Blog post written by Dr Sarah Deardorff Miller, Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Colombia University, Senior Fellow with Refugees International, and a Module Convenor on RLI’s MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. This post contributes to a series of blog posts analysing the potential and shortcomings of the Global Compact on Refugees.

It is widely known that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by a small number of countries, most of which are poorly equipped to protect and assist their own populations, let alone refugees.  For this reason, responsibility sharing has been a top priority of the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR).  But what will it take for the GCR to make a meaningful change in the way responsibility for refugees is viewed, and how will we know if progress is being made?  This post reviews what we—as a community of academics, practitioners, and policy advocates–actually mean when referring to responsibility sharing, as well as some of the history around it.  It then considers some of the challenges and potential of how the GCR might improve responsibility sharing.

Defining Responsibility Sharing

What are we actually talking about when referring to responsibility sharing? Is it merely a concept akin to a group of friends splitting the check at dinner?  Far from it, responsibility sharing is quite complex.  In the past, “responsibility sharing” has been linked with other terms, including “burden sharing,” “solidarity,” and “cooperation.”  But these are loaded terms. Betts, Costello and Zaun write that responsibility sharing is about the distribution of costs and benefits between states.  Like other scholars, they draw on public goods theory to think about refugee protection as a global public good that is characterized by non-rivalry (one actor’s consumption does not take away from the quantity available to others) and non-excludability (it is impossible to prevent anyone from using the good).  This means that when it comes to bearing responsibility for refugees, all states benefit from a state’s contribution (protecting and assisting refugees) regardless of their own contribution.  This, they note, means “strong incentives for free-riding in the absence of robust institutional mechanisms to coordinate provision.”

The reality of responsibility sharing is even more complex in practice.  Actors are not in agreement on what they are taking responsibility for: is it simply the provision of asylum?  What type of financial assistance counts?  Does it include non-refugees, too?  Betts, Costello and Zaun also note that the responsibility-sharing challenge is made worse by power asymmetries and a combination of geography and policy: states closer to refugee situations have little choice but to open their borders whether they like it or not.  States far away (many of which are wealthy) can prevent refugees from reaching their borders and attempt to contain displacement to regions of origin.


While recent trends in the humanitarian world (including the World Humanitarian Summit, 3RP, New Way of Working, the 2018 Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, 2016 London donor conference) are heavily focused on responsibility sharing, the topic is hardly new.  Since the 1951 Refugee Convention, sharing responsibility for refugees has been “the” question, and has been extensively studied.  As Turks writes, responsibility sharing has been recognized the Charter of the United Nations, the 1951 Convention, UN General Assembly resolutions, and ExCom Conclusions.

Scholarship on examples like the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA, 1989), the International Conferences to Assist Refugees in Africa (ICARA I and II), the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme of Kosovars (HEP, 1999) and the Indochinese Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA, 1981, 1984) highlights what has contributed to successful responsibility sharing in the past. Yet, we, as a community focused on displacement, would be remiss not to acknowledge the current global climate: rhetoric toward refugees seems as negative as it has ever been.  As Michael Doyle writes,

“We live in times that are profoundly hostile to multilateral cooperation, with Trump, Putin, and Xi in leadership positions among the three great powers. Senior officials in the Trump administration even make anti-multilateralism a matter of principle.1 The voluntarism of the Refugee Compact – expressed in each State setting its own goals for responsibility sharing and then reviewing its own performance – may thus be the best that we can do today. But is it enough?”

The aspirations of the GCR seem ironic in the face of these political realities.

How can the GCR actually foster RS? In what ways might it further foster responsibility sharing?

Successful responsibility sharing needs tools to overcome the collective action failures of the current global refugee regime.  The GCR does not provide a precise pathway to do this—it is not a panacea—but there are some promising steps in the right direction.

First, the GCR lays out a Global Refugee Forum as a way to improve responsibility sharing.  It is scheduled to take place every four years, and intends to provide UN member states to make financial and nonfinancial pledges towards implementing the GCR.  This builds on other recent trends and developments in the global refugee regime that have also aimed to build up responsibility sharing among actors.  Some include the New Way of Working, Whole of Society Approach, Cluster Approach, WHS and some regional response plans.

Among the most promising improvement in responsibility sharing fostered by the GCR is the involvement of development actors at earlier stages of displacement.  Longstanding calls for bridging the relief-development gap/nexus/divide are hardly new.  But new involvement by development actors like the World Bank do mark turning points in responsibility sharing—both in terms of those actors sharing responsibility, and as those actors provide incentives for states to share more responsibility.  The World Bank, for example, has recently provided funding through it’s IDA18 refugee sub-window program, whereby countries hosting refugees for protracted periods can receive loans and grants from the Bank to better respond to refugees and those hosting them.  Various Bank programs, including jobs compacts and livelihoods opportunities, are meant to benefit both groups, and to further entwine refugees into national development agendas, as opposed to separate humanitarian siloes.  The involvement of development actors could thus be an important step in improving responsibility sharing, and the GCR encourages this.  As UNHCR notes, development support is a form of burden sharing.

Regional approaches are also receiving extensive attention among the global refugee response community, and the GCR also highlights regional responses.  It also calls for a partnership and a multi-stakeholder approach, as well as improvements to data and evidence.

The Support Platform within the GCR is intended to provide host countries an opportunity to galvanize political and financial commitments and to mobilize assistance in response to large-scale, complex, or protracted situations to mobilize financial, material, and technical assistance, and to facilitate humanitarian responses.  A state could thus call for a context-specific solidarity conference to generate additional support for a comprehensive plan.

Resettlement, though it only reaches a small number of the global refugee population, is an important responsibility-sharing symbol.  The GCR pays specific attention to ways that states might consider sharing responsibility through resettlement schemes.  In Canada, for example, private resettlement sponsorship schemes have worked well to increase the number of refugees resettled and to better support refugees in their new lives in Canada.

What more could be done?

The GCR is a step in the right direction in terms of responsibility sharing, but research shows that more could be done.  Some scholars argue that opportunities to improve responsibility sharing should come from other issue areas like climate change.  These might provide insights into how to link the positive benefits of hosting refugees to political gains for the host country.  It may even mean peer pressure or incentivizing countries to offer protection and assistance to refugees seeking asylum, and would certainly include greater attention to root causes and durable solutions.  Scholars like Turk agree, emphasizing a more holistic approach, which looks back to root causes and plans for development solutions from the beginning—a topic that has also been a focus of the GCR and New York Declaration.

Still other research shows that strategies that include issue-linkage, whereby political interests of various countries are tied to providing assistance and protection to refugees.  More recent aspirational documents, like the Model International Mobility Convention have suggested allocating responsibility shares.  This might mean looking at something like what the Development Assistance Research Associates created to develop an index that measures countries’ contributions to refugee situations—something that others like Betts, Costello and Zaun, as well as Milner, Miller and others have also questioned.  Betts, Costello and Zaun also encourage new thinking, such as matching refugees and their skills, and subsidizing private investment to further responsibility sharing. They argue for a design with centralized coordination and situation-specific responses, with a mixture of private-public approaches. Some even argue for a new convention beyond 1967—one that expands the category of persons to whom international protection should be extended, with greater linkages between humanitarian and development actors, and moving beyond solutions that use state-based concepts of membership.

What are some of the specific challenges?

The challenges that the GCR leaves unanswered include questions around who we are talking about when thinking about responsibility sharing.  The conversation tends to be centered on states, as it should be.  But there are renewed calls for responsibility sharing among private sector, development and other actors.  The GCR mentions these, but it remains difficult to delineate responsibilities.

The GCR’s narrow scope also does not further understanding on how responsibility sharing should work for other groups like IDPs (arguably a group for whom responsibility is the most clear cut: they are, after all, still in their country of origin and thus that state has responsibility for them).  Granted, the GCR is narrow in scope by design and cannot be expected to define responsibility sharing for all groups, but it remains a gap.  Moreover, as Harley points out, what responsibilities are we actually talking about, and how can they be measured fairly (should it be measured by GDP? Population? Resettlement slots offered, or just plain financial and material assistance?).  Should “points” be deducted from states that helped to cause displacement? And how will the Support Platform operate, when it appears to be ad hoc and overseen by UNHCR?

Likewise resettlement, though an important ingredient for responsibility sharing, can also be problematic and the GCR does not necessarily have answers to some of these issues.  As Betts, Costello and Zaun write,

“…the framing in the Refugee Compact leaves much of the undesirable status quo around resettlement unquestioned. It assumes a sharp distinction between flight (for protection) and onward movement (for a solution), and so is part of the problematic framing of onward mobility in the regime tainted by containment. At present, since refugee resettlement only benefits a miniscule proportion of refugees, it acts both practically and symbolically to bolster refugee containment. Practically, in some contexts, the vague prospect of resettlement incentivizes refugees to endure protracted encampment and other human rights violations. Symbolically, resettlement acts as the ‘queue’ which refugees who move in search of decent conditions are framed as skipping. Institutionally, resettlement denies refugee agency. Refugees may not usually even apply to be resettled, nor do they have any say in its workings.”


It is too soon to know if the GCR will overcome some of the main obstacles to responsibility sharing.  The largely process-driven GCR makes strides in the right direction, but certainly will not cure many of the problems preventing responsibility sharing from happening more fully.

What is clear is that refugee protection needs to be at the core.  Further work needs to be done—in scholarship, policy and practice—on how to respond to the core issues holding states back from sharing responsibility for refugees.  This includes a realistic look at time—states are hesitant to commit to hosting refugees for undefined lengths of time.  And with most refugee situations being protracted and many durable solutions increasingly out of reach, states seek assurances that their protection and assistance to refugees will not be unending.

Continued specification also needs to evolve, including who, beyond states, should take on which responsibilities, when and how.  The role of UNHCR also continues to evolve in relation to who responds to refugee protection needs and how, and this will be interesting to explore as the field of actors responding to refugees is more crowded: development actors, IOM and other NGOs who have not traditionally worked in the refugee space are increasingly present.

Finally, states that still uphold the values of refugee protection must continue to take leadership.  The US has largely retracted its leadership in relation to refugees in recent years, but other states, like Canada, have stepped up and must continue to lead.  Indeed, states that prevent asylum claims or attempt to externalize movement are incompatible with responsibility sharing.  Without political commitments to these norms, improvements on responsibility sharing will be difficult.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.