Trouble viewing? Open in web browser.

Journalist Resources Stanford News Stanford Experts Contact Us
Stanford University homepage

News Service

May 13, 2015

Global community should respond to Middle East refugee crisis now, Stanford expert says

Stanford visiting scholar Beth Van Schaack says that the world community must respond to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis with a long-range perspective.

By Clifton B. Parker

Refugee children from Syria attend a clinic in Ramtha, Jordan. Beth Van Schaack, a visiting professor in human rights at Stanford Law School, says the international community should take steps now to address the problems faced by millions of refugees, especially in the Middle East. (Russell Watkins / UK Department for International Development)

Conflicts in the Middle East have spawned a refugee crisis that the global community must address decisively, a Stanford expert says.

Thousands of migrants have already died this year trying to make the journey to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. This week, the European Commission is expected to propose that member countries take in refugees under a quota scheme.

But much more needs to be done, according to Beth Van Schaack, the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at the Stanford Law School. Van Schaack is a former State Department official and an expert on human rights, criminal law, humanitarian law, victims' rights and crimes against humanity.

The Stanford News Service recently interviewed her about the refugee issue.

How can the global community provide better assistance and protection to refugees in the Middle East? 

The international community needs to mount a comprehensive response, one that addresses the immediate humanitarian crisis posed by the massive transit and influx of migrants as well as the underlying circumstances that are causing people to flee their homelands in the first place – persecution, political instability, armed conflict and under-development. This problem of refugee flows is not merely an Italian problem, or even a European problem – it is an international problem. Countries need to cooperate at all steps along these migration pathways to ensure the well-being and security of migrants, to prosecute those who would exploit these people in their time of greatest need, and to devise more permanent solutions to the underlying problems that are causing people to embark upon these perilous journeys toward Europe.

Do people have a basic right to seek protection as a refugee in other countries? 

A number of international treaties and norms offer protection to individuals seeking refuge abroad.  The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines "refugee" as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to return home for fear of persecution. This treaty and other human rights treaties embody the humanitarian principle of non-refoulement, which dictates that states cannot expel or return a person to a country where their freedom would be threatened. This prohibition is non-derogable, which is to say that no circumstances justify departing from it, including instances of mass influx and mixed flows containing refugees and economic migrants. 

What about European obligations?

States in Europe are also governed by a regional treaty – the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – which creates certain due process protections for individuals within European jurisdiction and by other universal human rights treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which are implicated by this crisis due to the high numbers of unaccompanied migrants.

People who may qualify as refugees are entitled to an "individualized determination" of their rights under international law that adheres to universal due process principles. Although individualized determinations are difficult in mass influx situations, states must create temporary protective measures to care for individuals before they are able to avail themselves of the procedural rights to which they are entitled, to petition for refugee status and formal asylum. This system does not tolerate forcible returns of individuals to their place of departure or home countries.

What about the long-term future of the refugees? 

At the regional level, the European Union is finally moving toward a more responsible and united approach.  Indeed, a European proposal is circulating this week within the UN Security Council to enable European patrols to seize and destroy vessels that are being used to smuggle or traffic persons. Although this program will likely make some dent in the number of ships at sea, it does so at the risk of trapping vulnerable people in embarkation points in Libya and elsewhere, where they remain highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Such a proposal needs to be coupled with more comprehensive solutions for migrants before they take to sea.

To this end, the EU has developed a shared fund to help defray the costs associated with the current crisis. This includes assisting governments in building and maintaining a fair asylum, protection and border management system, enhancing the ability of destination countries to integrate and resettle migrants, and mobilizing political and financial support worldwide.

At the international level, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is a subsidiary organ of the U.N. General Assembly, has a special responsibility to protect refugees and other displaced persons. Members of the Refugee Convention have a duty to cooperate with UNHCR to devise fair and workable solutions. The International Organization for Migration has also become engaged with this issue, calling for an international investigation into shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea that caused the death of hundreds of people.

A number of organizations dedicated to the phenomenon of human trafficking are also working to assist individuals who have been trafficked for the purpose of providing cheap labor or for sexual exploitation.

What are the issues involved in resettling large numbers of refugees in host countries? 

Obviously, Europe is faced with a daunting challenge, given the number of people fleeing the region and trying to get to Europe.  For a long time, Italy was largely fending for itself.  The EU has finally become increasingly engaged and is exploring a number of measures.  These include resettlement quotas to share burdens more equitably when it comes to people who make it to European shores.  The EU is also coordinating the establishment of liaison offices at habitual departure points, establishing maritime surveillance to track ships before they become unseaworthy or are abandoned by their crews, and undertaking joint search-and-rescue operations. These efforts have been hindered by the persistent political unrest and violence in Libya. The United States and others should assist in these efforts, politically and financially.

For more Stanford experts on law and other topics, visit Stanford Experts.



Beth Van Schaack, Stanford Law School: (650) 498-6526,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Update your subscription

  • Email:
  • Phone: (650) 723-2558

More Stanford coverage

Facebook Twitter iTunes YouTube Futurity RSS

Journalist Resources Stanford News Stanford Experts Contact Us

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305. (650) 723-2300.