Tackling the global refugee crisis: Sharing, not shirking responsibility

On 19 September 2016 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly collectively, and spectacularly, failed the 21 million refugees of this world.

The “High-level Summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants” was to address the global refugee crisis, a crisis in which, daily, millions fleeing war and persecution in countries like Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar and Iraq suffer intolerable misery and human rights violations. World leaders at the General Assembly agreed an Outcome document that said they would help, but agreed no actual plan. Empty words that change nothing.

No amount of post-Summit spin can or should be allowed to give comfort to the world’s leaders. Collectively they failed. Agreeing to cooperate to address the refugee crisis, while eschewing any specific action, is not progress. Deferring a global plan on refugees to 2018 is not progress. Removing the only tangible target – to resettle 10% of refugees annually – is not progress. Not all states failed, however. A few countries, such as Canada which has accepted 30,000 refugees in the past year, have shown leadership. But the majority spent the months leading to the Summit ensuring no progress could be made.

The UN Summit had a reasonable aim: to share responsibility for the world’s refugees among states. There are 193 countries in the world. And 21 million refugees. More than half of these refugees – nearly 12 million people –are living in just 10 of these 193 countries. This is inherently unsustainable. Countries hosting such high numbers of refugees cannot provide for them. Many refugees are living in grinding poverty without access to basic services and without hope for the future. Not surprisingly, many are desperate to move elsewhere. And some are willing to risk dangerous journeys to try and find a better life.

If all –or most – countries were to take a fair share of responsibility for hosting refugees then no one country would be overwhelmed. A “fair share” can be based on reasonable criteria such as national wealth,population size and unemployment rate – common-sense criteria which acknowledge that people arriving as refugees will, at first, have an impact on the local population and resources.

No doubt this solution will be condemned by some as too simplistic. But not by those countries that are hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. Those who do not want to take a fair share will find objections and cite reasons why it is unworkable. But that is a failure of leadership. It is also morally bankrupt and intellectually shoddy to fail to face up to reality. There are 21 million refugees and they need a place to live safely. The current “formula”, accepted by many world leaders, is geographic proximity to war-torn countries, regardless of the capacity of such neighbouring countries. It is hard to imagine a less useful basis for addressing any problem. But that is the basis on which many of the world’s leaders are operating.

When we break the global refugee crisis down by the numbers, the inequality in the response of states is stark. This is because the problem is not the number of refugees but that the vast majority (86% according to figures from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency) are hosted in low- and middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, many of the world’s wealthiest nations host the fewest and do the least. For example, the UK has accepted approximately 8,000 Syrians since 2011, while Jordan – with a population almost 10 times smaller than the UK and just 1.2% of its GDP – hosts close to 655,000 refugees from Syria. The total refugee and asylum-seeker population in Australia is 58,000 compared to 740,000 in Ethiopia. Such unequal sharing of responsibility is at the root of the global refugee crisis and the many problems faced by refugees.

An initiative by President Obama, which followed the failed UN Summit, increased pledges from 18 countries to admit 360,000 refugees globally. But 360,000 has to be seen in the context of more than 21 million refugees worldwide, 1.2 million of whom UNHCR considers vulnerable and desperately in need of resettlement. In truth, we are almost nowhere in terms of real responsibility sharing.

It is not simply a matter of sending aid money. Rich countries cannot pay to keep people “over there”. The result is that people who have fled war are now enduring dehumanizing living conditions and dying of entirely treatable diseases. They escaped bombs to die of infections, diarrhoea or pneumonia. Children are not attending school, with devastating consequences for the rest of their lives.

In any event, humanitarian appeals to support major refugee crises, such as Syria, are consistently, and severely, underfunded. As of mid-2016, governments around the world had pledged less than 48% of the amount needed by aid agencies to support refugees from Syria.

The total refugee and asylum-seeker population in Australia is 58,000 compared to 740,000 in Ethiopia.

Salil Shetty

More money is vital, but so also is the need to move refugees from places like Lebanon that are overwhelmed. When we look at it from the perspective of individuals affected, the refugee crisis seems enormous, but viewed with a global lens it is solvable. Twenty-one million people represent just 0.3% of the world’s population. Finding a safe place for them to live is not only possible but it can be done without any one country having to take in very large numbers.

Around 30 countries currently run some kind of refugee resettlement programme, and the number of places offered annually falls far short of the needs identified by UNHCR. With only around 30 countries currently operating such programmes, there is real scope for positive change. Make it 60 or 90, the situation will improve – and we are not yet up to half the countries in the world. If we can increase the number of countries resettling refugees from 30 to 90, we could make a significant impact on the crisis. More importantly, the lives of the refugees would be significantly improved.

(The above graphic excludes Palestinian refugees.)

So why is this kind of responsibility-sharing not happening? While we know some countries such as Germany and Canada have tried to meet the challenge – the prevailing narrative in many countries is xenophobic, anti-migration, and driven by fear and concerns about security. The public in some countries are subjected almost daily to misinformation. In other countries the scale of the global refugee crisis is not known. In yet others, the feeling of powerlessness leads people to turn away.

We need to change this, shift it to a narrative of generosity and positivity, one in which we can ensure security and help refugees – we do not need to make a choice. People can be moved to be part of a shared, fair, worldwide solution. And leaders should be making this case, not pandering to their own political ambitions.

The cost of failing to act is that we condemn millions to endure lives of unrelenting misery. The most vulnerable will not survive. Quietly, and in their thousands, vulnerable refugees trapped in unsustainable situations will die because they cannot get the help they need. They will die because some countries took in just a few hundred, leaving others with a million.

“It is very bad life. We are human, we cannot live as animals,” says Basel Tabarnen (above), 45,  a barber from Syria. He and his family – including his baby daughter – are among the many thousands of people stuck in refugee camps in Greece.  © Amnesty International (Photo: Richard Burton)

Of course there are challenges. Yes, not every one of the 193 countries is a safe place and we would exclude countries facing UN sanctions over human rights violations and those in active conflict. But if our starting point is 12 million people in just 10 countries, then the scope to improve the situation is vast.

Responsibility-sharing will remain an empty commitment without some kind of criteria or basis, a global system making clear how that can be done. We are proposing that basic common-sense criteria relevant to a country’s capacity be used to host refugees: its wealth, population and unemployment rate are the main criteria. Other factors may be relevant (population density, for example, and whether a country has a large number of existing asylum claims). No formula will be perfect, none should be overly complex. The purpose would be to give an indicative and relative number so that all participating countries would have a basis against which to assess their fair share and see what the fair share of others looks like.

In the face of brutal wars, we can feel like powerless bystanders, overwhelmed by the horror inflicted on our fellow human beings and the seeming impossibility of doing anything about it. But finding a formula to ensure just 0.3% of the world can go somewhere safe – this we can do. And we must.