UN Summits on Refugees: Lots of Talk, But Not a Lot of Action
The United Nations and President Obama held discussions on this humanitarian crisis.
“We live on the edge of hell — stateless and stuck.” — Mohammed Badran
No words could have captured the urgent need for action better than the opening remarks by Mohammed Badran, a Syrian refugee, at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants earlier this week. Followed by a summit hosted by President Obama the next day, these two high-level gatherings had no lesser ambition than being a turning point in the global refugee crisis.
Currently, there are an unprecedented 65.3 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, including over 21 million refugees, and the number is growing by the minute.
Without homes or livelihood, fleeing conflict and persecution, refugees are dependent on the protection and support of the international community.
Yet, governments have repeatedly failed them. A few countries, like Germany, Sweden and Canada, have significantly stepped up their efforts. However, overwhelmingly, the responsibility to protect refugees has fallen to countries that are physically closest to areas of conflict.
This means that developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugee population. A lack of resources in these countries often means that refugees live in dire situations and the prospects of change are dim given the lack of education, employment or resettlement opportunities.
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Expectations and hopes were high for these two summits to find new agreements and concrete solutions to tackle the largest refugee crisis since World War II. But have they actually delivered?
The major outcome of the UN Summit is the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The declaration “expresses the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale.”
It affirms the commitment of governments to important principles such as the protection of the human rights of refugees, the importance of education for refugee children and the need for support for countries hosting refugees.
But the declaration shies away from any concrete commitments, targets, or outcomes. Instead it introduces an intergovernmental process to develop a global compact for refugees by 2018, effectively delaying the implementation of the declaration by two years.
This is putting the outcome document at risk of becoming yet another empty declaration with good intentions but little impact on the lives of refugees.
The summit hosted by President Obama showed a few more encouraging signs what implementation could look like as leaders pledged to increase the number of refugee children going to school, to enhance access to legal work for refugees, and to provide more resettlement opportunities.
However, a closer look reveals that many governments just re-announced promises they have made earlier in the year, bringing down the overall ambition of the summit. This is simply not enough given the scale of the problem and it is certainly not the watershed moment we hoped for.
In short, progress is being made but it’s too little, too slowly. With the words of Mohammed Badran “Inaction seems to be the only thing the international community can agree on”. The refugees who are displaced today cannot wait another 2 years for the world to decide what to do.
Now is the time for government leaders to significantly step up and make new and concrete political and financial commitments in support of the implementation of the New York Declaration.
This is not a problem one country can solve on its own. Governments have to develop joint actions to tackle the refugee crisis. The G20 Summit in Germany next year provides a key opportunity for 20 of the most powerful countries to come together to mobilise the political will and the financial resources to bring an end to the biggest humanitarian crisis we face today.