Obama at UNGA: Refugee crisis a test of our humanity

At his last UN General Assembly, US president calls on member states to step up commitment to accept and help refugees.

New York – Calling the refugee crisis “one of the urgent tests of our time” and “a test of our common humanity”, US President Barack Obama kicked off his Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.

The meeting came a day after member states at the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees , which ultimately gives them two more years to negotiate their strategies and obligations on the refugee crisis.

Some 50 world leaders took part in Obama’s summit on Tuesday. Their participation was conditional on making new commitments to address the global crisis.

The detailed list of who pledged what has not been released, but a White House statement issued early in the evening said that the cumulative commitments amounted to a $4.5bn increase over 2015 levels and participating countries “doubled the number of refugees they resettled or afforded other legal channels of admission”. It also said that access to education and legal work for refugees was improved.

“I do think there’s a general feeling that things have hit some sort of a tipping point – the combination of events around the wold, and the fact that Syria keeps getting unbelievably worse” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, senior director for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

As world leaders took the podium to speak, each defended his or her own country’s track record in dealing with the 65 million people who have fled their homes around the world.

The United States itself has been accused of being slow to step up its efforts in taking in Syrian refugees, but has been making strides – in the 2016 fiscal year it took in 10,000 Syrians , a significant increase from 2015, when it took in 1,862.

Like governments in many other countries, the Obama administration is dealing with domestic political resistance – more than half of US state governors  said  in 2015 that they did not want Syrian refugees settled there.

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Some Eastern European states have sealed borders, asking their neighbouring states to do the same. There is a push in France to empty the Calais “Jungle” – the encampment holding at least 7,000 migrants and refugees, including 900 unaccompanied minors – into the UK, which, in turn, has expressed an interest in walling off the port to keep migrants out.

Australia wants the refugees and migrants detained and resettled off its shores. Most of Europe wants Turkey to keep the 2.5 million refugees it is hosting there, and is willing to give financial incentives to make it happen.

According to the UN’s refugee agency , after Syria, most refugees come from Afghanistan (2.4 million) – with the majority ending up in Iran and Pakistan, where they are vulnerable to abuse , exploitation and deportation .

Pledges, and then …?

It is too soon to say whether Obama’s summit will mean the international community has met the challenge of the refugee issue, said Josephine Liebl, who leads Oxfam’s UK policy and advocacy on humanitarian crisis.

“The UN Summit gave us [the]  NY Declaration – these were nice words but what we actually need is concrete action,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The next two years will be key … We would have wanted this to be the start of a more sane and humane approach to the crisis. But we need to wait to see whether governments will actually go back home and practise what they signed up for,” said Liebl.

Employing the same pay-to-play strategy he used at last year’s UN General Assembly, when he called member states to the mat for peacekeeping pledges, Obama drew 52 nations and organisations into the room on Tuesday.

Although the 2015 peacekeeping summit seemed to yield significant pledges  for peacekeeping troops, equipment and other support, fulfilment has been an issue.

The bulk of the 47 countries making pledges in 2015 have failed thus far to meet those obligations.

The possibility of member states not honouring their pledges is “an important question,” said Brooke Lauten, humanitarian policy and protection adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

There are mechanisms to monitor and pressure states to follow through with their pledges. But real consequences are few, she said.

“Will the wrath of the world community come down on them? No,” said Lauten.

The likelihood of member states throwing money at the refugee issue rather than committing to accepting and resettling refugees is “a huge, huge concern”, she said.

“The EU-Turkey deal is essentially the commodification of refugees,” said Lauten.

“They have become a commodity that you can buy and sell on the market … it’s about the externalisation of borders,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera