Refugee Burden-Sharing: A Modest Proposal, Fifteen Years Later

44 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2013 Last revised: 24 Oct 2013

Date Written: July 1, 2013


This paper, written for a conference on immigration and the future of the nation-state and convened by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, begins by briefly summarizing the first two sections of an earlier article (Schuck, “Refugee Burden-Sharing: A Modest Proposal,” 22 Yale Journal of International Law 243 (1997), which described (1) the refugee protection system, and (2) the large-scale effort to resettle large numbers of refugees from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War and the Cambodian atrocities. I then suggest that the refugee problem continues to be dire today, with large refugee flows arising from conflicts in Africa, Syria, and south Asia. I then reprise my earlier analysis of four remedial strategies: root cause, repatriation, temporary protection, and permanent resettlement, concluding that temporary protection, where possible, is the superior approach but recognizing the reality that resettlement will often be the only practicable remedy in the long run. I next describe the main elements of my burden-sharing proposal: the principle of burden-sharing; a needs assessment process; the criteria for allocating protection quotas among states; the trading scheme; and the international authority that would be necessary to administer these elements. I then consider three objections to my scheme: unworkability; quality of protection; and commodification. The principal goal of my proposal was the humanitarian one of maximizing the total number of refugees who would be given protection. Achieving this paramount goal entails making some difficult tradeoffs, both practical and moral – tradeoffs that critics of the proposal, including most recently Michael Sandel, fail to fully confront.

The paper goes on to present new research, largely drawn from UNHCR’s experiences, describing various arrangements among states post-1997 that actually look to a sharing of refugee protection burdens. None of these involves the kind of trading scheme that I proposed in my earlier article. Instead, they are based on the exchange of quid pro quos of various sorts. These arrangements shed light on the practical impediments to my approach, and on the geopolitical conditions with which any reform proposal must inevitably grapple.

Suggested Citation

Schuck, Peter H., Refugee Burden-Sharing: A Modest Proposal, Fifteen Years Later (July 1, 2013). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 480, Available at SSRN:

Peter H. Schuck (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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