It was a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for an adequate international response. Unfortunately it was a missed opportunity, as we have all learnt to expect of the international community in general, and the United Nations as its representative organ in particular. Words do come easy to them, but they are rarely followed by deeds. By the end of last year, according to the UN’s refugee agency the UNHCR, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. That was an increase of 300,000 over the previous year, and the world’s forcibly displaced population remained at a record high.
Displaced people, as a population, are the most vulnerable group of human beings. In a world in which the nation state still rules supreme, the breakdown of law and order within the state that causes displacement or forced migration leaves millions upon millions of people exposed to the most horrific human rights violations. The New York Declaration that concluded last year’s summit hit all the right notes. It made an array of commitments that should be implemented without hesitation or delay. They included protecting the human rights of all refugees and migrants, with a special emphasis on the rights of women and girls, promoting their full, equal and meaningful participation in finding solutions. Protection from sexual and gender-based violence, education for all children and end of children’s detention, in addition to eradicating xenophobia against all refugees and migrants, were at the heart of this international manifesto for refugees and migrants.
Yet the reality nearly a year later is no better. According to UNHCR, 20 people are forced to flee their homes every minute. Only last year, 10.3 million people were newly displaced by conflict or persecution. Around two-thirds of them were displaced within the borders of their own countries, a third are new refugees and asylum-seekers, and more than half of these are children. These figures should have sent tremors through the international community, followed by the creation of a clear and comprehensive humanitarian framework to assist displaced people. Such a framework needs at the very least to protect them from danger, but even this would be far from satisfactory.
One of the tragic modern phenomena of displaced people, internally or externally, is that in many cases it is no longer temporary. In some cases people are forced to spend the rest of their lives away from their place of origin. This requires a different type of response which acknowledges that there is high probability that refugees will stay in their first place of entry, or that they will require resettlement somewhere else for a very long time.
The 65.6 million people displaced by conflict, persecution or natural disaster have been let down by an international community that is long on crisis summits but short on effective action.
The daily tragedy of people drowning in the Mediterranean became a lasting and disturbing image of the misery that pushes people to risk their lives to escape conflict, oppression and devastating poverty. In cases of either emergency humanitarian crisis or protracted conflict, it is imperative for states, international organizations and civil society to work in full coordination. Regrettably they fail to do so. Though there are a multitude of international organizations, including UN ones, the international system failed to create a global governance that can deal effectively with migration, including those forced by war, conflict and natural disasters.
It would be an easy shortcut to blame all this on incompetence and inefficiency, but it runs much deeper. It is a reflection of abysmal suspicion, or even worse darker sentiment, of “the other,” even when economic logic dictates a need for migration. Recent refugee crises exposed the best and worst in individuals and societies. It is mainly neighboring countries, where 84 percent of refugees end up staying, that bear the brunt of dealing with refugees and almost all of them are developing countries with restricted resources. In some countries refugees amount to a large minority that without adequate support from wealthier countries place their resources under severe strain, not to mention the straining of delicate ethnic-religious-social demographic balances. This is the case for instance in Lebanon where one person in six is a refugee, or in Jordan where nearly one tenth of the population are refugees. Rejection and national-chauvinism have played more of a role in affluent parts of the world. In countries such as Hungary, Austria and Poland, xenophobia directed at Syrian refugees, who were escaping the horror of the civil war, is at its ugliest. It is more disturbing considering that this is still happening within the living memory of the atrocities of the World War II.
Despite the efforts of many honorable people in international organizations and civil society, and even individuals, who work tirelessly to alleviate the hardships of displaced people, there is no international system that provides a comprehensive and holistic answer to the complex and heartbreaking challenges posed by displaced people. In their time of great need they find the international community wanting or unwilling, and sometimes both.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg