M igration is a recognised fact of today’s globalised world, largely caused by wars, conflicts and humanitarian disasters. According to a recent UN report, 65 million people have been uprooted and displaced as a consequence of war, conflicts and persecution this year, 5m more than the previous year. Of the total, 21m are refugees while a clear majority are IDPs. Migration was not significantly factored in the Millennium Development Goals – this has been remedied in the Sustainable Development Goals of 2016-2030.
Last year, Europe faced an unprecedented influx of refugees propelled by conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. While the scale of migration was puny compared to the burden being shared by the developing world, it made headlines and inflamed European politics, increasing the xenophobia.
To address these unprecedented migrations, the UN organised a summit for heads of states during this year’s session of General Assembly. The day after, US President Obama urged world leaders to do more to help with the growing refugee crisis. It ended with a usual, bland statement; the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants is long on aspirations and short on concrete measures.
Signatories are asked to reach a new framework for managing refugees and migration flows by 2018. Most rights groups have criticised the declaration on the grounds that it lacks clear plans and commitments. Meanwhile, the UNHCR hails it as a step forward as it expands responses to such crises from purely humanitarian – food, medicines and tents – to educating refugee children. UNDP has said the declaration falls short of addressing the bigger issue of IDPs presumably because they pose no budgetary or resettlement issues for the West.
The declaration also sidesteps the neglected issue of 5.4m Palestinian refugees stranded in Lebanon according to the UN. Palestinian refugees constitute 44pc of all long-term refugees. The watered-down declaration also removed the clause requiring developed countries to resettle 10pc of the refugees every year. Among EU countries, Germany and Sweden have hosted the highest number of refugees. Now these countries are also hardening their policy.
Only Canada, under the Liberal Party, has switched to a pro-refugee policy, further reaffirmed by Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to increase the humanitarian assistance budget by 10pc. Moreover, the country will continue to shoulder its share of the global north’s responsibilities in resettling refugees. Obama convened his own summit with a view to coaxing more financial commitments from governments. He also pledged to raise the US refugee intake from 10,000 to 110,000. Heads of states also committed to drumming up additional funding of $4.5billion, out of which the US has pledged $1bn.
In one sense, both back-to-back summits were an acknowledgement of the growing burden of refugees being shared by developing countries – despite the overwhelming focus on a small number of refugees who made their way to Europe in 2015. Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per person and per square kilometre. Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since 1979 without making a song and dance about it.
Now Jordan, Greece, Kenya and Turkey are the recipients of major regional refugees and migrant inflows. Despite shouldering a disproportionate share of the refugee burden, these countries have yet to receive the support that the crisis requires. Most appeals remain underfunded.
Despite some well-intended words in the New York Declaration, the dominant feeling among migrant and refugee aid organisations remains that little action is being taken, and that course correction is moving too slowly. The non-binding nature of the declaration makes such concerns plausible. Doubts are further confirmed by recent anti-migrant trends across Europe, pulling up the proverbial drawbridge to prevent further refugee arrivals. If we go by the signs of the times, the road-to-refuge welcome policy seems a long and winding one, with no clear destination (abridged).
The writer is a consultant and policy analyst.