As the worldwide tide of refugees swells remorselessly - fed by crises from Afghanistan to Haiti, Bosnia to Rwanda - the international community seems paralyzed.
The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees admits she cannot cope. Individual nations make only token contributions, though some, such as the United States, are more dutiful than others.Forced repatriation is an unpalatable option. It simply returns refugees to their persecutors. Meanwhile, millions of refugees languish for months or years in squalid camps, prey to disease, famine and continued displacement.
These failures demand a new approach. Clearly, the family of nations has an obligation to share the burden. The question is how to overcome every nation's tendency to sit back and hope someone else will pay the freight.
Such an effort must begin by recognizing that nations differ greatly in their willingness and ability to absorb refugees. Some are wealthy, others poor. Some are thinly settled, others overcrowded. Some have docile populations. Others cannot protect refugees from violence.
Why not use these differences to promote burden-sharing?
Usually, people with diverse preferences and assets turn those differences to mutual advantage by trading. When a buyer values a car more than cash, and a seller prefers cash to her car, they cut a deal and both benefit. Now apply the principle to refugees.
Suppose the United Nations or another international body were to establish a yearly refugee quota for each member nation, randomly assigning quantities of refugees to each country and then permitting nations to trade their quota obligations.
Assuming these obligations and bargains were enforceable, what would happen?
Very likely, a rich but crowded country such as Japan would discharge its obligation by paying a poor but thinly settled one such as Russia to accept its quota. Russia in turn might sell part of its quota to even more receptive nations.
Why might nations join such a system? Most countries are vulnerable to refugee crises. Tradable quotas would offer them a form of disaster insurance. They would assume a certain small burden (their quota) to avoid the risk of an uncertain larger one (a sudden refugee flood).
For the recalcitrant ones, powerful members such as the United States and Canada could impose foreign aid, trade and immigration sanctions. By assuring each nation that it would bear only its fair share of the burden, this program could attract more takers.
An international refugee agency could give special consideration to factors such as language. French-speaking countries might be encouraged to accept Haitians, for example.
Even if flawed, an approach that exploits voluntarism and self-interest to distribute refugee burdens can come closer to realizing those ideals than the present system, which relies too much on the altruism of a few nations and too little on harnessing incentives for all nations.