For refugees last year was the deadliest yet. In 2017 we have the chance to act

This must be the year in which solutions to the global refugee crisis are not only discussed but implemented. Image: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

David Miliband, President, International Rescue Committee


In 2015 the refugee crisis exploded on the global scene. The year 2016 proved that it is not going away. Now 2017 presents a moment of choice.

Refugees featured prominently at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos a year ago. After panel debates, simulations and virtual reality, participants were educated and empowered to make a difference. The tenor was very Davos: how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. As Christine Lagarde noted: “With appropriate policies — especially effective integration into the labour market — the potential from refugees can be harnessed for the benefit of all.” That same month 73,000 refugees arrived in Europe, but hopes were high that solutions could be found.

Instead, while 2016 saw refugee arrivals to Greece fall, across the Mediterranean it was the deadliest year on record; more than 5,000 people lost their lives, most en route to Italy. Globally, the number of refugees and internally displaced people reached 65 million for the first time, with 86% in developing countries without adequate resources to help them. More than half are not in camps but in cities, where understanding of their needs and how to meet them is weak.

Refugee children onboard a Greek Coast Guard vessel, as it arrives at a port on the Greek island of Lesbos, following a rescue operation at open sea

Image: REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

And while the needs of refugees grow, so too has the backlash against these refugees and the Davos world view so hopeful of supporting them. Days before the UK voted to leave the EU, Nigel Farage unveiled his mendacious poster showing refugees crossing the border from Croatia to Slovenia, with the slogan: “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.” A day after American-born Omar Mateen’s June attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Donald Trump declared: “We have to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States — we don’t know who they are, they have no documentation and we don’t know what they’re planning.” In fact the US has taken around 18,000 Syrian refugees since that war began, less than 0.4% of the total number of Syrian refugees globally, and it takes 18–24 months of security vetting for a refugee to get into the US.

The number of refugees looks set to grow while political and economic pressure on development budgets risks effective support for refugees being cut — resulting in stronger “push” factors for refugees. The far right is gaining confidence, with allies in the media, ahead of tight elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Refugees will continue to find themselves scapegoated, as political campaigns and economic strains intensify across Europe.

This year, 2017, must be the year in which solutions to the global refugee crisis are not only discussed but implemented. I offer four policy solutions:

  • First, Europe must deal properly with refugees already on the continent. This includes the more than 60,000 refugees still trapped in Greece, where the International Rescue Committee is supporting them through their second winter living in tents in snow and blizzards, with no certainty about their futures. The EU needs to act now to improve living conditions in Greece and Italy and to process their asylum, family reunion and relocation claims, quickly. Germany and Sweden cannot continue to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for hosting refugees; other countries must play their part. Countries like Portugal, willing to take more refugees, but hindered by insufficient EU resources to process refugees’ claims, must be enabled to help.
  • Second, the US must continue its proud tradition of resettling refugees. Despite claims to the contrary, it remains harder to get to the US as a refugee than by any other route. Biometric tests, multiple interviews and name checks conducted by at least four government departments mean that refugees are the most heavily security-vetted population in the country. Europe must also recognize that a legitimate and credible resettlement route to safety for the most vulnerable is an essential part of any package to beat back the people smugglers.
  • Third, humanitarian aid is in major need of reform. This means an end to the short-termism of much of humanitarian policy, which leads to neglect of refugee health, education and livelihoods. With scarce resources stretched more thinly, this means an absolute fixation on value for money and high impact, basing programmes on evidence of what works. The Grand Bargain, agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit last May, pledging an outcomes focus from donors and transparency from those implementing, is the best guide. And with most refugees unable to return home for years and sometimes decades, securing work for themselves and an education for their children is essential. This means building the economic aspects of support for the hosting of refugees, with a new deal for developing countries like Jordan and Kenya, currently bearing a disproportionate share of the refugee load.
  • Fourth, the world must remember that when peacekeeping and peacemaking are neglected, refugees are the result. The isolated successful cases of building peace — in the Balkans, in Sierra Leone, in East Timor — show how hard it is. But 2016 indicates that dealing with the consequences of neglect, from managing refugee flows to integrating refugees, is just as hard for Western countries. So investment of diplomacy and resources to end and prevent conflicts — and to uphold international humanitarian law when conflicts do arise — remains crucial.

The refugee crisis is both a consequence of a more interconnected world, and a cause of the revolt against globalization. It presents a policy challenge and a political challenge. The problem since the start of the Syrian conflict is that the policy has lagged behind the politics. The choice before us is quite simply stated: tackle the problems at source and hold our politics together, or leave the problems to fester, and illegal and underground flows of people will get around the highest walls.

The solution does require government leadership, but businesses and NGOs are going to need to innovate, and citizens mobilize. That is the argument I want to see being made in Davos this year.

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Originally published at weforum.org.

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