Refugee Crisis Calls for International Solidarity

On the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations, the UN director-general in Geneva asks what happened to international solidarity. The world, and not only Europe, is responsible for the refugee crisis roiling international relations.

Hungarian police and migrants at the border town of Roszke, Hungary, September 7, 2015. Paul Hackett/In Pictures/Corbis

Hungarian police and migrants at the border town of Roszke, Hungary, Sept. 7, 2015. Paul Hackett/In Pictures/Corbis

It is gratifying to see that our humanity is finally showing signs of life thanks to the generous reactions of German, Serbian, Austrian and other private European citizens, especially the Greeks and Italians, as the current refugee influx continues unabated. They follow the proud example of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt.

Our leaders are increasingly beginning to pay heed to how their voters tell them to behave and questioning their pandering to anti-immigration voices.

The negative narrative on refugees and migrants depicting them as terrorists, criminals and job-stealers is finally beginning to change, allowing more accurate depictions of reality to prevail: the clear economic and social benefits to the receiving countries and to their countries of origin. And the indisputable fact that most European countries, and other developed economies, need to open their doors to substantial immigration in order to fill their present and future workforce requirements of both skilled and unskilled workers.

All this is positive, but not enough.

What happened to international solidarity? Why is it taken as a given—by the refugees, the migrants, the receiving countries, and by everyone else on the planet—that Europe is the only destination for these needy masses? This is an international problem and has to be dealt with as such. All countries should take part in the solution. International solidarity must be rekindled. It is to everyone’s benefit.

And it is a problem that has to be placed in its right context, namely a much broader and long-term refugee and migratory trend of which the current flow is only a temporary spike.

And what has happened to our collective institutional memory? This is not the first time we face a refugee exodus of this magnitude. Remember the Vietnamese Boat People?

From 1975 onwards, thousands of them took to the sea, trying to reach neighboring countries and, from there, the United States, Canada, and other countries willing to accept them. Thousands died in the process, human traffickers made fortunes, and the countries of first asylum sealed their borders or were about to. Donor fatigue set in quickly.

The problem seemed as intractable as the current one. And yet, a group of enterprising staff from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came up with a solution, the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), which was approved by an international conference in 1989. It successfully brought to an end a longstanding drama that saw the death and suffering of an untold number by creating an orderly process that distinguished between asylum seekers and economic migrants, established procedures for the resettlement of acknowledged refugees and the humane return to their country of origin (with appropriate assistance) of economic migrants with no asylum claim.

It created a mechanism that brought together all concerned countries and the international community at large and successfully resettled thousands of refugees over a period of seven years. All of them are today productive members of the societies that took them in.

The 1989 CPA is a good example of how things can be done when there is the will and the means to ensure the protection of, and assistance to, those who flee, in a humane and dignified manner. For such an approach to be successful under the current circumstances a number of things, beyond the urgent holding of a conference, have to happen:

—A number of receiving/screening centers have to be set up urgently in strategic transit countries like Turkey, Greece, Italy, maybe Tunisia (Libya when conditions permit), with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly running them, screening and handling the refugees/migrants.

—A return to clear universally agreed procedures to establish refugee status, their resettlement and the return to countries of origin of, and provision of assistance to, economic migrants.

—Temporary stepping up of search and rescue capacity in key points of the Mediterranean.

—Coordinated and robust programs of apprehension of people smugglers (it’s hard to believe that the European Union and Mediterranean littoral states cannot put an end to these abhorrent crimes).

—Negotiated agreements with the countries of origin of those determined to be economic migrants, where returns are safe and possible, to accept the return of their nationals and support their reintegration (with appropriate donor assistance).

—A global commitment to fund the creation and running of the centers, to fund a stepped up and improved search and rescue system, to substantially help fund the expenses of the primary receiving countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, and Italy (or see hundreds of thousands more people take to the roads to Europe) and to devise and fund much improved and targeted development interventions in the countries of origin of the economic migrants.

—The establishment of a massive information campaign aimed both at potential asylum seekers and economic migrants, explaining the procedures that are being put in place and the risks inherent in taking to the roads (including being returned to their country if they do not qualify as refugees).

—Proactively change the current negative narrative in actual and potential receiving countries based on social and economic facts.

Done right, these actions may prove that enlightened self-interest (both national and personal), humanity and international solidarity can be combined into a win-win outcome.

But all this will take time and only take care of the immediate problem facing us.

As mentioned earlier, what we are witnessing now has to be seen in a much larger context. UNHCR was created to provide protection and assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. It is currently overwhelmed, underfunded, and barely able to cope with its current enormous caseload. IOM—a largely technical agency outside the UN structure (but in strong partnership)—is equally stretched.

Apart from the loosely organized Global Forum on Migration and Development, there is no current formal international structure that deals with the long term implications of, and provides policy options for, future victims of man-made or natural (read climate related) calamities, both of which will define our daily lives to a greater extent and for far longer into the future than most of us care to think.

Until such a formal body is created, we need to give Sir Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Migration and Development, the mandate and the wherewithal to act as the catalytic focal point for action on how the international community learns from the lessons of the past and of right now in order to prepare for a difficult future.

Creating such a body is urgent. One way to start the process of doing so may be to decide on a greater integration of the work of UNHCR and IOM. This would include a concomitant change in their combined mandates to include the responsibility, with development partners, for proposing new long-term global policies for dealing with future flows. The Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next year would be one good place to have a discussion/decision on this. Another good opportunity is the November meeting in Valetta between the heads of state of Europe and Africa to discuss the African refugee and migration flow.

Another crucial element that needs to change urgently is the current relationship between development aid and humanitarian assistance. The former needs to be recalibrated so that it betters addresses the root causes of humanitarian problems and thus also addresses some of the more developmental activities that humanitarian agencies currently find themselves engaged in, further weakening their funding for acute humanitarian needs. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is a tireless proponent of this thesis and needs all the support that he can get.

Finally, all of this has also to be seen in light of the different policy frameworks that the world is in the process adopting, before the end of this year. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a climate agreement, and the recently agreed Disaster Risk Reduction Agreement will all set our common agenda for years to come and form the overall envelope within which future crisis have to be considered and acted upon. If we successfully implement the seventeen SDGs we will stand an immeasurably better chance at dealing with future refugee and migration issues such as the current one—or worse.

If we don’t, remember that any one of us may one day become the victim of a disaster, manmade or natural, and be in need of refuge. Empathy and generosity by us today will greatly improve the chances of the same being applied to our calamities tomorrow.

Michael Møller is the director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva.