehensive response to unfolding problems, something that can mean the difference between life and death for large numbers of people at moments of acute crisis.

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No

The refugee problem does not pose the same problem to all countries. For example, a rich country like the USA, with generous social security provisions and work opportunities, is much more at risk of economic migrants falsely posing as asylum seekers than a poorer country. Similarly, countries positioned next to conflict zones will have different needs to those, like the USA, who are far removed from conflict ridden areas. Given these variations it is not clear that one, UN-led policy will be appropriate or effective if imposed on all countries.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The biggest US objections to UN policies are that they are expensive and potentially pose a threat to national security. Both of these complaints are self-interested and appear petty in contrast to the genuine humanitarian needs of refugees. Further to this both objections are subjective judgements (how much is too expensive? how great are the risks?) and have not been sufficiently proved by the US government.

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No

UN refugee policies have been found wasteful and ineffective by numerous assessments, including the UN’s own audits. UN policy has even been implicated in initiating some refugee crises by implementing inappropriate policies. There is no need for the US to back a failing policy, or to give the UN a blank cheque for future action.

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Argument #4

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Yes

If the USA is seen to fulfil its humanitarian commitments first it will put it in a better position to pursue its international political ambitions. By contributing to all areas of UN policy the US appears more impartial when it is critical or raises specific objections, whereas currently it can be accused of hypocrisy for not being fully committed to other aspects of UN work.

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No

Whether or not the USA fulfils all its humanitarian obligations, its ambition to be a global policeman and prosecute the ‘War on Terror’ will still remain controversial. If people resent the USA’ predominance, they will not necessarily connect that with or care about any amount of humanitarian work.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The USA is the world’s largest economy but is also a geographically spacious state. These resources are essential if we are to tackle the huge challenges posed by existing and future refugee problems. By denying its support, the USA can effectively veto UN refugee policies as it leaves too big a gap to be filled by smaller, less well-endowed nations.

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No

The greatest problems facing refugees are usually political rather than financial. Firstly, refugees are often displaced by violent political disturbances (like civil wars), and secondly, they often fail to access humanitarian aid because neighbouring countries refuse to recognise them as needing asylum and therefore turn them away at the borders. Both these problems require political rather than financial solutions and must be tackled first before money can make any real difference.

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Argument #6

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Yes

The USA was founded by migrants and its culture is based on the experience of such migrations. Many US citizens today are descended from refugees who saw the USA as a safe place to flee religious or political persecution. Given this cultural context the USA should be at the forefront of refugee protection though supporting the UN. It should not merely taken in groups whose desperate situation is the result of failed US policy.

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No

UN policy on refugees erodes US autonomy and independence thereby diminishing its identity and founding characteristics. By agreeing to follow the UN line, the USA loses the ability to react independently to given crises as it was able to at its foundation. In the recent past the USA has been generous in welcoming in refugee groups such as the Hmong, Vietnamese boat people and Cuban dissidents, but it should retain the sovereign right to judge each case on its merits and respond accordingly.

Motions

  • This House would follow the UN line on refugees
  • This House believes that the UN not the US should lead on refugee policy
  • The United States should increase its commitment to United Nations refugee initiatives

See also

External links and resources:

Books

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