The 71st United Nations’ General Assembly was held from September 13-26 in New York City. Heads of states and governments from 193 Member States convened to address the subject of large movements of refugees and migrants, ways to tackle antimicrobial resistance and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals agreed a year ago.
One of the major items on agenda was the first ever UN summit on Refugees and Migrants held on September 19. American President Barack Obama’s summit was opened by Olympian Yusra Mardini, a reminder that the 2016 Rio Olympics had the first ever-independent team comprising entirely of refugees.
But if you watched Indian primetime television, you would think the 193 sovereign states had gathered solely to discuss Indo-Pak tension and the Uri attack! We’ve covered the global refugee crisis within the context of the multiple political narratives here.
But first, some numbers about the current refugee crisis:
The official statement can be found here. So, what did this summit actually achieve? A bold, ambitious plan, or an exercise in evasion and procrastination? Surprisingly both and in equal measures.
As Oxfam summarised aptly, the Refugees and Migrants’ Summit came out with the New York Declaration, endorsed by all member-states, which reaffirms international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law, and governments’ commitment to non-refoulement (not returning anybody to a country where they could face cruel, inhumane treatment or persecution). In a world where the right to claim asylum is routinely violated, it is important that the summit also underline this fundamental right. But such reaffirmations are the bare minimum that should be expected from such a document – they cannot substitute real progress.
The New York declaration also calls for “more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees. The summit also condemned xenophobia, racism and intolerance unequivocally and committed itself to promote diversity. It is a sign of our times that the summit needs to state the obvious because leading politicians in many countries are vilifying the refugees, who are escaping horrific conditions.
But without firm commitment, and a clear agenda, these sentiments are meaningless. Given the urgency for a global response, with more people displaced by violence than ever before, there is little faith in such promises.
The silence on the subject of internally displaced people cannot be ignored. But worse is the silence on the arbitrary and unlawful detention of children, the most vulnerable population, fleeing some of the most horrible conflict zones. The lack of discourse on the detention of children and unaccompanied minors has unequivocally disappointed leading organisations working with children in conflict and crisis, from War Child, Oxfam, Save the Children to Kids in Need of Defense, etc.
Consider that on the day Theresa May, the prime minister of the UK spoke, 600 children were detained at the Calais port (the French side of English Channel), some of whose families were in Britain.
Obama invited countries to make commitments on a “pay to play” basis – a way to create a framework to include migrants in the UN system and to share the cost and resettlement of refugees.. The summit saw 52 countries and organisations pledge a total of 4.5 billion US dollars in humanitarian aid; double the number of people to be resettled, whether as refugees or by other legal means; improve access to education for a million refugee children, and access to work for a million refugees.
In his opening speech he remarked:
“This crisis is a test of our common humanity – whether we give in to suspicion and fear and build walls, or whether we see ourselves in one another. Those girls being trafficked and tortured, they could be our daughters.”
Many critics called out the speech, given the US’ own track record of detaining children, separating families, and returning refugees from Central American conflicts. Australia’s practise of detaining refugee children indefinitely in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as well as Britain’s commitment of 100 million US dollars for deterrence to stop African refugees from arriving at its shores, left a lot to be desired. It is cognitive dissonance of the worst kind with such gap between practice and speech!
The lack of clear consensus on the no-child-detention principle combined with the US and Britain’s roles in fomenting conflicts and instability in North Africa and Central America, the source of most of the refugees makes these two summit outcomes a mixed bag. And until the 4.5 billion dollars committed are actually spent, there is little left to say.
The Indian media would do well to pay attention beyond Indo-Pak rhetoric. Especially for an emerging economy with global ambitions.