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Comment: United Nations Refugee Summits Roundup

We collect the highlights of our coverage of the U.N. refugee and leaders’ summits in New York, including commentaries by experts in the field and and reality checks from people working on the ground.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Us general assembly refugees
U.S. president Barack Obama delivers remarks during the United Nations refugee summit on the sidelines of the 71st U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20, 2016. AFP/Jim Watson

NEW YORK – The 71st United Nations General Assembly opened last week with a clear agenda: to address the record rates at which people are experiencing displacement around the world.

The two-week-long conference kicked off on September 19 with the first-ever refugee summit since the formation of the U.N., leading to the New York Declaration. U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told world leaders at the summit that they must tackle the historic waves of “humanity on the move,” and help countries overwhelmed by the crisis, some of which are being pushed to breaking point.

On the heels of that summit, U.S. president Barack Obama brought together global leaders and prominent figures from the private sector for the first-ever leaders’ summit focused on refugees. Echoing Ban, he called the current displacement crises a “test of our common humanity.”

It was Obama’s last visit to the U.N. General Assembly in his current capacity as president, and he appeared determined to galvanize funds and long-term support from corporations, as well as more resettlement and integration of refugees by national governments. The twin summits were notable in their resolve to bring together governments, humanitarian agencies, private enterprises and civil society groups to try to collectively address displacement around the world.

While phrases such as “responsibility-sharing,” “concrete commitments” and “humanitarian response systems” were common parlance at the summits, what do they mean in practice? And what needs to happen for these to take effect on the ground, while adjusting to rapidly changing realities?

Last week, and in the weeks leading up the summits, we spoke with advocates and policymakers taking part in the talks about what was agreed, what was ignored and what happens next. We gathered perspectives from practitioners on the ground who provided a reminder that the success or failure of the summits will have huge implications for millions of lives far from New York – from internally displaced Rohingya who are fleeing across the borders of Myanmar, to migrants entering the United States from Mexico, to the more than 13.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the week leading up to the refugee summit, Ben Rawlence, author of “City of Thorns,” wrote from Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, from where Somali refugees are returning to their strife-riddled country, not because they want to but because they lack genuine choice.

For nearly two years the World Food Program (WFP) has cut the food rations on which people in the camp survive by a third … It is no surprise then that, panicked and hungry, nearly 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have signed up for a “voluntary” repatriation process run by the U.N. UNHCR is now overwhelmed with refugees desperate for the $400 and three months of food that are currently on offer for those who return. There have been demonstrations in the camp because of the returns not happening fast enough. People are starving.

Hina Jilani of The Elders Group called for “a concerted international approach guided by the principles of solidarity, human rights and respect” in handling the current migration flows.

Pakistan, my home country, has been host to more than 3 million refugees from Afghanistan ever since the Soviet invasion nearly 40 years ago. Most of these poor people have been languishing in squalid urban camps for decades – as, I should add, have millions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and of course Syria, where they now find themselves victims of yet another war.

This week in New York, leaders at the United Nations – in particular, the five permanent members of the U.N. security council who have the heaviest responsibility – must demonstrate their willingness to prioritize saving lives over political rivalries, whether in Syria, Ukraine or other conflicts too often seen through the prism of realpolitik rather than that of protecting civilians.

As the summit convened, Irish filmmaker Caoimhe Butterly’s video “Refuge,” a short piece filmed in Vassilika camp, Greece, offered glimpses of the experiences of the tens of thousands of people who are currently stranded due to an incapacitated asylum system.

Ahead of the leaders’ summit, Solon Ardittis, at Eurasylum, explained that private sponsorship can help spur resettlement rates.

The “Partnership for Refugees” … in which more than 20 global companies such as Accenture, Airbnb, Goldman Sachs, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and J.P. Morgan are participating, has set out to implement an ambitious plan to generate new commitments in the areas of education, employment and overall “enablement.” While “employability” is not an explicit criterion in any of the existing state-led or private resettlement schemes, introducing it would make the very concept of resettlement more attractive to the host states – in particular, by enabling employers to fill their labor shortages by tapping into selected segments of the refugee population.

While anticipating paltry commitments at the refugee summit, Amnesty’s researchers focused their efforts on specific cases of abuse, such as Australia’s off-shore detention policies, and targeted specific countries for accelerated resettlement.

We have been trying to emphasize the global nature of the crisis and highlighting issues in Asia, in Kenya, large populations of refugees in Ethiopia, the truly horrific situation for refugees and migrants in Libya who are trying to get to Europe. In terms of increasing the numbers, at the moment only about 30 countries provide any kind of  regular resettlement or humanitarian-type admission – and there are more than 190 countries in the world. So one of the things we want to do is just drive up the number of countries who could offer resettlement: to get countries that don’t at the moment offer it to start doing it, and do it on an annual basis. With the countries that do offer resettlement, we want to get them to increase the numbers.

Alexander Betts, of the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, U.K., spelled out five catalysts that can transform the global refugee system.

The key to achieving sustainable responsibility-sharing cannot be an abstract global compact alone. It has to be the creation of specific mechanisms for political engagement. Options for this might include: UNHCR special envoys on responsibility-sharing; a U.N.-wide global commission on responsibility-sharing; enhancing UNHCR’s internal capacity for political analysis and engagement; and the development of a “model” comprehensive plan of action with clear mechanisms to trigger the development and implementation of a CPA-like response.

Oxfam’s Attila Kulcsar warned that ignoring chronic international displacement in Africa will only exacerbate future migration outflows, especially to Europe.

Africa is in search of durable solutions. People who want to return to their homelands need jobs and farming opportunities – and, in particular, access to land. However, all this becomes harder to find the longer displacement lasts. The aid sector is determined to integrate displacement into long-term developmental programs, but this has yet to translate into changes in the way aid is delivered on the ground.

A majority of the world’s refugees now inhabit urban spaces. Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution highlighted the emerging role of cities as havens.

Large cities are responsible for designing and delivering (and often financing) services that are critical to the integration process: housing, education, workforce development, healthcare, language courses, public safety and extracurricular activities like sports, arts and cultural events. And the size and density of population enhance the potential for the efficient, integrated delivery of services.

The World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, explained that migration is not just a humanitarian issue. In its nascent stages it is, first and foremost, a development issue.

As we rethink forced displacement as a development issue, we will continue to innovate on the ground. First, we are building on our already strong partnership with UNHCR, including improving our data collection and analysis on forced displacement with them. Second, we will work with our partners to mobilize the significant resources needed for both low- and middle-income countries hosting refugees. Third, we will continue and expand our operational and analytical work, building on projects in the Great Lakes region and the poverty analysis on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

As the International Organization for Migration entered the U.N. fold, its leader, William Swing, explained why it matters.

What it means for migrants is that they will now, through us, have a seat at the table and a voice in the decision-making. For example, in the high-level dialogue in 2013, I was removed from the plenary and given a much more restricted role because I wasn’t U.N. The IOM was speaker number 103. That sort of thing is less likely to happen when you’re part of the U.N., so we can do a better job of representing the migrants and letting them speak through us. In addition, we’ll have access to information, for example, on projects and funding.

Migrant rights researcher Judith Vonberg maintained that the differentiation between “migrant” and “refugee” can be reductive and called for a supranational approach at the U.N. summit.

The movement of human beings around the globe – what we call migration – is a supranational phenomenon that requires supranational responses. National or even international initiatives (the latter still asserting the primacy of the nation-state) will not do. Migration predates the nation-state and will outlive it.

Speaking at one of the opening roundtables of the refugee summit, the Women’s Refugee Commission called for an overhaul in the humanitarian approach toward urban refugees, especially women and girls.

Protecting urban refugees with heightened risks, including women and adolescent girls, requires innovative, tailored programming and outreach. First, recognizing that they are the chief responders in urban settings, humanitarians must systematize and broaden engagement of local actors. Next, in recognition that shelter and livelihoods are extremely fraught with risks and dangerous for urban refugee women, humanitarians must develop proactive and targeted strategies for addressing gender-based violence risks related to shelter and livelihoods.

Austin Schiano extended the conversation on the pivotal roles of local partners by calling for greater collaboration with civil society groups that are intimately familiar with on-the-ground realities.

Private-sector partners and global coordinated investment are indispensable factors in the forthcoming summit. That is because the World Bank, multilateral development banks and “a broader range of donors” are being called upon not only to fund refugee and migrant programs in conjunction with agencies like UNHCR and UNRWA, but also to fund the entire agencies themselves. This is a groundbreaking change in how resources will be allocated.

A columnist in our series “This Age of Migration,” Paul Currion cautioned against the simplistic narratives that humanitarian agencies might present at the summit, based on current statistics. Numbers often do not relay the entire story, he said.

While it’s true that the history of humanity is a history of migration, it’s also true that the type of migration has changed over time. Several historical trends, including industrialization and imperialism, combined to make migration in the 20th century larger in both scale and impact than previous centuries. To some extent the refugee legislation we produced brought 19th-century assumptions – about the critical role of the nation-state in managing populations – to 20th-century circumstances. The danger with the forthcoming summit is that it will bring 20th-century assumptions to 21st-century circumstances, and therefore be doomed to failure.

Tom Fletcher at the Global Business Coalition for Education explained the importance of following up on pledges made at the New York summit and the need for transparency in how aid is delivered to displaced communities.

I think from now on, we shouldn’t allow governments to talk in terms of pledges anymore. I think we should only announce when people come along and say, “We have now given this much in the last six months.” The whole pledge thing is actually broken as a mechanism for fixing these big crises. There’s a process where everyone identifies the target, and the NGOs kind of agree what they’ll ask for, and then there’s a celebrity that comes along and there’s a hashtag. Clearly, as we saw after London, so many of those pledges weren’t delivered.

Former head of Greenpeace Kumi Naidoo pointed to the urgent need to recognize the links between climate impact, conflict and displacement.

If we look at resource conflicts, for example, with Darfur, the genocide there and the movement of people, internal displacement and so on, we know that most probably the tragedy of Darfur will be recognized in the aftermath as the first major resource war brought about as a result of climate impacts. This was basically the Sahara Desert’s marching southward at the rate of almost a mile a year. It is absolutely clear that it is happening on a significant scale, whether it’s the people living in the coastal parts of Bangladesh or in Mali, Niger and so on.

While Aung San Suu Kyi made history for her country, Myanmar, by appearing at the UNGA, Shaun Butta, an expert on international refugee law, pointed to the folly of returning refugees to their unstable local communities.

The new government would do well to avoid messages of expedited processing lest they provoke the fears of forced or rushed returns of refugees that ignore international legal standards. Such returns would not be sustainable and would result only in further instability inside the country and added challenges for humanitarian aid to reach returnees stranded in remote areas.

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