At the inaugural United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York City on Sept. 19, dozens upon dozens of speakers said their piece on the contentious subject of migratory flows concerning the world. But few offered specific ways to solve the global problem of people who are moving in desperate, sometimes deadly hordes from place to place, reflecting the enormity of the problem and the inability for countries to find a single way out.
Yet, the speakers clearly thought about what they wanted to convey to the global audience assembled at the UN, since it is a problem affecting all nations. Some moved toward the provocative, while others recited facts and figures or sounded alarms. Others, like Lebanon, displayed exasperation. (Storify assembled some of the speeches here.)
Two of the 14 opening speakers — going before the heads of state — stood out.
Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, caused a stir and much applause in the General Assembly Hall, when he broke ranks from the preceding six humdrum speeches, saying, “This should not be a comfortable summit,” and “this summit cannot be reduced to speeches and feel-good interviews, a dash of self-congratulation and we move on.”
Zeid spoke to the General Assembly audience after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, and the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, gave their speeches.
“The bitter truth is, this summit was called because we have been largely failing,” Zeid continued. “Failing the long-suffering people of Syria, in not ending the war in its infancy. Failing others in now-chronic conflict zones, for the same reason. Failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation.”
He identified that “an epidemic of amnesia is at the heart of this moral collapse in some quarters. Many seem to have forgotten the two world wars — what happens when fear and anger are stoked by half-truths and outright lies.”
In closing, he identified “the bigots and deceivers, [who] in opposing greater responsibility-sharing, promote rupture,” and that “some of them may well be in this hall this morning. If you are here, we say to you: We will continue to name you publicly. You may soon walk away from this hall. But not from the broader judgment of ‘we the people,’ all the world’s people — not from us.”
Although Zeid rallied the audience, the most compelling address was that of the final opening speaker, 23-year-old Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yezidi and UN goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.
Taha survived the August 2014 massacre of Yezidis, a minority religious group, in Sinjar, Iraq, and kidnapping by the Islamic State, or ISIS. Before the audience of international representatives, Taha gave a sobering face of vulnerable migrant lives so distant from midtown Manhattan.
In Arabic, she told world leaders: “You decide whether there will be war or peace. You decide to give hope or create suffering. You are the ones to decide whether another girl, just like me, in a different part of the world will be able to go on with her simple life or be forced, like I was, to experience suffering, bondage and rape.”
The conference then broke into two other meeting halls in the UN to give national leaders a chance to speak on the crisis in one day. The meeting was meant to show support in an international setting, the UN, for not only recognizing the catastrophic migration and refugee flows but also attempting to address the causes fueling the displacement of millions of individuals worldwide.
“We live in times that require boldness and courage,” Michel Temer, Brazil’s new president, told those sitting in the Trusteeship Council. Nearly bragging about how a Brazilian official who issued hundreds of visas during World War II to those fleeing Nazis was ahead of his time, Temer said, “We must be ahead of ours.”
With the 2030 sustainable development goals serving as an additional backdrop to the opening of the UN’s 71st General Assembly, its annual debate drawing world leaders, many speaking on Sept. 19 said that tackling the migration and refugee problem involves more than engaging in relief work and opening borders.
In fact, many leaders, including Theresa May, the new prime minister of Britain, emphasized strict measures to contain the chaos and not to repeat the upheaval that surprised Europe in 2015.
Latvia’s president, Raimonds Vejonis, said, for example, that the search for long-term solutions should be made through the lens of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals approved at last year’s annual debate. These goals, grouped under the heading of Agenda 2030, while not directly targeting refugees, address the human conditions that push people to seek new lives elsewhere.
The root causes abound: poverty, misery, unemployment, underemployment, inequalities, exclusion, discrimination and human-rights violations, said Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the president of Burkina Faso. “All of these are fertile ground for the large departure of populations.”
What also stood out among the speeches — perhaps up to half of the leaders listed by the UN did not show up to speak — was how certain nations have disproportionately inherited the burden of accepting refugees and migrants.
Kenya, which faced a huge migration flow after the civil war in Somalia, has committed $10 million toward addressing the situation, said President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Chad, one of the most struggling nations on earth, has absorbed thousands of refugees, while also having 130,000 of its own citizens waiting in the Central African Republic to return home, said President Idriss Déby.
“It is necessary to look at the causes of this humanitarian situation,” he said, including climate change, terrorism and violence. “We have to strike at the root of the evil,” rather than just dealing with the consequences.
Others looked at migration as a positive development for nations, although these were a minority. “Migrants symbolize the strength that has made humankind progress,” said President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. His country has not only served as a country of origin, but also a transit and receiver of migrants.
“For every river, there has always been a bridge,” he said. “For every obstacle, there has always been a way forward.”
Repeatedly, leaders said the burden of absorbing refugees needed to be shared much more equitably than in the current situation, where only about 10 countries are accepting most of the world’s homeless people.
Lebanon’s president, Tammam Salam, noting that more than 100,000 Syrian babies have been born in Lebanon — over 50 percent of them in the last 18 months — said, “It is unthinkable that Lebanon alone” could cope with this. Yet, ironically, it has been doing so for years.
“My country is in serious danger,” Salam said. “What the Lebanese have done by harboring 1.5 million Syrians,” and spending close to $15 billion on money it doesn’t have is unprecedented. Salam called for a burden-sharing of refugee quotas and intensification of financing of development projects both locally and regionally.
And then there is Greece, a way-station for so many people seeking better lives in Europe that 1.2 million migrants and refugees entered the country over the last year and a half.
“We need the promises kept to Greece to be kept,” said President Alexis Tsipras, calling for “many more relocations of refugees from Greece to other European countries.”
Without safer legal passage being established to control the flow of migrants, not only will the world have failed in its efforts, but it will also have given “space to nationalistic, xenophobic forces to show their face,” he said.
Indeed, the crisis offers nothing but complexities, which is why no international summit meeting on this scale has addressed it until now. To understand this inaugural meeting for refugees and migrants, three factors are important to know: definitions of those on the move, population vitals signs — how many are moving where and when — and what international laws are in place to protect these mobile populations.
First, definitions. People on the move generally fall into one of three main categories: refugees, internally displaced people or migrants.
Refugees are persecuted individuals who have crossed a national border: they have left their country of fear and crossed an international boundary to gain access to another country with the expectation of personal protection. This would be the bulk of people fleeing the conflict in Syria.
IDPs, or internally displaced people, have left their primary homes inside their country but do not actually leave the country. They do not cross a border. These would be the bulk of Syrians who remain inside Syria.
Migrants are a diverse pool of moving people who have left one country for another but who have no specific claim of threats or persecution. Nevertheless, they are looking for a better economic and social life outside their country of origin. This would include migrant workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh, working in the Gulf states of the Middle East.
What do the numbers look like? What are the population vital signs?
The best numbers come from the UN refugee agency and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, or IDMC, in Geneva. There are currently 7.3 billion people in the world. Of these, the UN refugee agency estimates that there are 65.3 “forcibly displaced people” worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The majority of displaced people in the world, people on the move, are IDPs.
According to the IDMC, there are now twice as many IDPs as there are refugees. “There were 40.8 million people internally displaced worldwide as a result of conflict and violence as of the end of 2015,” the website says. “This represents an increase of 2.8 million from our 2014 estimate and the highest figure ever recorded.”
This matters because the refugee and IDP populations are very different. The current greatest refugee-source countries are Syria, 4.9 million refugees, Afghanistan, 2.7 million and Somalia, 1.1 million. As of December 2015, three-quarters of the world’s IDPs, or 30 million people, were located in 10 countries, says the IDMC. Five of them — Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan — have featured in the list of the 10-largest displaced populations every year since 2003.
Two key international legal documents protect refugees: the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees — broadly referred to as the 1951 Refugee Convention — and the 1967 protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. There are 144 countries that have signed the convention, making them obliged to that law.
Many Middle East countries located at the heart of the current crisis are a signatory to neither. Yemen is the exception.
The 1952 Refugee Convention defines the term “refugee” and outlines the rights of the refugee and the legal obligations of the host country to protect them.
A refugee is defined as “owing to well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
IDPs have no specific legal protections, such as the UN Refugee Convention, but they are protected by national law, the larger framework of human-rights law and, if in a country experiencing armed conflict, international humanitarian law, or the rules of war.
According to the IDMC, there are now twice as many internally displaced people as there are refugees worldwide.
“Despite the fact that IDPs now make up two-thirds of the 60 million people displaced by conflict and violence worldwide, this week’s UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants does not plan to address the plight of internally displaced people (IDPs),” the IDMC website says.
“Failing to address internal displacement, when people are driven from their homes and seek refugee elsewhere in their country, amounts to treating the symptoms rather than the causes of the global displacement crisis,” said Alexandra Bilak, the director of the IDMC.
The inaugural conference on refugees and migrants revealed that there was no overt leadership taking the reins on the crisis. That was the speech that was not heard, but who might be willing to take those reins could become more apparent on Sept. 20, when the United States leads a pledging meeting. The US invited only countries that committed to specific contributions, leaving all others out.