President Barack Obama’s summit on refugees and migrants during the U.N. General Assembly was championed as a ‘bold’ show of commitment by the world’s leaders. And today, Reuters reported that the Italian Coast Guard had rescued 5,650 people from 40 boats, among the highest number of people rescued in a single day.
Experts and advocates were nearly unanimously critical of the summit. Two weeks after the event, the excitement is gone, and the reality that there is an ongoing refugee and migrant crisis with no end in sight remains.
“When I was a refugee, I wasn’t just granted asylum. I was granted the opportunity to lead a productive life, and opportunities to study and aspire,” said Oxfam International head Winnie Byanyima, who was made a refugee by the dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda. “Refugees need chances for work and education and everything else that enables them to lead a dignified and productive life.”
A declaration adopted by U.N. member countries set out basic tenets to protect refugees and migrants, such as ensuring basic rights, providing education, preventing gender-based violence and finding new homes. The points affirm basic humanitarian principles, something celebrated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the opening of the summit.
“Today’s summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility,” he said.
Those collective efforts produced a document that humanitarian organizations say carries little weight and pushes off addressing the problem. It will not even take effect until 2018. With no way to enforce it, the document that calls for “concrete results” sets up a game with no rules and distant goal posts. An opportunity to direct the pressure on European countries caused by mostly Syrian refugees seeking asylum toward solutions that can help refugees everywhere was wasted.
“Many of the right things were said before and during the summit, but it’s the follow up, the actions taken, that will dictate how much those words mean for the more than 65 million people displaced globally – the most there have been since World War II. Many concerns have already been expressed. Based on what our teams are seeing while providing emergency medical care to displaced people the world over, the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders has its own as well,” said the medical aid group about the event.
The summit was destined to fail because there are few singular solution to the problems facing the tens of millions of refugees around the world. Human Rights Watch warned a month ahead of the summit that the biggest challenge would be defining the problem. Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram have different needs from Syrians uprooted by civil war and the persecuted Rohingya people in Myanmar. Additionally, new global problems such as climate change and food insecurity are displacing people from their homes and not counted as refugees by the U.N.
World leaders opted to focus on other things. British Prime Minister Theresa May made distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants one of her top concerns at the summit. She also pressed the importance of refugees remaining in their first safe country of arrival – which means keeping Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbors straining under the weight of the influx.
Major policies did not change, but more money did come in. More than 50 countries pledged $4.5 billion to support the groups helping refugees. It is a major boost to the groups working on the ground, but not enough. For perspective, the Syrian crisis alone requires $4.3 billion in additional funding according to the U.N. That is only for 2016. If the trend continues the appeal will increase for 2017.
Critics also called attention to the need for political action, like stopping the fighting in Syria, to reach real solutions.
“Rich countries must urgently step up to welcome, protect and support refugee,” said Byanyima. “This marks a low moment for the international community: It is absurd for some rich governments on one hand to fuel violence and conflict through breaking international humanitarian law and selling arms into fragile states – and then grandstand about bolting their doors to the girls and boys fleeing from them, for their lives.”