In a generous mood, a developed country might offer temporary protection to say, Zimbabweans fleeing the widespread human rights abuses committed under Robert Mugabe's regime (posted on here) or to Iraqis fleeing the well-documented dangers of their home country. Despite little improvement in either situation, two developed countries have change their mind about protecting individuals fleeing Iraq and Zimbabwe who do not fall squarely within the UN Refugee Convention definition. In the UK this week, some 500 Zimbabweans whose asylum applications were denied were told to pack their bags or face expulsion. This follows last year's overturning of an earlier ban on deportation of Zimbabweans, with a judge finding that only those linked to opposition political parties were likely to face persecution. And it turns out that Sweden has been deporting Iraqis from the southern and central regions of that country who cannot prove that they will be individually persecuted, based on an immigration court's ruling that there "is no armed conflict in Iraq, according to the definition from Swedish legislation." The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees this week criticized Sweden's return policy, noting that "[t]he level of human rights violations and violence along sectarian and intra-sectarian lines remain high in both central and southern Iraq", so individuals from those areas should be considered refugees.
Once returned, these individuals are likely to join the already overwhelming number of internally displaced in their home country -- at last count, 2.25 million in Iraq and 570,000 in Zimbabwe. They face the sword of sovereignty at every turn -- the sovereign authority of nations over both entry across their borders and the people and resources within their territory -- but little in the way of protection from international law or the international community. While the movement towards viewing sovereignty as responsibility may address some concerns about the treatment of the internally displaced, the notion of humanitarian intervention implicates real concerns about the power of weak states to defend their territorial integrity and political independence. And stronger states will not easily relinquish the power to control their borders. So how can we forge a solution for these individuals whose lives are at risk? A true dilemma for the humanitarians among us, and one that displays the limits of refugee law and international human rights law more generally.