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Spotlight on the United Nations Summit

Migrants and refugees walk to a waiting bus after arriving on a rubber dinghy on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 29, 2016. (Darrin Zammit Lupi for Jesuit Refugee Service)
Tuesday, August 09, 2016

(Washington, D.C.) August 9, 2016 — Prompted by concern for the unprecedented increase in the number of refugees and migrants in the world and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the failure of the international community to address the root causes of this increase and to respond to the needs of refugees and migrants compassionately, effectively, and in accordance with international law, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has called a High Level Meeting to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, to take place next month in New York.

Over the past several months, a series of preparatory meetings among governments and UN representatives have taken place, with input from civil society organizations. This process has resulted in a newly-released draft Outcome Document, and a series of commitments to principles and actions.

Early response to the document has been mixed, with great disappointment expressed that certain specific commitments referenced in earlier documents have been watered down or omitted. A proposed agreement to offer resettlement to 10 percent of the world’s refugees, was cut from the final draft, and a statement that the detention of children is never acceptable was changed at the insistence at the U.S. government. 

At best, the present document represents a joint exercise by states to collect, set out and reaffirm existing international law and good practice, and to pledge that the standards they embody, now too often ignored, will be put into wider use. It also recognizes a broad, emerging consensus on certain new principles for future action that have gained some traction over the past several years, such as the creation of opportunities for refugees to achieve self-sufficiency through access to legal work and to training; greater access for refugee children to quality education, including wider access to early childhood and tertiary education, an initiative strongly supported by Jesuit Refugee Service; greater support to refugee hosting communities and local governmental and private organizations; and more extensive engagement of development actors in support to refugee-affected countries.  

On the migration side, the document is clear that all migrants, regardless of their legal status, must be treated in accordance with their human rights as set forth in international law, a fact too-often forgotten by governments dealing with mixed movements.

In many respects, the high-minded declarations contained in the draft document are making a virtue out of a necessity. It has become woefully clear that traditional aid funding is far from sufficient to meet the most basic needs of people seeking refuge in neighboring countries. This failure to ease the suffering of desperate families has contributed to large onward migrations of people trying to reach the “promised land” in the form of developed countries in Asia and the West, often with great loss of life. 

Those who take such risks should be welcomed with compassion and solidarity. They must not be forced to do so by hunger and hopelessness. Badly shaken by the scale of recent migration, many destination countries have awakened to the fact that the widening gap between the amount and quality of support that can be provided by traditional sources and methods and growing needs has created a humanitarian catastrophe that they ignore at their peril. They have now awakened to the necessity to enlist wider resources, whether by enlisting institutions such as the World Bank to unleashing the talents and energies of refugees themselves.  

This realization offers some reason for hope that the fine words of the Outcome Document may lead to some positive actions, despite the deserved skepticism that such diplomatic exercises usually engenders. As a sign of cautious optimism, organizations such as Jesuit Refugee Service/USA are working together to support the development of a process to encourage action on the commitments and to monitor their implementation. The problems they seek to address will not go away of their own accord. Now is the time to summon all hands on deck to bring old principles and new ideas together to find solutions.  



read the documents here