Being displaced will always prove an unenviable condition. But there have been better times to be a refugee than the present.
In recent weeks, the European Union has concluded an agreement under which people fleeing into the EU from Syria and other war-torn states can be sent to Turkey, a country where violence and human rights abuses are also rife.
In Australia, despite growing incidents of suicide and self-harm, the government persists with its policy of intercepting asylum seekers and incarcerating them in detention centers on Nauru or Manus Island. These people do not know where or when they will eventually be able to start their new lives, even if their claims to refugee status are granted.
The Kenyan government recently announced the closure of Dadaab, the largest refugee complex in the world. The 400,000 Somalis who live there might now have no option but to return to their own country – even though it is still at war and suffering a grave humanitarian crisis.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
At the end of World War II, the international community established a set of international laws, institutions and principles intended to ensure that victims of persecution could seek asylum in other states.
At the same time, these arrangements were meant to make sure that refugee movements could be addressed in a predictable, consistent and cooperative manner, with states sharing responsibility for people uprooted by life-threatening events.
While this system of refugee protection has never functioned perfectly, it has saved millions of lives and enabled victims of persecution in many parts of the world to establish more peaceful and productive futures.
But that legacy is now at risk.
Populist politicians, spurred on in many cases by the mass media, are exploiting the ease with which xenophobia and racism can mobilize electoral support.
Rather than standing up for the right of asylum, many governments – especially those in the more prosperous parts of the world – are seeking ways to avoid the refugee responsibilities they freely assumed in earlier years.
Some ambitious solutions have been proposed in response to these disturbing developments.
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called on states to establish safe and legal routes for refugees to find sanctuary in other countries. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has proposed a massive resettlement program that would relocate a significant proportion of the world’s refugees from developing countries to states better equipped to absorb them.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has taken a personal lead in convening the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23-24, as well as a September meeting in New York that will discuss the challenges of responding to large-scale movements of refugees and migrants.
These gatherings will have a particular focus on two proposals: a “grand bargain” intended to bridge the widening gap between humanitarian needs and the funding available to meet them; and a “global compact,” designed to reinvigorate the notion that refugees are an international responsibility and that the impact of their displacement should not be disproportionately borne by developing countries.
Our expectations of these initiatives should be realistic.
While there is every need to advocate the right to seek asylum, in the current climate the world’s more prosperous states seem unlikely to open their doors to large numbers of refugees, even if they arrive in an orderly and regulated manner.
And although donor states are willing to commit substantial and even additional resources to humanitarian and development programs, they do so expecting the refugees to be contained within their own regions.
In this environment, there is a real risk that states will send their delegates to Istanbul and New York, restate their commitment to the principles of refugee protection and humanitarian action, agree on ambitious but nonbinding plans of action – then return to business as usual.
In order to avert that scenario there is an urgent need to celebrate the past achievements of the international refugee protection system and to highlight the support it continues to enjoy.
Many countries in Africa, for example, still host and keep their borders open to huge numbers of refugees, despite the fact that the international community’s attention has in recent years been increasingly focused on the refugee situation in the Middle East.
Brazil and Canada have both set positive examples by establishing special programs for the speedy resettlement of Syrian refugees.
While even the most hospitable governments in Europe have grown progressively reluctant to admit significant numbers of asylum seekers, volunteer groups, faith-based organizations and other members of civil society have lost no opportunity to proclaim that “refugees are welcome.”
Unless states are prepared to embrace and act upon that message, the World Humanitarian Summit and New York meeting will not be considered as a success.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.