How do you solve the refugee and migrant crisis? At the United Nations, which has by default inherited the pressing problem of the biggest movement of people from their homes since the end of World War II, you hold meetings, conferences, panel discussions, produce “outcome documents,” give speeches, promise to do more and weep, curse and vilify. At the end of the day, you go home.
That “home” is certainly not reached by a rubber raft floating across the choppy Mediterranean Sea or happens to be a makeshift tent set up in a treeless camp in the Jordanian desert or a hand-built mud-brick hut in tiny Gambia in West Africa. For the world’s 65 million “forcibly displaced” people — walking away from their homes because of poverty, conflict, persecution or all of the above — everything that is said and written at the UN at this stage in the world’s protracted refugee and migrant crisis is an abstraction.
That includes an already-agreed on document summing up the general principles of the conference, which makes no specific reference to the war in Syria and encourages “global sharing,” as Save the Children charity said during a recent unveiling of its latest analysis on refugees.
Yet, since the UN is holding its first-ever summit meeting on international migrants and refugees, on Sept. 19, it is finally tackling head-on a problem that has refused to go away and still yields record numbers: how many children who don’t go to school; how many suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome; how many go hungry or have no permanent shelter; how many are stateless or have no jobs, to start with.
This unprecedented conference at the UN, to be held in one day from morning to early evening, with heads of state and government, UN leaders and civil-society experts all lined up like immigrants at the dock to speak, will no doubt accomplish few immediate tangible benefits for the 65 million men, women and children who must keep themselves going on a willful mix of hope and despair.
Yet what the conference can achieve is gathering momentum to the next step, a “global compact” adopted in 2018 that will clarify who takes in how many people, a contentious issue that is being kicked down the road because no one can agree on such numbers right now.
“This conference, I think, will have the effect of highlighting, particularly through the involvement of heads of governments or states, the commitments at a very visual level,” said Peter Sutherland, the UN envoy on international migration, “and it will deal with the obligations to those who are refugees and to international migrants more generally.”
At the conference, which is being hosted by the incoming and exiting presidents of the UN General Assembly (Peter Thomson of Fiji and Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark) and was the initiative of Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, at least 170 people have signed up to offer their two cents (possibly more at the United States-led pledging conference the next day) on the mind-boggling flow of people, primarily from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, to Europe and other places throughout the world.
Held in two UN meeting halls simultaneously, these speakers include prominent leaders of countries both sending refugees and migrants to other countries and receiving them: Uhuru Kenyatta, president of Kenya; Enrique Peña Nieto, president of Mexico; Idriss Deby Itno, president of Chad; Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece; Matteo Renzi, president of Italy; Gerd Mueller, minister for economic cooperation and development for Germany; Stefan Lofven, prime minister of Sweden; John Kerry, secretary of state for the US; Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada; and Syria’s deputy permanent representative at the UN.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will not be attending the conference or the rest of the annual General Assembly debate, beginning on Sept. 20. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, will be at the UN instead for most of the week. Merkel is apparently focusing on business closer to home, including a local election in Berlin on Sept. 18.
Germany has been the largest recipient of refugees in Europe during the crisis, taking in more than one million people in 2015. This year, German authorities expect a big drop of refugees arriving. It is too early to tell, but according to some estimates, numbers in 2016 could fall by half if not more. Meanwhile, the number of asylum requests in Germany has risen since 2014, when it reached 173,000 requests. Last year, 442,000 such requests were processed. From January to August 2016, the number hit 564,506.
“In Europe, Germany and Mrs. Merkel have taken the courageous route and political cost for herself of accepting responsibilities, which are considerable, and numbers of refugees,” Sutherland said in an interview with PassBlue. “So have some others. Sweden has been a leading force, and there are others. But there are many EU states who have not taken up their responsibilities.” He credited Canada for its resettlement actions and “attempts to integrate.”
The conference, as Joseph Chamie, a former top population expert at the UN, wrote in PassBlue, has the complicated job of addressing the refugee and migrant human-rights paradox: that people have the right to leave their country, but they do not have the right to enter another country.
“Nearly 70 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 13, recognized everyone’s right to leave and to return to his or her own country,” Chamie wrote. “It did not include, however, the right for people to enter another country.”
It is “this internationally recognized and important distinction” that will provide the backdrop to the conference, Chamie wrote, adding that the meeting will “devote the day to consideration of migration issues that are challenging governments and populations worldwide.”
That includes finding ways to manage the influx in a more humane, organized fashion, which so far has eluded most countries in the world; and to ensure regular, orderly migration instead of using ad hoc arrangements that have been installed from the poorest countries to the richest, from those taking in the most Syrian refugees (Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) to those taking in the least (you know who you are).
The UN conference will stress that at the very least the world body’s 193 member states must ensure the safety and dignity of people leaving and entering their borders, based on an international refugee convention carved out in 1951. Its premise obligates countries that have signed the convention to offer sanctuary to those who are escaping from mortal conditions, Sutherland said.
Until now, the UN has avoided a conference on migration, although such movement is as old as humankind but may not always have occurred on the scale of a mass exodus as it is now.
The problem is that governments of wealthy, influential migrant-receiving countries have feared from the start that the conference would force them to accept laws and recommendations that do not match their national agendas and could limit their sovereignty over international migration matters.
Another factor influencing the results of the conference could be the enormous demographic imbalance between the supply of potential migrants, who are free to leave their homelands, and the demand for migrants, which is set by receiving countries.
At the end of 2015, just 10 developing countries were hosting nearly 60 percent of the world’s refugees. The average gross domestic product of those 10 countries was approximately $3,700; the equivalent amount for the US, by comparison, is approximately $54,600.
Germany is welcoming refugees because, among other reasons, its own population is declining fast and it views newcomers as important economically, providing labor and skills to keep the country productive. It also yearns to pay a moral debt left from the Holocaust.
The US, which took in 10,000 Syrian refugees last year, considered a drop in the bucket by refugee and human-rights groups, also avows the financial benefits of resettling refugees while invoking the high-road effect.
As Chamie also points out, another factor influencing dialogues is the gap between government and public views over international migration policies. While most governments tend to favor immigration, the public mostly wants policies favoring less immigration.
That is where some politicians, like Merkel, have stepped close to career disaster, finding themselves shouldering political risks when they stick to their pledges of welcoming “the other,” but leaving themselves vulnerable to far-right politicians spouting xenophobic rhetoric to win votes.
Merkel is still in office and the UN is still willing to manage the crisis because no other international institution, including the European Union, has the ability to bring all the world’s nations together under one roof to talk through the sources of the problems and try to begin to collectively solve them.
That does not mean the problem will be wrapped up in one or two days, of course. Nor will the conference present a harmonious picture, like those Group of 20 photo ops, where handsome, well-fed and well-dressed participants stand side by side, mostly smiling. Too many countries, as leaders all over the world have expressed, do not want newcomers and their baggage: religious, cultural and other identities that could seemingly disrupt national accord.
At Obama’s pledging conference, the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, taking place at the UN on Sept. 20, the real talk — on refugees and not on migrants — will be heard: what countries will pledge moneywise to humanitarian appeals and international organizations; how many refugees they will admit through resettlement or other legal means; and how to improve refugees’ “self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work” — that is, increase the number of refugees in school globally by one million and the number of refugees granted the right to work by one million.
What will be important to listen for, said Karen AbuZayd, an American diplomat who organized the migrant-refugee meeting, is the difference between what leaders say on that day and what they commit to the next day, a compare-and-contrast exercise. (Besides the US, other countries hosting the pledging gathering are Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden.)
Look at extra things, AbuZayd said, such as language-training proposals; “scrutinize what they say.”
The US, for example, wants to guarantee children refugees a place in education around the world, reiterated Gordon Brown, the UN’s envoy for global education and former British prime minister, adding that 10 million refugees are children, and most are not in school.
“If you want to slow the pace of movements in Europe,” Brown said at a press conference on Sept. 16, “provide education in the Middle East region of refugees.” He has been toiling for years to get more Syrian refugee children in schools, especially in Lebanon, but international pledging money is always short, to which he says, “How is it we do least for them?”
One large American alliance of international nongovernment organizations, InterAction, has made a commitment from 30 of its members to invest more than $1.2 billion in private resources on global humanitarian assistance over the next three years on such needs as medical assistance, food and nutrition, shelter and education to refugees and displaced people.
During the buildup of the conference last week at the UN, plenty of meetings echoed the conference’s main themes: Syrian refugees at one panel detailed how horrible life is — if “life” is the right word — inside the country (no water, food, medicine or electricity in besieged areas). Yet they admitted how painful it is to pack up and leave Syria, giving up all they know.
These same Syrians, speaking on a panel presented by Independent Diplomat, a nongovernment organization that was not granted a chance to speak at the Sept. 19 conference because it was apparently blocked by Morocco, reminded the audience how much they felt “abandoned” by the world twice over, for not ending the war in Syria and for shutting the door when they seek refuge.
For those who have stayed in Syria, they described how their inability “to feel dignified in their existence in their country” haunts them above and beyond the challenges of foraging for food and praying to remain in one piece as their government bombs them mercilessly from above.
The Syrian war has catapulted millions of refugees across the Middle East and Europe, as well as farther afield, in much-fewer numbers. The main driver of their march has been the persistent bombing of innocent humans and the world’s inability to stop President Bashar al-Assad from butchering his own people.
“Help us get rid of dictator Bashar al-Assad; everyone’s life is affected; it’s personal,” said Ibrahim Al-Assil, a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.