The U.N. Migration Summit That Wasn’t
World leaders gathered in New York this week to discuss the migration crisis burdening Europe. But they left a special summit with more meetings, not any concrete plan for change.
When American Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed reporters outside of the United Nations Security Council Wednesday evening, more than 100 members of the press crammed in to hear whether the two top diplomats were on the same page about Russia's new airstrikes in Syria.
When American Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed reporters outside of the United Nations Security Council Wednesday evening, more than 100 members of the press crammed in to hear whether the two top diplomats were on the same page about Russia’s new airstrikes in Syria.
Less than an hour later, at another stakeout one floor up in the U.N. headquarters in New York, only a handful of reporters gathered to hear the results of the world body’s summit on migration, organized in large part to find a solution to the mass exodus of Syrian refugees to Europe, many of whom are fleeing the very regime the Russians continue to back.
The lack of interest in any announcement from the high-level meeting on the growing refugee crisis — the largest since the end of World War II — may be a symptom of how little was accomplished when world leaders gathered to discuss steps forward this week.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into Europe in recent months, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly and urgently called for a solution to the growing crisis, a message echoed by Pope Francis during his visit to the United States last week. The influx has overwhelmed European countries and political differences on treatment and reception of refugees have led to one of the worst political crises in the history of the entire European Union.
Earlier this week, Ban said “the international community must develop a response that is effective, feasible and in line with universal human rights and humanitarian standards, including the right to claim asylum.” That was before Russia began airstrikes in Syria, news that ended up dominating the closing days of the U.N.’s annual meeting.
Beyond the scheduling of even more meetings after world leaders part ways this week, the three U.N. officials who briefed the media after the high-level meeting on refugees had no concrete results to share.
Even as Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson walked up to the microphone, no one bothered to shush a group of chattering U.N. staffers talking loudly nearby.
“We are now going off in different directions,” Eliasson told reporters. “The EU will have a meeting with African Union in Malta, there will be a meeting in Turkey…and we will look forward to the pledging conference for assistance to Syria,” he said, adding that “apart from this, we may consider having a specific conference to try to bring in all the elements initiated by the United Nations but that we will need to discuss with our colleagues.”
The lack of definitive progress likely came as a disappointment to the nations most overwhelmed by migrants and refugees. On Tuesday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters that Hungary planned to use Wednesday’s summit to suggest a world-wide quota system to deal with the crisis.
But when Antonio Guterres, who heads the U.N.’s refugee agency, was asked to respond to that idea after the meeting he said only that it was “important” to hear Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s suggestion the global community bear more of the crisis’s burden.
Hungary has come under intense scrutiny for deploying its military and police to push back migrants and refugees who tried to cross the border from Serbia this month — a move Szijjarto defended Tuesday.
When asked about that use of force Wednesday, Guterres said that the U.N. has always “expressed the opinion that refugees should be received in Europe with a welcoming spirit, not with barbed wire or violence,” adding that it was a “total consensus” between every delegation present at Wednesday’s summit that “human rights and human dignity of migrants need to preserved in all circumstances.”
Hungary was one of only four EU states to vote against a quota system earlier this month that would distribute 120,000 refugees across the EU. On Tuesday, Szijjarto said that plan was already outdated by the time of the vote, considering that up to 10,000 migrants and asylum-seekers arrived on the Hungarian border each day this month and Germany expects to receive up to a million this year.
But according to Guterres, Orban, who has repeatedly said Hungary was not interested in welcoming Muslims, told the summit Wednesday that like every other refugee, “Muslims need to be respected and protected.”
For what little else that came out of the meeting, maybe that’s the one step forward worth noting.
Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Siobhán O'Grady was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016 and was previously an editorial fellow.
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