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The Limits of the Limits of Idealism: Rethinking American Refugee Policy in an Insecure World

Harvard Law and Policy Review, Vol. 1, p. 401, 2007

Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 1072662

30 Pages Posted: 14 Dec 2007 Last revised: 20 Feb 2008

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar

Stanford Law School; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies


Although the global refugee population has dropped by a third since 1980, to 8.4 million, serious refugee problems continue to fester throughout the world. Most refugees live a marginal existence in sprawling camps in the developing world where they are subject to the threat of violent attacks from combatants, coercion, and banditry. Millions of internally displaced people are on the verge of becoming refugees if they cross international borders. And the civil strife, official brutality, persecution, and ethnic cleansing currently fueling refugee flows show no signs of abating. These realities raise important questions about the role of geostrategic interests and humanitarian goals in a world of competing nation-states, and particularly about the role of the United States in addressing global refugee problems.

In response, this essay makes three points. First, despite its historic focus on asylum and resettlement, American refugee policy - which constitutes a major part of the global response to mass human displacement - should focus more than it currently does on the millions of refugees living in camps in the developing world. Only a tiny fraction of the refugee population ever makes it to an advanced industrialized country; the fate of those left behind can impact the spread of conflict, atrocity, and political instability around the world. Second, American officials could enhance refugee policy by adopting a number of strategies sensitive to institutional and political constraints. These include enhancing bureaucratic capacity to identify and resettle refugees through existing U.S. resettlement programs, focusing greater funding and attention on policing in refugee camps, and preparing for potential refugee influxes in this hemisphere by designing responses that honor international legal commitments but realistically provide for international cooperation in meeting refugee burdens. Third, arguments advocating the primacy of national interests over humanitarian goals do not settle - but instead simply raise - the question of how humanitarian policies relate to the interests of the domestic public. At least one principled answer to that question would focus on how a pragmatic, strategic approach to humanitarian problems supports substantial American engagement with refugee problems, whether these arise nearby in the Caribbean or across the world in Darfur. Idealism without limits is all but impossible. But a policy of limits without idealism in a world capable of engendering such capacious misery and expectations of American leadership poses its own dangers.

Keywords: Refugees, international law, humanitarianism, bureaucracy, political economy, international security, American foreign policy

Suggested Citation

Cuéllar, Mariano-Florentino, The Limits of the Limits of Idealism: Rethinking American Refugee Policy in an Insecure World. Harvard Law and Policy Review, Vol. 1, p. 401, 2007; Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 1072662. Available at SSRN:

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

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Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies ( email )

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