President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit

Today, President Obama and United Nations representatives of Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Sweden and United Nations Under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will co-host a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis. The summit, held at the heels of the United Nations General Assembly meeting will bring together heads of government and state to address collective action on the global refugee crisis. At a time when the world has witnessed unprecedented mass displacement, this convening is crucial to align global commitments with actionable goals. The summit has outlined the following goals: 1) increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations, 2) admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and 3) increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work. The goals of the summit, while commendable are still short of holistically addressing refugee needs and the global crisis.

Monetary funding for humanitarian appeals and international organizations is a core component to address the global refugee crisis. A large gap between budgetary needs and funds received continues to grow exponentially as the number of displaced have increased. States are pledging to generate a 30 percent increase (from $10 billion to $13 billion) in financing for global humanitarian appeals this year. While increased financial commitment is critical, the summit goal is far from meeting current appeals from the UNHCR. For the UNHCR Syria regional refugee response initiatives, the UNHCR has received only 53% of its appeal as of August 16, 2016. With a little more than half of the program needs met, the initiative is still largely underfunded. The humanitarian resources are lacking, while the need is continuing to grow. If government leaders at the summit are cognizant and committed to the protection of refugees from further vulnerability and displacement, the full appeal should be met.

Securing new commitments to collectively double the number of additional refugees to be resettled or come through other pathways is another key goal of the summit. The United States set an admissions ceiling of 70,000 in FY2015, and a ceiling of 85,000 refugees (which includes a target of 10,000 Syrian refugees) in FY2016. The Obama Administration’s effort to increase resettlement numbers in 2016 is encouraging, though there is much more to be done given the extent of the globally displaced.

Developing countries host almost 90 percent of the world’s refugees with eight countries hosting more than half of the world’s refugees. With more than 21.3 million refugees worldwide, it is more important than ever for countries to share the global responsibility of easing the refugee crisis. Both developed and developing countries need to act in solidarity and commit to resettling refugees above and beyond previous goals.

Collective responsibility also begins with efforts at home. To demonstrate leadership and meet the collective call to double resettlement numbers, the Obama Administration must raise its own resettlement ceiling to at least 140,000 (using 2015 as a baseline). Currently, the Administration has set a goal to resettle 110,000 refugees in FY2017, but this still falls short of the White House call to double admissions. The Administration should demonstrate leadership and commit to resettling at least 140,000 refugees with the necessary resources to ensure successful integration. Setting a lesser goal would threaten the legitimacy of the United States as a refugee protection leader.

Refugees face many barriers to education access. The summit has set a global commitment to enroll one million refugee children in schools. Front line hosting states such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are in need of the most support as they are supporting thousands of Syrian refugee children. The one million refugee goal is aimed at refugees in the frontline states. While one million refugees in schools is a commendable goal, the numbers are still modest considering over 51 percent of the world’s 21 million refugees are under the age of 18. All refugee children should have access to education.

This generation of children has lived through conflict and displacement, and providing education can provide a sense of normalcy. We risk losing an entire generation as protracted conflict endures. Providing the opportunity to learn and build solid foundations for a stable and peaceful are paramount for refugee children. Enrolling children in school is a priority, but the resources for school infrastructures, teacher training, and language instruction must also be provided.

School infrastructure in front-line hosting states varies widely, but many are poor and overcrowded. Increasing the number of children in school should be commensurate with providing safe, non-crowded learning environments. Resources should also be devoted to adequately train teachers in refugee camp schools as many have not had the proper training. Employing Syrian teachers, who are currently an underutilized resource, to teach in the front line states would help improve student performance because of shared experiences and language. Due to the government regulations of hosting states such as Jordan, Syrian teachers are excluded from teaching in schools. Increasing opportunities for children to learn in Arabic, or providing support for new language instruction such as Turkish can help refugee children continue their educations, stay in school and offer stability.

Creating opportunities and the legal right for one million refugees to work in their host countries is another key goal of the summit. Lowering barriers to access employment will enable refugees to become self-reliant and to return dignity through being able to support themselves. Host countries should issue additional work permits, but also examine policies that may increase exploitation and protect refugees from these practices. While granting one million refugees the right to legal work is an admirable goal, we must not forget that all refugees deserve a chance to work and build their futures.

The President’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis is an opportunity for countries to address one of the most pressing crisis of our time. Large scale movements of refugees and migrants demand global coordination. The new pledges are achievable and demonstrate the shared global responsibility to help and protect refugees. Achieving the summit goals, upholding the values to protect the persecuted, and recognizing refugee contributions to their new communities will create a fairer, just and more prosperous world for all.