More than 65 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes, a population equivalent to the 21st largest country. According to a report by Save the Children, this imaginary country would have the fastest growing population in the world and rank nearly last in school attendance
At the first-ever summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, global leaders approved a declaration that aims to implement a more coordinated, comprehensive and humane refugee response. Plenty of hype but no new ideas at the summit. As expected, speeches were made - lots of them - but there were no major changes to the status quo.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautioned against optimism, stating: “When millions of people see freedom’s invitation only through the flapping canvas of a tent; when they carry their children and possession on their backs, walking hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles; when they and their families risk drowning, and are kept cramped in appalling detention centres and, once released, risk abuse by racists and xenophobes. There is no cause for comfort here.” He continued, “The bitter truth is that this summit was called because we have been largely failing…it is shameful the victims of abominable crimes should be made to suffer further by our failures to give them protection.”
Many organisations simply saw the summit as no different to business as usual and especially expressing their disappointment in the outcome document. The initial draft of the Declaration proposed a global compact with clear commitments including resettling 10 percent of the world’s refugees annually and providing refugee children with education within 30 days. Upon negotiations however, this language was stripped in the final document adopted on Monday, ridding states of any obligation to welcome and educate refugees.
Oxfam International’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, stated: “What we got here are no concrete commitments to address this problem. What we got here was just some flowery language.” Byanyima also noted the lack of commitment to financially supporting refugee-hosting nations.
According to an Oxfam analysis, six of the wealthiest countries only host 9 percent of refugees, including Japan which accepted a mere 27 refugees in 2015. This has left poorer countries in the Global South to bear the burden. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “It is shameful so many governments are turning their backs on the suffering of millions of vulnerable people who have fled their homes and are often risking their lives to reach safety. Poorer countries are shouldering the duty of protecting refugees when it should be a shared responsibility, but many richer countries are doing next to nothing.”
For instance, Lebanon is host to over 1 million Syrian refugees, amounting to almost a quarter of their population. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam expressed his dismay at the numbers, noting that more Syrians are born in Lebanon than are being resettled in other countries. “It is unthinkable that Lebanon could, alone, cope with an existential challenge of such proportion…when is the world going to do something for Lebanon?” he asked delegates. Similarly, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose country hosts almost 2 million Afghan refugees, also noted the disproportionate burden of global displacement that has fallen on such developing nations.
“It’s a big show here, but on the ground people are suffering,” said Milka Isinta, co-chair of the Nairobi-based Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights, addressing a small rally across the road from the UN . “Kenya’s been hosting refugees for more than 30 years and rich countries don’t want to take responsibility.”
Obama announced plans to increase refugee resettlement to 110,000, Amnesty International USA’s Interim Executive Director Margaret Huang told IPS that his pledge is just a “drop in the bucket.”
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Program Director Bill Frelick said that the lack of international support is further straining countries, causing them to push refugees back. He explained, “The Kenyas and Thailands and Pakistans and Jordans and Lebanons of the world should not be left to bear the burden alone—responsibility should not just be borne by those frontline states themselves, it has to be shared.”
However, no such tangible commitment towards responsibility sharing was achieved at the summit as governments including Australia defended their restrictive refugee policies. In Australia’s case this consists of indefinite detention of asylum seekers in offshore centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea., The United Kingdom argued that refugees should only seek asylum in the first safe country of arrival, further placing the burden on the Global South.
Alexander Betts, director of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre commented that UNHCR has done little to champion the protection needs of people who don’t qualify as refugees. “UNHCR didn’t want to discuss those people,” he said.
Theresa May gave the game away that the solutions being sought was if we want to help the refugees, we have to keep out the migrants although she expressed it in more the language of diplomacy “Countries have to be able to exercise control over their borders. The failure to do so erodes public confidence, fuels international crime, damages economies and reduces the resources for those who genuinely need protection.”