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Mismatch Between Rhetoric and Reality at Refugee Summits

Experts say modest progress on refugee resettlement at the U.N. and U.S. refugee meetings is only a fraction of what’s needed, and an anti-migrant backlash in the rich world is making international consensus impossible.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
King Felipe of Spain, top center, listens to speakers at the Leaders’ Refugee Summit while sitting behind U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. AP/Julie Jacobson

The two most significant international refugee summits since the 1950s have come and gone while doing little to close the gap between the rhetoric and reality of forced migration, experts say.

Hopes that the gatherings would deliver some form of global consensus on sharing responsibility for refugees and migrants had largely evaporated even before world leaders converged on the U.N. headquarters in a rainy New York on September 19.

The summit set in motion two years of negotiations on two global compacts – one on refugees and the other on safe and orderly migration – that have been widely panned as abstract and toothless. The urgency of the humanitarian issues under discussion was driven home to delegates the following day as news broke of the deadly bombing of an aid convoy in Syria.

“It’s almost impossible to come up with solutions in this international climate,” said Nando Sigona, the associate editor of Migration Studies journal. “There is no new consensus to create a global governance system, instead there is a resurgence of nationalism.”

A second day of discussions on the refugee crisis, convened by the Obama administration and featuring 52 countries, did deliver more solid outcomes but ones that even its organizers admitted were “only a fraction” of what was needed.

The White House said the number of slots for the resettlement of refugees had been doubled to 360,000 as a result of pledges made on September 20. Much has been made beforehand of the fact that three countries – the U.S., Canada and Australia – resettle the largest number of refugees, with the U.S. taking in more than the rest of the world put together.

While full details have yet to emerge, the U.S. did appear to have persuaded a number of new countries to agree to resettle refugees, among them the Czech Republic and Romania, two European states that have previously been reluctant to offer any support for forced migrants.

Additionally, a new facility was announced that would fund countries which have been willing to resettle refugees but not to shoulder the initial costs. It also added to recent financial commitments to help host countries such as Lebanon and Jordan in paying for the massive expansion of their education systems, which is needed to get refugee children into school.

Melanie Ward, an associate director at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said that movement on resettlement from European governments was an opening which aid organizations and advocates should encourage.

“It’s all to play for,” she said. “The European scheme is still at the negotiating phase.”

Seven European countries are due to either resettle U.N.-registered refugees for the first time or expand the numbers they receive. France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Romania and the Czech Republic will announce numbers in the coming days.

The IRC and other advocates are pushing the E.U. to match the U.S. in resettling more than 100,000 refugees in the coming year. This figure would not include people making asylum claims. The vast majority of refugees and migrants that Europe has received in recent years have entered the bloc and then applied for asylum.

The buildup to the summits was marked by accusations that “spoiler states” had stripped the U.N. draft declaration of all concrete commitments. Once underway, the multiple simultaneous stages provided by the U.N. appeared to allow national leaders to bypass their international counterparts and talk directly to home audiences.

“At one end you had humanitarian window dressing with leaders using the right keywords,” said Sigona. “At the other end you had some politicians like Theresa May scoring points with her domestic audience by looking tough on migration.”

Jeff Crisp, a former policy lead at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), said there was “no interactive discussion” in the roundtable meetings and very little dialogue anywhere. “It was just states reading out statements and many of them wanted to keep it tightly choreographed. Civil society hardly got a look in,” he said.

The island nation of Nauru hosts widely criticized offshore detention facilities for migrants trying to reach Australia. The president of Nauru felt emboldened to refer to them as a “humanitarian imperative,” saying they were opened to prevent people drowning at sea.

When references were made to the “root causes” of forced migration, it was often accompanied by the suggestion that a greater concentration on security, borders and policing of smuggling networks could halt the mass movement of people.

“European leaders need to level with the public about the reality of migration,” said Ward. “We can’t stop people moving.”

While some observers sank into summit fatigue at New York following another “talking shop” in Istanbul in May, others showed awareness that the perceived failings of the current U.S. administration could be insignificant in comparison with the next one.

The U.N. declaration on September 19 coincided with a new flashpoint in America’s presidential election. Donald Trump Jr., son of the Republican nominee, compared Syrian refugees to poisoned skittles, where a handful might kill you.

A senior adviser on his father’s campaign, his social media meme echoed Trump senior’s statements on the campaign trail, comparing refugees to warriors in a Trojan horse.

In private conversations on the sidelines of the U.N. there was some recognition that fledgling efforts to reform the refugee and humanitarian response systems could be swept away in the wake of a Trump victory in November. “Most people are still in denial about this happening,” warned Crisp. “Nobody is seriously thinking this through.”

Read more of our coverage from the UNGA:

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