What The World’s Refugees Need – And Fast

Serene Ho | SIPA Class of 2018

The United Nations has taken a step forward in saving refugees, but it hasn’t done enough – that was the overwhelming view at a high-profile panel last week debating the recent United Nations declaration concerning the world’s refugees.

The SIPA Migration Working Group, with the support of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative, held a follow-up symposium on the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants last Wednesday, October 5.

The first of two panels primarily looked at the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the outcome document of the United Nations Summit held on September 19. Panelists at the symposium agreed that the New York Declaration was a significant step forward towards making migration safe, orderly and regular for all. They acknowledged, however, that there are still challenges and issues that need to be considered when building on these commitments in the adoption of a global compact by 2018.

“It is important to reiterate the principles of safe migration because of the way they are under attack around the world,” said Professor Michael Doyle, Director of Columbia’s Global Policy Initiative, when addressing the criticisms from the New York Times that the outcome document from the UN summit was filled with ‘platitudes’.

Indeed, he emphasized that the New York Declaration defended the key principles of asylum for refugees as referred to in the 1951 Refugee Convention, because of the way they are under attack around the world. Although there was a general acknowledgement of the significant challenges ahead in the creation of the global compact by 2018, the panelists at the event agreed that significant progress had been made by just holding the summit itself.

Masud Bin Momen, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, praised the outcome document for maintaining a balanced attention between migrants and refugees, treating both as distinct groups with their own needs and vulnerabilities. Representatives from UNHCR including Noel Calhoun, the senior policy advisor with the Office of the Special Advisor for the UN, as well as Andrew Painter, senior policy advisor with the New York office of UNHCR, both agreed that the New York Declaration set up the support for responsibility sharing, a significant addition that was lacking in the 1951 Refugee Convention. With 86% of refugees and the forcibly displaced being housed by developing countries, countries who are not hosting refugees also have a role to play in supporting and facilitating safe and orderly migration.

Crucially, all the panelists emphasized the need to consider partnerships involving governments, civil society, unions and businesses. In particular, the private sector has a significant role to play in providing investments, job opportunities and settlement programs for refugees and local communities in host countries.

Finally, in kick-starting the global compact on migration, Chris Richter, the Migration Officer with the International Organization for Migration, highlighted that migration should be addressed in its totality by including broad issues such as integration, social cohesion and labor rights. As migration is traditionally seen as the ‘last bastion of sovereignty’ for many countries, shifting this mindset and approaching migration holistically could potentially be the biggest challenge in the negotiations to come.

The second panel hosted by the SIPA Migration Working Group at the symposium addressed the current narratives on refugees and migrants, particularly on the dichotomy of victim and villain that is currently playing out in the media. “If we look at refugees purely through the prism of the worst thing that has happened in their lives … it is not useful in terms of how we [manage] integration or how we cover what happens next,” said Charlotte Alfred, Managing Editor of Refugee Deeply.

Labels and narratives affect not just policies but also the refugees themselves. The rhetoric has largely been that they are detrimental to society and a drain on local resources. In particular, for Sayre Nyce, Executive Director of Talent Beyond Borders, the frustration was that refugees are still seen as a burden and not as potential assets in the workplace or in their communities. This is a potential talent tool that should be taken advantage of, she said, especially with shortage of skills in the labour market around the world.

Bill Frelick, Director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, made a good point on how the narrative is influencing policy. He explained that the first draft of the New York Declaration originally addressed the need for the protection of and assistance to vulnerable migrants. The commitment of ‘protection’ has since been dropped from the final outcome document, with assistance preceded by qualifiers such as “guiding principles”, “non-binding” and “voluntary”. “The notion of people fleeing for their lives, which by its very nature is chaotic, is lost and reduced to safe, orderly and regular… There are a lot of people out there who need protection but might not get it, because they are defined out by the terms of reference.”

The panelists unanimously agreed that there is much more to be done in changing the existing rhetoric against refugees and migrants, which is in turn negatively influencing policymakers and civil society. Refugee advocates who can change the narrative and tell their stories need more representation, they said. The gap between rhetoric and reality must be closed and clear information should be disseminated, despite its diminishing role in populist political debates.

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