New York – In a city famous for taking in waves of migrants and refugees over the past century, 193 United Nations member states discussed on Monday what to do with the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free – and agreed to keep discussing things for two more years.
After a vicious global debate that has resulted in anything other than what is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, UN members – especially some European ones – have done all they can to avoid the millions of homeless and tempest-tossed refugees.
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Borders have been sealed and asylum seekers denied and deported. Billions of dollars have been paid to one country, Turkey, to just stop to the flow of humanity into Europe.
Monday’s Migrants and Refugees Summit came at a time of crisis.
According to the UN, in 2015 there were 65 million forcibly displaced people. Of that number, more than 21 million were refugees, three million were asylum seekers, and 40 million were internally displaced people.
Still, in his final UN General Assembly as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon shone an optimistic light on Monday’s declaration on mass migration.
“This summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility,” said Ban.
“When we translate the New York Declaration, which we will adopt here today into reality, more children can attend school, more workers can securely seek jobs instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace, and increase opportunities at home,” he added.
Better late than never?
It is unclear if it is political pressure or bad publicity that prompted the UN to finally tackle the refugee catastrophe.
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As it stands, 2016 is on track to be another banner year for migrants and refugees, with the Italian coastguard rescuing 6,500 in 40 operations in the Mediterranean within 24 hours, and 3,212 dying during the journey so far this year.
Blaming “an epidemic of amnesia”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered a harsh rebuke on the sluggishness of international response.
“The bitter truth is this summit was called because we have been largely failing,” said Hussein, when he took to the floor 20 minutes after the declaration was adopted
“We’re failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation. It is shameful the victims of abominable crimes should be made to suffer further by our failures to give them protection,” said Hussein, whose speech received sustained applause.
The UN’s Human Rights office of the High Commission issued a statement on the declaration with its experts saying there are “areas of grave concern” in the document, such as the acceptance of child detention under certain circumstances.
The refugee crisis is not a monolith – while Syria is bleeding refugees because of its savage conflict, countries such as Eritrea, South Sudan, and Afghanistan also contribute to the global wave of refugees for other reasons, such as instability and economic crisis. Gang violence and narco-cartels are driving people from countries such as Honduras and Guatemala north to the United States.
Rights groups and non-government organisations say Monday’s UN declaration falls far short of where it should be.
“The appeals for help have been underfunded,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch, who criticised the member states’ rejection of Ban’s “ambitious but reasonable plan” to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugee population each year.
HRW issued a statement calling the declaration a “missed opportunity”.
Still, “there are some good things [about the new declaration], like affirming refugees’ human rights”, he said.
Civil society groups remain unimpressed by the language of the declaration. Joining forces with charities and NGOs, a coalition of 60 groups signed a statement/scorecard that “laments uneven commitments and lack of urgency to deliver a new deal”.
Mais Balkhi, advocacy and outreach manager for Syria Relief and Development, a US-based group that primarily offers food, shelter and medical aid to people – residents and internally displace people – inside Syria, said the UN’s approach is apolitical and timid.
“They don’t want to mix the humanitarian with the political,” she said, adding groups such as hers would like to see local communities and states get involved in refugee resettlement.
“It’s not just about the numbers … it’s also about helping people, about resettlement of the people you accept,” said Balkhi.
She said that member states with more experience with refugees should be compelled to offer support and expertise to countries that are facing the crisis for the first time.
It remains to be seen what the UN member states manage to agree upon and implement by 2018 – and if it will constitute a strident enough response.