from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Global Humanitarian Regime: Priorities and Prospects for Reform

Insights From a CFR Workshop

April 26, 2016


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Humanitarian Intervention

Global Governance


A record sixty million people are currently displaced globally, primarily as a result of violent conflicts. Displaced populations are more mobile than ever before, thanks to new transportation methods and communication technologies. These factors were unforeseen when the global humanitarian regime—which encompasses the policies and organizations that govern international humanitarian prevention efforts and responses—emerged in the wake of World War II. The rapid escalation of refugee flows in 2015, coupled with the protracted nature of today's conflicts, has strained the humanitarian regime to the breaking point, tested the reception systems of states, and called into question the protections afforded to refugees. 

The Council on Foreign Relations hosted a workshop to examine the challenges facing the global humanitarian regime. This report, which you can download here, summarizes the discussion's highlights. The report reflects the views of workshop participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues.

Framing Questions for the Workshop

The Current State of the Global Humanitarian Regime

What are the biggest shortcomings in the global regime for assisting refugees, as demonstrated by the European crisis and other humanitarian emergencies? Is the 1951 Refugee Convention still viable or does it need to be updated? What are some potential challenges of reopening the convention? How has technology affected migration patterns? What is the current state of international coordination on global refugee issues and how adequate is this coordination? How can humanitarian actors better access and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs)? Are current mechanisms for financing humanitarian emergency response sustainable? Should the United States and the United Nations regard recent massive population movements as a blip or an ongoing trend?

Strengthening the Humanitarian Regime: Priorities for Institutional Reform

What reforms to the international legal regime for refugees are warranted? How can international and regional organizations enhance national capacities for processing asylum applications? Can refugees be assets to local communities and markets? If so, how can they be integrated to become self-reliant economic actors? How might humanitarian aid responses be better linked with development efforts in long-term refugee situations? Is there a way to place global humanitarian assistance on a firmer financial footing? What changes in U.S. government policies toward refugees and humanitarian aid are warranted? What can be done at the international level to improve coordination on refugee issues?