The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.
Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.
On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.
Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.
The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.
Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.
As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.
This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.
Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.
Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.
But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.
The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.
Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.
They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands by war, oppression or poverty.
The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.
The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.
So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum will continue their work.
It needn’t be this way.
The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.
This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.