September 2015, Power and Influence in the Global Refugee Regime Workshop, Ottawa, Canada

Power and Influence in the Global Refugee Regime Workshop

September 23-25, 2015

Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

Understanding the politics of the global refugee regime (GRR) has been a sustained area of research in the interdisciplinary field of refugee studies for more than two decades. The past 60 years have witnessed important changes in the scope and composition of the global refugee regime and, during this time, the scope of the regime has expanded to include a wider range of ‘persons of concern.’ Over three days at the recent Power and Influence in the Global Refugee Regime workshop, prominent scholars in forced migration and refugee studies, practitioners from national level NGOs, representatives from multilateral organizations and INGOs including UNHCR, IOM, OXFAM, CARE, CCR and government officials came together to discuss how power and influence may be observed and studied within the GRR before taking into consideration the influence of various states, international organizations, NGOs and other actors within the GRR. Two members of the ESPMI network attended the workshop and acted as workshop rapporteurs.

The workshop began with the presentation of a background paper written by Dr. James Milner, a professor in the Political Science department at Carleton University, which drew from the literature on international regimes and global governance to propose the analytical tools that may be used to observe and explain power and influence in the global refugee regime. The background paper set the theme for the workshop, and provided a number of central questions to guide the presentations and discussion. These questions included the following: How do different actors influence the regime – both in terms of the decisions it makes at the global level and the ability to implement these decisions in local contexts? While a range of actors seeks influence, how do we understand the factors that determine their ability to influence the regime? When? What are the mechanisms of influence? How do we observe or measure influence? Are there different forms of power that influence the decisions made at the global level and the ability to influence these decisions at the local level?

Using these guiding questions, workshop presenters considered the role of various actors and their influence within the global refugee regime. The first actors discussed were states, namely the United States, Australia and India, and non-state actors, namely UNHCR, IOM and NGOs. These are the actors that most commonly appear in analyses of the GRR. Workshop presenters considered if states, IOs and NGOs are, in fact, the only core actors in the GRR. Drawing from the experience of recent research collaborations, the actual and potential roles of traditionally less analyzed actors of influence such as epistemic communities, the private sector, diaspora communities and refugees themselves, were deliberated. The role of technology as a mechanism that may enhance or undermine power was also introduced. This was followed by a more detailed examination of the case of Canada’s experience in the global refugee regime.

Through the discussion that emerged following each panel presentation, there was clear consensus that a study of power and influence in the GRR is key to understanding how and why we observe certain outcomes; power thus deserves a more central place in analyses of the GRR. In addition to debating the influence of the more traditional actors alongside those less commonly addressed, several new points of inquiry emerged. The continued analytical emphasis on traditional actors, particularly states, NGOs and IOs, was argued to hamper a broader understanding of the patterns of influence in the global refugee regime, as participants debated whether these are still the most crucial actors to monitor and analyze. Further, participants questioned whether the ‘new’ actors discussed are truly ‘new’ in the regime. Arguably, these actors have been active for a long time, and are better understood as ‘newly recognized’ actors then ‘new’ actors; there is a notable difference between newly recognized and new. An understanding of the historical context surrounding the GRR is crucial towards appreciating the mechanisms of influence of these actors, and introduces important questions about the utility of current tools and strategies of observing and measuring power and influence in the GRR. Process tracing was introduced as a key methodological tool for better understanding where and how different forms of power interact, and where form meets the other, and what determines whose power or influence ultimately ‘wins.’ What seems to be emerging through productive use of process tracing is how actors are able to interact and shape policy at different stages in the policy formation process. Process tracing may help determine where influence originates, and what other actors direct, capture or channel the efforts of the primary actor of influence. Further, because the nature of the relationships between traditional actors, for example the IOM and UNHCR, is still not well understood, a careful study of the relations between organizations, and the nuanced politics within organizations in conjunction with consideration of the historical and situational setting within which organizations in the GRR operate is important to illuminating the mechanisms of influence of different actors in the regime, both in terms of the decisions they make at the global level and the ability to implement these decisions in local contexts, as well as the different forms of power that influence the decisions made at the global level and the ability to influence these decisions at the local level.

The workshop participants also resolved that a sophisticated understanding of power must include a study of the politics of the everyday. Power in the GRR does not just operate through the policy cycle, but in seemingly mundane events and interactions. There is a lot of micro politics at work that, cumulatively, have a significant impact on outcomes observed. For example, some actors are neglected from high-level politics and influence in the GRR, but they have certainly been powerful political actors on other scales. High-level versus low-level political questions and influence may thus be different, and most research does not go deep enough into studying that day-to-day operation of power.

The papers presented by workshop participants will be available in an upcoming special issue of Refuge, which will also include a detailed workshop report authored by Dacia Douhaibi and Shreya Sen, the ESPMI Executive members that acted as rapporteurs for the workshop. The Refuge special issue should be available in early 2017. Those interested in the outcomes of the workshop can follow @GRPNetwork on Twitter to receive additional updates.