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The Protracted Refugee and Migrant Crisis: A Challenge to Multilateralism

Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, is Executive Director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue

GENEVA, Dec 12 2017 (IPS) - It is an incontrovertible fact that more people are on the move owing to globalization.

Fifteen percent of the world’s population are on the move worldwide. In other words, of the world population of 7 billion, one billion are on the move. Seven hundred and forty million people are referred to as internal or as domestic migrants within their countries of origin. The number of internally displaced persons reaches about 60 million. On top of this, the world has more than 244 million international migrants who cross borders often into the unknown. Lastly, there are 22.5 million refugees – encompassing the 5.3 million Palestinian refugees – registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who have been forced to flee their home societies as a result of violence and armed conflict. The first two decades of the 21st century will go down in history as the era in which the world has witnessed the most complex and massive movement of people since the end of the Second World War.

Although we can conclude that global human mobility is an integral part of the Earth’s DNA, the unprecedented cohorts of people on the move has resulted in the emergence of new challenges that call for urgent attention and action. The inflow of displaced people to Europe has been exploited by a populist tidal-wave to fuel xenophobia and in particular Islamophobia. Walls and fences are being built in the North in flawed attempts to prevent displaced people from reaching their destination countries and to criminalize migrants and refugees. Although the arrival of displaced people to Europe only add up to 0.2% of Europe’s population, human solidarity and justice are being frayed by the fear of the Other.

On the eastern and southern side of the Mediterranean Sea, millions of people have sought refuge and protection. They have found shelter in countries of the Arab region as the right to free movement further to the North has been “postponed” and denied to displaced people. Lebanon – a country of approximately 4 million people – is providing protection and refuge to approximately 1 million displaced people. Jordan – neighbouring both Iraq and Syria – has accommodated around 1.2 million refugees. Although Iraq and Egypt face internal turmoil, Bagdad and Cairo are hosting about 240,000 and 120,000 people respectively. Turkey has likewise given refuge to roughly 3 million refugees, primarily Syrians. In summary, the majority of the burden in hosting and in providing assistance and protection to, displaced people is being taken up by countries in the less developed parts of the world despite the fact that they often lack adequate resources to respond to the influx of displaced people.

While rich countries in the North bicker about burden-sharing between them of inflows of migrants representing 0.2% of their global population, MENA countries provide access without blinking to inflows that may add up to 25% of their own nationals!

How can the world move forward to respond in unison to address the resulting rise of populism and the lack of social justice that prevails in our modern societies in relation to human mobility?

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” said the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire in response to the growing number of people who perish on a daily basis in their perilous and hazardous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. According to IOM, the 2017 migrant death tolls in the Mediterranean has exceeded 2,950 casualties. Despite that, migrants risk their lives to seek protection. Populist and right wing extremist forces continue – in a flawed and misleading attempt to promote policies of exclusion – to depict migrants and refugees as the source of instability, although the adverse impact of globalization is mainly to blame. The campaign of fear waged against migrants and refugees is bringing back the spectre of nationalism and chauvinism that threatens international cooperation and peace over the long run.

How can this threat be overcome? We need to return to a climate in which diversity is embraced and celebrated. I often refer to the example of the United States as a shining example of a country that became one of the world’s most successful owing to the fact that it embraced and celebrated diversity in earlier times, if not currently. If contemporary nations want to repeat the successes of the United States and of other countries with strong traditions in upholding and harnessing the power of diversity, they must resort to the promotion of equal and inclusive citizenship rights for all peoples regardless of religious, cultural, ethnic, and/or national backgrounds. Societies that demonstrate respect for human dignity are the ones most likely to be winners in the long run.

Governments in the Middle East and in the West should address jointly the protracted refugee and migrant crisis in a multicultural context. The UN Global Compact for Refugees to be convened in 2018 will offer an opportunity to proceed along these lines. Enhancing international cooperation among countries in Europe and in the Arab region is indeed key to identifying a more equitable burden – and responsibility-sharing system in response to the current situation in which displaced people are restricted in the exercise of their right to seek refuge and protection.

This goal can be achieved through inter alia the allocation of resources, development aid as well as through internationally funded capacity-building programmes to raise the preparedness level for hosting large numbers of displaced people. In the words of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration Mr. Peter Sutherland – in his 2015 report:

“States must agree on how to address large crisis-related movements, not only to save people on the move from death or suffering, but also to avoid the corrosive effect that ad hoc responses have on our political institutions and the public’s trust in them.”

Identifying new approaches to promote equitable burden – and responsibility-sharing mechanisms would enable countries in Europe and in the Arab region to speak with one voice and to build coalitions on a variety of issues related to the safe and orderly movement of people in accordance with international law. The international community needs to commit to sharing responsibility for hosting displaced people more fairly and proportionately, being guided by the principles of international solidarity and justice. This is an occasion for all to recommit themselves to the lofty aims of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Global problems require global solutions. Attempts to regionalize such issues – as witnessed in many societies – are doomed to failure.

Over the long term the international community must act to eradicate the underlying causes leading to an excessive flow of destitute migrants. That means phasing out foreign military interventions, respecting sovereignty, supporting democracy and human rights through peaceful means only and joining forces to address impoverishment of the Global South as a result of climate change.

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