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UN refugee summit was a wasted opportunity

by James Munn | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Tuesday, 20 September 2016 14:02 GMT

A Syrian refugee rides a bicycle with his daughter at the main market, in the Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria September 17, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sixty-five million people across the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster. Sixty-five million people live in the United Kingdom

Stuck in camps, blocked at borders, waiting in limbo, sixty-five million people across the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster. Just so that this number, sixty-five million people, doesn’t pass by unnoticed: sixty-five million people live in the United Kingdom; sixty-five million people live in France; sixty-five million people live in Thailand. Imagine every single person in one of these large, vibrant and diverse countries, forced from their homes, with little to show of their previous lives, stuck and waiting. Waiting to be able to recover, start over, and thrive. Without protection from violence and trafficking, without healthcare and shelter, without education, their presents and futures are stolen from them.

Our global responsibility to these people has been understood for the past sixty-five years since the signing of the Refugee Convention, yet in reality, just six countries host over half the world’s refugees (while the six richest countries host only nine percent). We need a better way of responding to refugee crises, so that no country is overwhelmed by millions of newcomers, and that each human who has been forcibly displaced has a chance to rebuild their lives.

Earlier this week, on the 19th of September, states were offered a golden opportunity to work on such a solution, as a High-Level Meeting to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants was held at the United Nations in New York. Initiated with the ambition of creating a mechanism for responsibility sharing of refugees, the summit has ended with the adoption of a declaration. A declaration which repeats the same human rights standards that everyone has already agreed on. A declaration which includes caveats such as ‘where possible’ and ‘taking into account national legislation’ so that states can shirk their international responsibilities. A declaration without an agreement on how to move forward, without a mechanism, without any way of measuring accountability. In essence, a lofty wish-list which is unlikely to amount to any change.

States and some NGOs have praised the outcome document for its reinforcement of existing laws and norms. But how can we pat each other on the back for maintaining the status quo? A senior representative from UNHCR affirmed that so many states signing the declaration was a ‘minor miracle’. But without anything new or any mechanism to implement, these are empty signatures; the equivalent of signing the office birthday card without putting in a contribution for the cake. Zero commitment, all the praise.

Standing still isn’t good enough for the millions living in limbo. They, we, need leaders who move forward and aren’t afraid to support real solutions. After the talkshop that was the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this year, we hoped that there would be a real appetite for change rather than for another summit with no outcome. Yet states pushed back on any concrete measures to solve the issues at hand. For example, despite all previous legislation and expertise strongly agreeing that detention is never in the best interest of children, selective states managed to include language in the text claiming that detention is seldom in the best interest of the child: effectively a step backwards. Caveats such as these enable states to evade their responsibilities and weaken existing commitments. Furthermore, any reference to action for internally displaced persons was removed, effectively leaving out forty million people from the discussions.

Strong solutions to global obstacles need innovation and creativity. This is not the first time that states have needed to come together to tackle a global issue. Yet the leaders of the negotiations omitted to draw from lessons and inspiration from other processes. The climate negotiations, for example, spent over twenty years dealing with mobilizing states for the common good, calculating national responsibility and ensuring accountability. Some of the elements of the most recent successful negotiations, such as national action plans, could have provided inspiration for the refugee summit. For example, once the national quota of responsibility for refugees had been fulfilled in one country, other states would have to step in to resettle refugees. States managing large populations of internally displaced persons could also be part of the scheme and count their efforts to provide protection and assistance to IDPs as part of their quota. The analogy to dealing with climate change can only go so far, yet there are similarities between the failure to deal with root causes, whether these are carbon emissions or conflicts, and in consequence the need for adaptation to a changing global reality.

The negotiations also lacked the participation of non-state actors. NGOs, such as NRC, were granted limited inputs into the process but were prepared to push for a more ambitious outcome had we been consulted. What about the large resources that the private sector can contribute to resettlement, jobs, livelihoods and education? A mechanism to provide lasting solutions could only be enhanced if companies are given the chance to be involved and to create job opportunities, graduate training schemes, and business hubs that benefit both refugees and local communities. A truly strong mechanism to share the responsibility for refugees needs to involve all actors so that they can play to their strengths, and so that the negotiation outcomes rest not on the realpolitik of states, but on a communal desire for change.

States have now been given two years to negotiate an actual solution. This respite cannot be an excuse for complacency or for more fruitless meetings to reaffirm existing laws. We are deeply disappointed with yesterday’s outcome. But we must seize the coming months to ensure that a substantial, innovative and inspiring solution is put in place. This political process that has been launched is an opportunity to change the lives of millions of people. We cannot and must not waste it. Sixty-five million people are waiting.

Dr James Munn is the Director of Norwegian Refugee Council Geneva and heads the Humanitarian Policy Unit.