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Refugee advocates say UN is reneging on response to global displacement crisis

A rubber boat carrying around 50 migrants and refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos in the early hours of the morning. (Credit: Christopher Jahn/IFRC/flickr)

World leaders will gather in New York in September for a United Nations’ special summit to deal with a grim global achievement – the record high number of refugees and forcibly displaced people around the planet.

According to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, war, persecution and other forms of conflict have forced more than 65 million people to flee their homes – about one in every 113 men, women and children on Earth. Never before, says the U.N., have so many people been on the run. 

But with less than a month to go before this international meeting aimed at resolving the crisis, many are expressing serious doubts about whether politicians will come up with any meaningful strategies or proposals. 

The doubts surfaced several weeks ago when U.N. member states rejected a proposal that set a concrete target for resettlement of refugees in developed nations. Instead, negotiators finalized a draft outcome document for adoption at next month’s summit that fell short of many advocates’ expectations.

With the fate of tens of millions of refugees and displaced people on the line, some member states fought to dilute the agreement to suit their own national and regional political agendas, prompting deep concern that leaders are not showing the necessary solidarity required.

“The Refugee Summit was a historic opportunity to find a desperately-needed global solution to the refugee crisis,” said Charlotte Phillips, advisor on refugee and migrants’ rights at Amnesty International. “Instead, world leaders delayed any chance of a deal until 2018, procrastinating over crucial decisions even as refugees drown at sea and languish in camps with no hope for the future.”

The original document, which will now not be officially agreed upon before 2018, called for wealthier nations to accept resettlement of at least 10 percent of the world’s refugees. This was expected to be a crucial step in reducing the massive burden on developing or even some middle-income countries, which are currently hosting the vast majority of the world’s refugees and migrants.

Now, it is unclear whether the current document will help lead to such a large-scale resettlement. But some rights advocates are holding out hope that next month’s summit will still prove productive.

Charitable organization Oxfam has been hoping next month’s summit will serve to encourage rich countries to welcome more refugees and require them to provide more aid, said Jon Scanlon, Oxfam’s Senior Alliances Advisor, in an interview with Humanosphere. This would include anything from pledges of humanitarian financing to flexibility around financing to respond to longer term needs.

The organization is also hoping to see countries provide a dignified future for refugees, including the right to work and right to education. 

Scanlon has joined colleagues in signing off on a letter to President Obama concerning the detainment of children. The statement argues against a language revision the U.S. has pushed for in the outcome document drafted earlier this month, which would permit child detainment to “seldom” be acceptable. Oxfam and others contend that child detainment should “never” be acceptable, as the letter argues, and they call for the U.S. to commit to ending the practice as early as possible.

“There is always the possibility with this stuff, because it’s a summit where you’re bringing in heads of state, heads of government, [that]you could see some last minute negotiations come in on any part of this,” Scanlon said.

Yet others are worried that any last minute negotiations may be too late for such a complex global crisis and that the effort may be futile if negotiators are unable to even define the problem correctly.

Human Rights Watch has argued that the current definition of what constitutes a ‘refugee’ is too narrow and leaves out millions of migrants whose lives and freedom are also in danger from reasons such as indiscriminate violence from armed conflict, natural and human-made disasters and widespread human rights violations.

In a similar vein, Oxfam is stressing the importance of including internally displaced people (IDPs) in the upcoming summit and future policy-making. Technically and legally, refugees and internally displaced people are distinct in that refugees are outside their country of origin, while IDPs are displaced within their own country. 

“Currently, a lot of the discussion is around refugees and migrants,” said Scanlon, “and we want to make sure internally displaced people are part of the conversation as well.”

“What we’re pushing for at Oxfam is for refugees to be treated as people – to be treated as humans.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at