Home / World / UN and White House summits could offer a ray of hope to those – stuck in camps

UN and White House summits could offer a ray of hope to those – stuck in camps

Two of the highest-level global summits ever convened on refugees and mass migration take place in New York this week: one by the United Nations and the other by the White House. This should be the reform moment when the world comes together to update a broken system that is struggling to meet contemporary displacement challenges. But a combination of inter-agency turf wars and government foot-dragging make this unlikely.

Tomorrow’s UN meeting will focus more on abstract principles of commitment than concrete practice. A conference originally conceived with the intention of addressing the situation of Syrian refugees and the Mediterranean morphed into a negotiation of two “Global Compacts”: one on refugees and one on migration. But even these have collapsed in negotiations, such that the final declaration now reveals only vague principles, denuded of substance by spoiler governments.

UN and White House summits could offer a ray of hope to those - stuck in camps
UN and White House summits could offer a ray of hope to those – stuck in camps

Tuesday’s Obama-led Leaders’ Summit is about pledging. Unable to elicit additional resettlement places from Congress, the administration has focused on playing an international convening goal. It has sought commitments in three areas: additional humanitarian assistance, more resettlement places, and a focus on jobs and education. But with states experiencing donor fatigue, significant new pledges seem improbable.

The tragedy is that these meetings have become irresponsibly removed from the real challenges on the ground. They will do little to directly address systematic non-compliance with refugee law in Europe or Australia, to ensure that refugees stuck in camps are not indefinitely trapped in limbo, to address the plight of millions of urban refugees, or to define a response to the millions of people who will be displaced by factors such as climate change that fall outside the existing refugee framework.

The summits have largely bypassed the biggest and most urgent questions relating to institutional reform. There is widespread acknowledgement that the system is broken and yet no appetite to fix it. In 1971 the international monetary system reached its crisis moment and reformed; 2016 should be that moment for refugees. Change is needed because the refugee system was created in the early cold war largely to meet US interests in avoiding the return of displaced Germans to the communist bloc. And yet, in a radically changed world, this time-warped framework is still expected to apply.

The basic idea in the 1951 Refugee Convention – that refugees should not be returned to serious harm – remains as relevant today as ever. However, its focus on refugees as people fleeing “persecution” has become antiquated. Today people are mainly fleeing fragile states characterised by mass violence. While courts have sometimes managed to shoehorn contemporary displacement into outdated language, the result is arbitrary exclusions and erratic responses: in 2014 recognition rates for Eritrean asylum seekers ranged from 26% in France to 100% in Sweden. Meanwhile for many years Germany would not recognise Somali refugees because the harm they experienced was from non-state actors rather than a persecuting government.

Organisational reform is also off the table. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) does what it does very well: humanitarian aid and camp management, and legal advice to states. But these are no longer the primary things a UN refugee agency needs to be doing. The tools needed today are political engagement, development and economics, and the ability to work in urban environments. The disjuncture is exemplified by the stark reality that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees receive no assistance whatsoever from UNHCR or its partners. A UN refugee agency remains indispensable but donor states should be asking for an updated model.

On the ground, the default model is one of humanitarian assistance in camps. But too many refugees in camps get stuck there for decades, where they usually have no right to work. 56% of the world’s refugees are in protracted situations, having been in exile for at least 5 years. Refuge needs to be reconceived as at least as much about development as about humanitarianism. It needs to offer jobs and education to the nearly 90% of the world’s refugees who are in developing countries, including the majority who are now in cities.

Tragically, a vision for legal, organisational and operational reform will not feature on the agenda this week. Addressing these issues is the key to finding sustainable solutions not only to the Syrian crisis but also inevitable future movements.

But there may still be hope. In order to save face, the UN conveners will now use 19 September to launch an ongoing two-year intergovernmental process. At the margins of the formal meetings, governments, businesses and civil society have mobilised to launch a range of exciting initiatives. These pathways may still leave the door ajar for meaningful change.

Alexander Betts is director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. He is co-author, with Sir Paul Collier, of Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, Penguin Books, due out in April 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *