The Refugee Crisis Is Real
Which is why we so desperately need a global deal to bolster a broken system. And if the United Nations won’t do it, the United States must.
A disturbing fault line is at the heart of global politics today. Our world is more interconnected than ever before, and yet the mechanisms and means for managing globalization seem less adequate to the challenges. The result is predictable: a backlash against global engagement born of frustration, fatigue, and fear.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the global refugee crisis. Sixty-five million people around the world were displaced by conflict, persecution, and human rights violations in 2015, an increase of 5.8 million over 2014.
Less than 1 percent of refugees returned to their home countries in 2014, and according to the United Nations, the average duration of displacement has risen to 17 years. In 2015, the U.N. appealed for a record $20 billion in order to address global humanitarian needs. Despite tremendous generosity, these appeals faced an unprecedented 45 percent shortfall. The desperation is rising among refugees and in the countries to which they are fleeing. This includes places such as Turkey and Kenya, which are among the largest refugee-hosting countries, as well as European states such as Germany and Sweden, which have welcomed a large number of refugees in the last couple of years.
We know from previous crises — for example, the rapid depletion of the ozone layer in the 1980s or the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s — that these events produce two reactions. Countries either decide that the problem is too big for them to make a difference, and shy away from commitments and obligations, or the international system comes together in recognition that no meaningful solution will work unless it is truly collective. We are at such a moment in the handling of the refugee crisis.
There is pressure to close borders and repatriate those fleeing — a result that would only empower people smugglers. There are politicians who equate refugees with terrorists — stoking fear and turning communities against each other. This vicious cycle urgently needs to be reversed.
An opportunity presents itself at two global summits taking place this week. The first is the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants, which is being organized by the president of the U.N. General Assembly. Beginning on Sept. 19, its purpose is to bolster the front-line states that are hosting the vast majority of refugees, to galvanize greater global responsibility sharing, and to create a new set of international principles on refugees and migration.
Although a great deal of commendable effort has gone into preparing for this meeting, the blueprint for the summit released by the U.N. last month suggests that it is likely to yield milquetoast restatements of already agreed-upon principles rather than meaningful changes in how nations share responsibility for refugee support. This would be a disappointment. With the world facing record numbers of refugees, we cannot simply produce general statements of intent. We need actionable commitments to which states can be held accountable.
If the U.N. summit falls short, it will become all the more important for a separate summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama (the following day) to deliver. By demanding that countries “pay to play,” the president’s initiative aims to catalyze substantial commitments on refugee resettlement, as well as create employment and education opportunities for them in host countries (which are generally low- to middle-income, such as Lebanon or Pakistan).
The president’s summit offers an opportunity for the United States to lead by example and increase humanitarian commitments globally, but the international community must address three areas — both at these meetings and in the follow-up that must occur.
First, a sea change in support to refugee-hosting countries is imperative. Some 85 percent of refugee-producing countries are outside the OECD club of rich countries. This year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a “new model of how [g]overnments, local communities, the private sector and aid organizations work together for people in crisis.” Countries hosting refugees need more (and more efficient) resources to provide safe and dignified accommodation for refugees.
This means investing in evidence of what works in crisis settings. Specifically, the U.N. should develop shared outcomes for people affected by conflict similar to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted last year. This would keep the focus on measurable global commitments to the displaced in areas such as income and access to education; ensure accountability in meeting these commitments; and make sure that programs are not only cost-efficient but cost-effective so that precious resources are used to best effect.
Second, countries need to harness the independence of the displaced. Refugees kept in camps feel like a permanent underclass trapped in dependency. But if countries get them out to work, they can contribute to the economy. The World Bank estimates that for each 1 percent increase in the population of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Lebanese service exports increase by 1.5 percent. To realize the full benefit of hosting refugees, they must be granted the opportunity to work. The private sector and actors such as the World Bank have a leading role to play in generating jobs.
Third, resettlement — the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another state — must be expanded. Resettling 10 percent of the global refugee population — 1.6 million refugees — over the next three years strikes the appropriate balance between a target that is achievable and one that would truly make a difference for hosting states carrying a disproportionate responsibility. This is a mere half a million per year, collectively — only a tiny fraction of the legal migration that rich countries facilitate each year on non-humanitarian grounds. The United States has historically been a leader in resettlement and has proved that the process works, with robust security screening (taking 18-24 months on average) and integration programming that quickly moves refugees from aid dependency to economic contribution. Washington should raise the number of U.S. refugee admissions to 140,000 next year. Resettlement is not only the right thing to do; it is a smart investment.
At the International Rescue Committee last year, 88 percent of refugees we resettled enrolled in an employment program and were employed; and in 2009-2011, refugee men above the age of 16 were more likely to be working than their U.S.-born counterparts. Resettlement not only provides a pathway to hope for the world’s most vulnerable people. It also shares the load with those countries that already host large numbers of refugees.
It takes collective government leadership, business innovation, and popular mobilization to solve the world’s problems. The summits in September are a chance to engage across all three of these pillars to find solutions to this crisis and to begin developing a better humanitarian system that can handle problems of this magnitude when they inevitably erupt. The price of failure goes far beyond the agony of the displaced — nothing less than the future of the international order is at stake.
Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images