70 Years Since Geneva, Refugees Need Us More than Ever | Opinion

Seventy years ago, 145 countries signed the Refugee Convention in the wake of World War II and the displacement of millions of people around Europe. The convention was developed on the heels of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a recognition that the protection of individuals and their rights and liberties is grounded in moral, humanitarian and strategic imperatives. The convention obligates states to standards of treatment and protection of asylum seekers and refugees.

The nature and needs of refugees and asylum seekers have changed a lot since the signing of the Refugee Convention. Displacement today is an increasingly long-term phenomenon. The history is that most refugees came from wars between states. But today's refugees are the consequence of conflicts within states. Refugees are now displaced an average of 20 years, longer than ever before, and less than 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled. They displace multiple times internally before moving across borders, and 60 percent live in urban areas. They face limited economic opportunities, and women and girls face the all too common danger of gender-based violence—now a major claim for refugee status.

In stark contrast to when the convention was signed, at the end of 2020, there were 82.4 million individuals forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations—30.3 million were refugees, displaced across borders. The triple threat of conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating impacts of climate change have all contributed to this unprecedented situation—from Syria, to Venezuela, to across the Sahel, Yemen and Afghanistan. In fact, Syria's decade-plus war has produced the largest displaced population worldwide. In Afghanistan, a deadly mix of natural disasters and one of the world's worst conflicts have displaced 2.6 million people, the third largest displaced group worldwide. And in Yemen, a severe humanitarian crisis has internally displaced over 4 million people.

Displacement globally reaching an unprecedented high and becoming so complex coincides alarmingly with declining consensus and international cooperation from those who forged the convention. Though in theory this convention should pave the way for global support and robust protection for refugees, in practice it has become a political hot potato instead of chiefly a humanitarian policy priority. Over the past several years, we have seen a decline in resettlement and a hardening of asylum policies across the regions that once most firmly upheld these protections.

The number of countries receiving resettled refugees worldwide fell from 34 countries in 2017 to merely 21 countries in 2020. And the countries receiving these refugees? Nearly 90 percent are in low- or middle-income countries. Many of these countries are managing pre-existing civil unrest and violence, which has only been deepened by the pandemic, further diminishing capacity to provide refuge to those who are already vulnerable. Drilling in further, the Trump administration slashed resettlement in the U.S. by over 80 percent in four years, and the percentage of global resettlement needs met by EU states has never exceeded 2 percent—the pandemic curtailed EU efforts even further with considerable delays that overburdened refugees and their host countries.

Children sit by their shelter
Children sit by their shelter in Goudebou, a camp that welcomed more than 11,000 Malian refugees in northern Burkina Faso, on June 20, 2021. OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

With declining resettlement figures, one might wonder if the answer is to rewrite the convention. But that would be great work for diplomats and a terrible waste of time for refugees. The convention is principled and flexible. The answer instead is to refocus politics and policy about the idea of refuge itself.

To truly refocus on the central tenets of the convention, the U.S. and EU should work in lockstep on the global stage to coordinate their resettlement efforts to maximize protection, strengthen the global protection infrastructure and inspire a growing, diverse number of countries to participate in resettlement efforts. Those with the greatest resources should exercise the greatest responsibility.

Most directly, EU member states should resettle 250,000 refugees by the end of 2025, starting with pledging at least 36,000 places in 2022. The U.S. should not only unlock funding to meet its current refugee admissions goal this year but should also double the cap for next year. Both the U.S. and EU should urge other wealthy nations to start or scale up their resettlement programs, spreading the load so more countries participate. They should also cooperate and engage proactively with the organizations and coordinating bodies responsible for resettlement operations to ensure that key actors have adequate funding, support and information to meet rising resettlement needs.

But resettlement is not the only answer. The U.S. and EU should also support refugee-hosting states. The need for greater responsibility-sharing to better protect refugees, create durable solutions and support host communities is increasingly urgent. Recent trends in conflict and forced displacement require a shift from year-to-year provision of aid to support basic needs to a more forward-looking approach that includes diplomacy and incentives to allow refugees to thrive together with host communities. The U.S. and EU should provide more and better quality funding for protracted displacement situations, including by increasing multi-year, flexible financing to implementing partners and host governments. For refugees to thrive in host countries, the U.S. and EU must incentivize host government policy reforms that secure rights for refugees to work, access regular social services and contribute to their host communities.

Last month, the U.S. and EU reiterated their commitment to humanitarian leadership and upholding the international refugee protection system at a high-level resettlement forum. Yet states—with the U.S. and EU leading—need to narrow the gap between words and work. Millions of displaced people around the world are counting on us.

David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He was previously the U.K. foreign secretary.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.