Our world suffers not so much from a refugee crisis as a political crisis — a deficit of leadership and vision and, most fundamentally, a shortfall of humanity and empathy. A United Nations (UN) system designed for another age is left to cope with today’s mass displacements of people, applying conscience-salving humanitarian remedies to political and economic problems, with entirely predictable but utterly inadequate results. Innovation is urgently needed.

The number of forcibly displaced people is at its highest since World War II — 68.5 million at the end of 2017. The Syrian conflict has forced half that country’s population to leave home. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been displaced multiple times. At present, Uganda is simultaneously hosting displaced people from South Sudan, the DRC and Burundi. Rohingya refugees live precariously in makeshift camps along riverbanks in Bangladesh, their prospects poor. Afghan asylum seekers are forced to return to their country, only to join the swelling ranks of people who have been internally displaced amid protracted insecurity. Thousands of Venezuelans flee to Colombia every day, many experiencing sexual and physical threats and assaults on their journeys. Women and girls, in particular, desperately need protection.

In the United States, a president invokes an “America First” creed, impugns Muslims, ends funding for Palestinians and shreds refugee programs. In Europe, “not welcome” signs are up. Ships carrying refugees rescued in the Mediterranean are turned away from port after port, in a distressing echo of Jews trying to flee the Nazis’ tightening grip on Europe in the 1930s. Often refugees are sent back to countries where their lives are in danger, in direct violation of Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. And, in more than 100 countries, internally displaced persons (IDPs) — people displaced within the borders of their own countries — remain in limbo, largely out of sight and mostly out of mind, unable to return to their homes or settle elsewhere.

In December 2018, UN member states adopted the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration. While these agreements were necessary and welcome, they are non-binding legally and insufficient in policy terms to surmount the challenges that lie beyond the UNHCR’s humanitarian mandate.

Against this background, the World Refugee Council, an international panel of political, civil society, academic and industry leaders was called into being under the auspices of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) to promote transformative change in the world’s refugee response system. After extensive research and visits to refugee-hosting countries on five continents, the council released a major report, A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System, which includes 55 concrete recommendations designed to address the systemic inadequacies of the global refugee and IDP systems.

The council starts from the belief that, with effective leadership, a world of 7.6 billion people has the capacity to realize meaningful solutions and restore the rights and dignity of 25.4 million refugees, who constitute just one-third of one percent of the global population. At the same time, the council recognizes it cannot appeal to governments just to give more money or to resettle more refugees, although both are part of the solution. It recognizes further that unless national populations are confident that their governments can control who enters their countries, they will not grant the social license needed to embrace refugees. It also recognizes that control by governments of their borders is not inconsistent with the adoption of humane domestic and international policies that support and protect refugees and IDPs.

The council urges:

  • Increased emphasis on accountability: holding perpetrators to account for causing refugee flows, and compelling governments to honour their convention and international responsibilities.
  • Greater support for those countries hosting large numbers of refugees, notably through new and innovative funding mechanisms, private-sector investors and trade concessions.
  • More consequential participation in decision-making by women and young people.
  • Meaningfully integrating refugees and IDPs in governance and in the development of solutions.
  • Harnessing new technologies to support refugees and IDPs – from apps that facilitate information sharing between displaced persons, governments and service providers; to big data, artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools that can help forecast refugee and migration emergencies and provide a basis for political action. At the same time, these technologies must be monitored for potential risks, such as privacy violations and data breaches, which can have devastating real-world impacts on people who are fleeing persecution, violence and mass atrocities.
  • More regional engagement.

More specifically, as accountability is an important key to preventing the forcible displacement and persecution of populations, corrupt and violent regimes must be held responsible for their actions. The council urges the reallocation of frozen assets of corrupt or violent regimes and the repurposing of such assets to support refugees and internally displaced persons and the communities that host them. The council also recommends that a peer-review system be established to evaluate each government’s performance in relation to its obligations.

There is a persistent 45 percent funding shortfall for refugees. New approaches to financing are desperately needed, including making refugee budget contributions mandatory rather than voluntary, in line with funding policies for international peacekeeping and the UN’s general budget. Innovative financing mechanisms, including refugee bonds and private equity instruments as well as development funds and special trade agreements can generate the means to support both displaced people and the communities hosting them. Refugees are more than victims. More needs to be done to support refugee entrepreneurship and enable refugees to work and contribute.

Poorer countries currently host nearly 85 per cent of the world’s refugees. Common decency demands that richer countries equitably share the responsibilities and costs associated with hosting and integrating displaced people. In doing so, meaningfully engaging women and youth is particularly important, as these populations comprise a majority of the displaced.

The council believes that what is needed to bring its many recommendations to fruition is a coalition of progressive states, civil society and private entities. The council urges the representatives of refugee-hosting countries, progressive donor countries, civil society organizations, business and refugees and IDPs to form a Global Action Network for the Forcibly Displaced, a variable membership organization that would unite to promote reforms. The council also recommends that a network of global women leaders be convened as part of the Global Action Network.

The World Refugee Council report shows that there is no shortage of ideas. What is needed now is the vision, humanity and leadership to implement them.

Photo : Displaced Yemeni patients wait outside a medical tent to receive medical attention at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the northern province of Amran, Yemen on January 21, 2019 (EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

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Lloyd Axworthy
Lloyd Axworthy is a former Canadian foreign minister and chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council.

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