Can the U.N. Halt the Rising Tide of Refugees?

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A Syrian boy carries customers' goods in the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, on September 17. Stewart M. Patrick writes that many powerful countries, including the U.S., have concluded that addressing the plight of refugees is less onerous than trying to end violent conflicts through more coercive means. Muhammad Hamed/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly is a noisy affair and, like Churchill's pudding, often lacks a coherent theme.

This year is different. World leaders will convene two special sessions to address the flood of refugees and migrants from global conflict zones—and make promises to alleviate their suffering.

Expectations for the first meeting, hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, are low. It will produce no more than a consensus declaration that is long on platitudes and short on action.

The second, led by President Obama, is more promising. It should generate meaningful national pledges of aid.

But to make a real dent, the assembled nations must get serious about ending chronic displacement by focusing on cures rather than palliatives. And that, alas, is unlikely to happen.

Globally, humanitarian needs have never been greater. From Afghanistan to Syria, Libya to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan to Yemen, grinding conflicts have driven a record 65.3 million people from their homes. Nearly two-thirds of them, or 40.8 million, are internally displaced persons (IDPs). The remainder includes 21.3 million refugees who have fled across national borders and 3.2 million asylum seekers.

This displacement surge has outstripped the response capacities of the international system. Emergency appeals by the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Action secure only a fraction of the financing required to meet basic human needs.

Last January, a high-level U.N. panel documented a $15 billion annual shortfall in global humanitarian funding. Lacking sufficient money, agencies like the World Food Program have slashed rations and other services to displaced populations.

Unfortunately, lack of funding is just one of several cracks in the foundations of humanitarianism. Six others stand out.

First, combatants are increasingly targeting aid workers and their civilian beneficiaries in violation of international humanitarian law.

This is most egregious in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad's army has repeatedly bombed hospitals and attacked relief convoys destined for beleaguered residents of Aleppo and other cities. But it is a worldwide phenomenon, and its perpetrators are not being held to account. And it is leading aid groups to pull out of some of the most desperate situations, leaving civilians in peril.

A second defect is the failure of U.N. member states to live up to their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Human rights groups, for instance, accuse Australia of shirking its responsibilities by holding asylum seekers indefinitely in offshore detention centers (including on Nauru, where some have been victims of child abuse) and transferring refugees to third countries (like Cambodia) where their safety cannot be guaranteed.

On the other side of the world, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has criticized the EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of refugees and other migrants as a potential violation of the legal principle of non-refoulement since it risks returning refugees to countries where they have a legitimate fear of persecution.

Third, the Refugee Convention itself has troubling gaps. It offers protections for refugees but not for IDPs, and it does not address the often blurry line between refugees and economic migrants—categories that begin to merge the farther refugees get from their country of origin.

Nor does it address the growing phenomenon of "survival migrants"—those who cross international borders to escape deprivation, even death, thanks to collapsing governance or climate change–induced famine.

A fourth deficiency is a churlish resistance by many U.N. member states to admitting refugees in situations where return to home countries or integration in place are not options.

Globally, the number of refugees officially resettled amounted to 107,100 in 2015, according to UNHCR, a drop in the bucket considering the worldwide caseload. Rising populism and nativism are partly to blame.

Last year, EU member states, led by Eastern European countries, rejected a proposed quota system to share the refugee burden equitably.

Bucking the trend is the United States, long the world leader in refugee admissions. The Obama administration recently announced its plans to raise the annual ceiling for admissions to 110,000 (up from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 and 75,000 in fiscal year 2015).

This could quickly be reversed, however, if the next occupant of the White House is Donald Trump, who like congressional Republicans has roundly (if speciously) criticized refugees as a threat to U.S. national security.

Fifth, existing arrangements for assisting refugees have not adapted to the reality of prolonged displacement.

Today, the average duration of displacement is an astonishing 17 years. Rather than simply warehousing populations until they can be returned or resettled, humanitarian actors must take a longer view, working with aid agencies to encourage development in place.

This includes investing in health and education, as well as working with host governments to provide livelihoods that leverage the skills and initiative of the displaced and contribute to local economies, and in a manner that benefits host nations.

Most egregiously, U.N. member states continue to employ humanitarian action as a substitute for riskier forms of diplomatic and military intervention that might reduce, contain or even end the underlying violence that is the root cause of this human suffering.

This indictment may come across as glib, as if there were some straightforward, cost- and danger-free way to end war in Syria, say, or in South Sudan. But the hard truth, as David Rieff has written, is that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. The causes and solutions to these complex emergencies are inherently and fundamentally political.

Viewed in this light, the current global displacement crisis is the logical outcome of political choices by powerful nations, including the United States, that have calculated that the cost of alleviating symptoms is less risky and onerous than attempting to end violent conflicts through other, more coercive means.

Given this dynamic, we should expect no breakthroughs in New York.

Monday's "Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants," hosted by Ban, will be a vapid affair. Member states will endorse by consensus an "outcome document."

The final draft, released in early August, contains some important language on upholding humanitarian law and treating refugees and migrants with respect. But overall it is a disappointing mélange of high-minded banalities with little operational significance.

To his credit, the secretary-general had pushed for something more substantive—notably, a commitment by U.N. member states to resettle 10 percent of the global refugee caseload annually. European nations, as well as Russia, shot down that idea.

More generally, countries deferred specific commitments for protecting refugees and migrants until 2018, at which point member states are to draft two separate global compacts (one for refugees and another on migrants). The end result is a missed opportunity.

Those hoping for more concrete action will need to wait a day longer.

On Tuesday, September 20, the United States will convene a smaller meeting of several dozen U.N. member states. The event—co-sponsored by the governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden—is designed to generate firm national pledges from participants to do more to confront the global humanitarian crisis.

In calling for this meeting, President Obama is hoping to replicate the successful special session on peacekeeping he held at last year's U.N. General Assembly, which generated major new commitments from troop-contributing countries (including China), among other breakthroughs.

The president is employing the same pragmatic "mini-lateral" model of international cooperation this year, convening a subset of U.N. members who share common objectives and have tangible capacities to bring to the table. Call it "global pay to play."

The White House has established several tangible goals for the event, seeking commitments to

  • Increase global response to U.N. humanitarian funding appeals by 30 percent
  • Increase the number of regular humanitarian donors by at least 10
  • Double (at a minimum) the number of slots for refugee resettlement globally
  • Increase by at least 10 the number of countries admitting refugees
  • Enroll 1 million refugee children in school and provide 1 million refugees with lawful employment

Hitting these targets would go a long way toward alleviating the immediate plight of the world's more than 20 million refugees. But to turn the tide of the global displacement crisis, U.N. member states will need to devote more than resources.

They will need to get serious about preventing and ending the violent conflicts that generate such misery in the first place.

Stewart M. Patrick is senior fellow and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Can the U.N. Halt the Rising Tide of Refugees? | Opinion