U.N. Lauds ‘Breakthrough’ Refugees Declaration, But Will It Have Teeth?

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“Historic.” “Breakthrough.” “Watershed moment.” Those were some of the words the United Nations used to describe the declaration for refugees and migrants that was signed by all 193 U.N. member states in mid-September.

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Credit: UN Photo / JC McIlwaine
A woman prepares to clean a fish in Nyal payam, South Sudan. In September 2015, 18,000 more people reportedly came to the area in search of safety after violence broke out between the South Sudan government and the armed opposition forces. Since then, the conflict has forced millions from their homes.

The signatories pledged, in the slightly paraphrased words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants regardless of status; increase support for the countries hit hardest by the massive influx of humanity; ensure that children get an education; prevent gender-based violence; improve search and rescue operations; and boost humanitarian funding and resettlement of refugees.

Days after the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was signed, world leaders adopted it at a summit meeting at the U.N. It was the first time the General Assembly had called for a summit to address the large movements of people and, ostensibly, come up with a solution. The U.N. again sang its own praises, calling the nonbinding declaration “a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response.”

What does that mean? It’s a bit like a cover letter for a job where the applicant includes all the keywords that they think they need to get the hiring manager to notice them, but doesn’t really say much about him or herself.

The final, watered-down declaration shied away from a prior commitment to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees in the developed world. Instead, summit leaders promised to reach a concrete “global compact” in two years. In the meantime, they offered lofty but vague and unenforceable platitudes to help the 65 million people forced to flee their homes because of violence, conflict or persecution, in the largest exodus of humanity since World War II.

Alexander Betts, the director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, agreed that the declaration is “abstract.” In fact, he says it’s inevitable that it would be. Betts said that even though the declaration contains “important ideas” — including that refugee camps should be the exception, refugee children have the right to an education “and refugees are a shared global responsibility” — it would only be of value “if states could be held accountable to these commitments.”

Ban said the same. The secretary-general, who was himself displaced by war when he was growing up in Korea, said, “The New York Declaration can make a real difference in the lives of refugees, but only if the leaders who adopted it make good on their promises. 

The big question is: How do you get them to do that?

You could try galvanizing significant new global commitments to increase funding for humanitarian appeals and international organizations; admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways; and boost refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work.

That’s what President Barack Obama tried to do the day after the first U.N. refugee summit, when he co-hosted a high-level meeting on the refugee crisis. Obama hosted it with Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden, all of which have taken in refugees; in all, 30 countries took part. After a day of speeches, those countries pledged a $4.5 billion increase in humanitarian aid for refugees, promised to provide education for 1 million additional refugee children and said they would more or less double the number of refugees they take in.

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Credit: UN Photo / Evan Schneider
A group of young Somali girls is pictured at the Ifo 2 Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya, which is supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Recently, the Kenyan government has been pressuring thousands to leave the sprawling refugee camp and return to Somalia.

For his part, Obama said he would raise the number of refugees the U.S. would permanently resettle from 85,000 in fiscal 2016 to 110,000 next year. Already, the U.S. has accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year after barely accepting any since that country’s civil war broke out (although that 10,000 is still paltry compared to the 4.8 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan).

Among the other pledges Obama secured: Turkey and Jordan would tentatively pry open their labor markets to Syrian refugees (though most are still barred from legally working in both countries), and nations like Argentina and Portugal will start their first-ever resettlement programs.

The promises look good on paper, but there have been similar conferences in the past and not everyone who said they’d help actually did. Other countries simply throw money at the problem without taking in any refugees, as seen in the European Union’s plan to give Turkey financial incentives to take back refugees arriving illegally in Greece.

“The focus of these meetings has become removed from challenges on the ground,” Betts wrote in an editorial published in the Irish Times. “Grand declarations are one thing, but when people are suffering around the world, and governments are dying, was this strategy [holding U.N. meetings] really the best use of finite political capital?”

The U.N. insists that holding the high-level meetings and signing the declaration were the right things to do. The world body says all it was really asking member states to do was come up with a roadmap for a better response to this unprecedented mass movement of people.

Abysmal Response

A better response is needed, because the response in some countries has been downright abysmal. Take Australia. It has been roundly condemned for the flagrant abuse of asylum seekers and refugees, many of them children, whom it holds on the remote Pacific island of Nauru.

“It is current government policy that no person who arrives in the country by boat seeking asylum (plane arrivals are not subject to ‘mandatory detention’) is ever settled in Australia. Instead, they are sent to Nauru, or to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, for ‘offshore processing,’ a bleak dysphemism because no genuine resettlement ever takes place,” the Guardian newspaper reported in August, when the human rights abuses that were taking place with the tacit approval of the Australian government came to light. (In April, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Manus detention center was illegal; Australia agreed to close the center but refused to resettle the detainees there. Nauru remains open.)

The Nauru files set out as never before the assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government, painting a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty,” the Guardian article said.

Meanwhile, some 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan have been sent back to their war-torn country by authorities in Pakistan, according to an extensive report released by Amnesty International in October. Kenya is pressuring refugees in the sprawling Dadaab camp to return to Somalia. Rape is so common among women refugees from sub-Sahara Africa who pass through Libya’s smuggling routes that they told Amnesty they took contraceptive pills before traveling to avoid becoming pregnant. Rohingya refugees from Myanmar suffered for weeks on overcrowded boats in May 2015 while Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia bickered over who should help them. Those who were taken in by Malaysia have had to endure overcrowding, disease and the risk of physical and sexual abuse in detention centers, Amnesty said.

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Credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten
Children listen to their teacher at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan, which has grown to house nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees since it opened in 2012. UNICEF has established nine school complexes at the settlement to ensure seats for the 28,000 school-age children living at the camp.

UNHCR recorded 1,100 deaths at sea in Southeast Asia, mostly Rohingya refugees, from January 2014 to June 2015. More than 3,500 refugees and migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe in the first nine months of 2016. In response to this migrant crisis, European nations from Hungary to France to even once-welcoming Germany have been slamming their doors shut.

Not surprisingly, the European Union, which prides itself on its strong democratic principles and respect for human rights, does not come away from Amnesty’s scrutiny unscathed. “The EU is pursuing dodgy deals to limit flows of refugees and migrants with Libya and Sudan, amongst others. Refugees suffer widespread abuses in immigration detention centres where they are held unlawfully, without access to lawyers, following their interception by the Libyan coastguard or detention by armed groups and security officers. The security forces Sudan uses to control migration have been associated with human rights abuses in Darfur,” Amnesty notes.

Another myth is that rich nations are taking in their fair share of refugees. Au contraire, says Amnesty. The world’s wealthiest nations, including EU member states, the U.S. and Canada, have offered to resettle less than 10 percent of refugees who are looking for a permanent, safe home. Out of the world’s 193 countries, just 10 — Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda — host more than half of the world’s 21 million refugees. (Incidentally, those 21 million refugees account for just 0.3 percent of the world’s population.) None of those countries is wealthy, but all happen to be next-door neighbors to a country that is racked by violence.

Meanwhile, right-wing groups in the U.S. issue dire warnings that the Obama administration has plans to admit 110,000 refugees into the country in the next fiscal year. Jordan, which has nowhere near the landmass, infrastructure or financial wherewithal of the United States, hosts 2.7 million refugees, more than any other country.

In another misunderstanding, many Americans equate the word refugee with Syrians and the word Syrians with Muslims. Neither is correct. While Syrians deserve the attention they’re getting as much as they deserve a safe haven, they aren’t the only ones seeking refuge from persecution and violence. More than 1 million people have fled South Sudan, the world’s newest nation (and one that can’t seem to find a way to keep the peace between rival politicians and their backers). The Rohingya people continue to flee Myanmar. India has for decades housed Tibetan refugees, and some of the Bhutanese who were expelled from their mountain homeland starting in the early 1990s because they had Nepalese roots have spent decades in squalid camps in Nepal.

According to the State Department, the United States admitted 84,995 refugees in the recently ended 2016 fiscal year. More than 70 percent fled five countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia, “where protracted conflicts have driven millions from their homes,” the State Department said. Nearly three-quarters of resettled refugees in FY2016 were women and children. A growing number of refugee children were born in refugee camps.

Involuntary Choice

Refugees leave their homelands because they have to, not because they want to. Migrants are seeking economic opportunities. Refugees are fleeing war, persecution and disaster.

“A family’s decision to leave is always tragic,” said Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross, at the U.N. summit on refugees and migrants.

“People have lost so much. They are desperate. They no longer see any future in the place which has been their family’s home for generations. Once they are forced to move, the journey is paved with insecurity. Migrants risk being detained. Families are separated. Relatives go missing. The initial tragedy meets more tragedy,” he said.

Jihan Daman has seen firsthand some of the horrors that refugees flee. She left Iraq as a refugee during the war with neighboring Iran, in 1985, when she was 15. She returned in May this year to open a trauma center in northern Iraq for internally displaced persons (IDPs), people who have been forced from their homes but have not left their country. The center serves around 100,000 IDPs — Yazidi, Christian, Arab, anyone who needs counseling.

During her stay in Iraq, Daman visited a village that had recently been liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters after being held for months by the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS.

“There was the silence of death. It was a really uncomfortable feeling to think there were people there two years ago and now there’s nothing. I saw a bike outside that a child was probably playing with when ISIS invaded,” she said.

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Credit: UN Photo / Rick Bajornas
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, arrives for a luncheon with President Barack Obama at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2016, when the world body held its first-ever summit on the refugee crisis.

She said that while she was in northern Iraq, three Yazidi girls who had been taken by the Islamic State as sex slaves asked to speak with her. “They were struggling with what they went through, with their emotions,” Daman recalled.

Common mental health diagnoses among refugees include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks, adjustment disorder and somatization — recurrent medical symptoms with no discernible organic cause. Children, who make up a large percentage of the current refugee population, are particularly vulnerable to psychological trauma. Nearly eight in 10 Syrian refugee children have experienced a death in the family; 60 percent have seen someone get kicked, shot at or physically hurt; and 30 percent have themselves been kicked, shot at or physically hurt. Almost half displayed symptoms of PTSD — 10 times the prevalence among children around the world. 

Daman is currently looking for funding so her Michigan-based NGO, St. Rita Family Services, can return to Iraq. 

Hamidul Hassan, a young Rohingya man from Myanmar (also known as Burma), told The Washington Diplomat at the UNHCR’s refugee congress in Washington that he left his home “because we are Rohingya.”

“We are Muslim, they are Buddhist and we don’t get what we want or expect from the government. The government doesn’t like us because we’re Muslim. They don’t like that we pray at the mosque,” he said.

He was one of tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled Myanmar on board boats. “We thought, ‘Malaysia is a Muslim country; maybe Malaysia’s government will accept us because we are Muslim.’ They did not,” he said.

But one year ago, he was able to make it to the United States, where the young man’s world changed. “Here, we can pray the way we want. We have a safe life. The government cares about the Rohingya,” he said.

‘Education, Education, Education’

Canadian Immigration Minister John McCallum told the U.N. refugee summit that countries need to provide refugees with “shelter, support but above all we need to provide education, education, education.”

Anyone who’s been a refugee says education is vital but very difficult for them to access. Lucy Poni Modi grew up in Kenya with her mother and five siblings after fleeing the long civil war in Sudan that eventually led to the birth of South Sudan. She said going to elementary and high school in Nairobi was relatively easy “because nobody asks a young child for their ID. But after secondary school, you have to have papers.”

Bahati Kanyamanza spent 17 years — more than half his life — in refugee camps in Uganda before he was resettled in the United States this summer. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he says education in refugee camps, at least the one he was in, leaves much to be desired.

“Many organizations focus on providing primary education,” which is not enough to help someone earn a living, he said.

“A child of 14 who’s only had a primary school education doesn’t have the skills or the knowledge or the capacity to support themselves. Stakeholders need to come in and provide secondary education programs, build schools in the camps and also give refugees access to a university education,” he said.

Some see the lack of education options for refugees as the UNHCR’s problem to solve. But Christopher Boian, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said the United Nations “does not do anything without the commitment and awareness and assent and the push by member states of the United Nations. It really is up to national governments and all the citizens of all the states of the world to make sure that this happens.”


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on October 30, 2016