The UN "Surrogate State" and the Foundation of Refugee Policy in the Middle East

Michael Kagan
Vol. 18
February 2013
Page 307

Many challenges surrounding refugee protection relate to a de facto shift of responsibility from sovereign governments to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to directly administer refugee policy. This phenomenon is legally anomalous, and it is UNHCR policy to avoid the operation of such “parallel structures.” Yet the existence of a UN “surrogate state” offers important advantages to some host governments, which makes state-toUNHCR responsibility shift difficult to reverse. Using the Arab Middle East as a case study, this article argues that, while not ideal, UNHCR’s state substitution role offers important symbolic and material benefits to governments that host refugees and should not always be treated as an anomaly. Addressing challenges inherent in state-to-UN responsibility shift will be a key task if any government in the wake of the Arab Spring seeks to improve its system of refugee reception and protection. Responsibility shift can sometimes offer a more viable political foundation for refugee protection than conventional notions of state responsibility.

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