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Why the world needs a new, more equitable refugee system

How do we create a system that treats refugees with dignity and better distributes the responsibility? As world leaders meet to discuss the global refugee crisis, these five factors should guide their thinking.

By: /
14 September, 2016
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) talks with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi during a video presentation at the meeting on global responsibility sharing through pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

This week, world leaders converge in New York for the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). One of the major topics on the agenda is how the world can do a better job addressing mass movements of refugees and migrants. 

Two major meetings are scheduled to discuss global cooperation on this issue: the UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants on Sept. 19, and a Leaders’ Summit on the global refugee crisis, hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama (and co-hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others) on the next day. (Meanwhile, three days of discussion on similar issues will also take place that week in Canada, during 6 Degrees.) 

As these world leaders meet, the following five factors should guide their thinking: 

1. The refugee crisis is bad and getting worse.

There are some 20 million refugees in the world and, with protracted conflicts and the onset of climate change, their numbers will only grow. In addition, those refugees will be spending longer in exile than ever before. In the early 1990s, refugees spent, on average, nine years outside their homelands. Today that number has risen to more than 20 years.

2. The current system is unfair and inadequate.

The global refugee system, established in the aftermath of WWII, is simply inadequate. Demand is dramatically outstripping supply. Wars, violence and natural disasters are making it difficult for individual states to know whether or when they will find themselves on the frontlines of the next mass influx of refugees. Nor can they be confident that they will get the help needed to handle large flows of people. The current refugee crisis has brought out the worst in many countries, with several states restricting or blocking entry to those most in need of protection.  Xenophobia, racism, religiosity and anti-refugee rhetoric are rampant.

Contributions to the United Nations for refugee protection and solutions are discretionary, ad hoc and inadequate. This means that some countries end up shouldering disproportionate shares of responsibility. A few facts highlight this disparity:

  • 60 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by 10 states in the Global South: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Chad and Sudan.
  • Three states—the U.S., Canada and Australia—account for 83 percent of global refugee resettlement efforts.
  • Ten donors account for 79 percent of all financial contributions to the UN Refugee Agency.

    3. Progress is in fact possible.

    The outlook is not entirely grim. If international cooperation for refugees is made predictable and effective, we can definitely meet this challenge. Taken in context, the number of refugees is a miniscule fraction of the world’s population — 20 million out of a total global population of 7.4 billion, or about 0.3 percent of the total number of people in the world. What is needed is a system that treats refugees with dignity, humanity and certainty, and that affords governments predictability, affordability and equity. The refugee issue can be managed better.

    Resettlement of refugees plays a significant role in any discussion on global cooperation for refugees. Current numbers are far too low — only one percent of refugees are currently being resettled. The UN Secretary-General has called upon the international community to do better, with the aim of resettling 10 percent of the global refugee population, or two million people. In other words, the new goal proposes that we resettle less than three people for every 10,000 people on the planet. This is undoubtedly achievable.

    4. The UN is taking steps to address this issue, but its plans fall short of the mark.

    The refugee crisis raises moral, legal and, increasingly, strategic issues as it destabilizes regions adjacent to conflict and potentially others further afield, not least the European Union. It can also incubate extremists among under-educated and unemployed youth. Next week, global leaders will discuss the prospects for global cooperation on these challenges at two key meetings: the UN General Assembly high-level meeting on September 19 and the Leaders’ Summit held the following day. In anticipation of these meetings, the UN Secretary-General has called for a new Global Compact on responsibility-sharing for refugees.

    Such a Global Compact would urge a more equitable distribution of responsibility among a wider range of actors.  However, as envisioned, it is not likely to be enough. Most states already agree, in theory, on this concept. Where they differ is on how to implement such a responsibility-sharing scheme and the mechanisms and logistics of such an agreement. Without including such concrete mechanisms, the Global Compact is unlikely to deliver the progress that is so desperately needed. 

    5. Global leadership is lacking — providing an opportunity for Canada.

    Trudeau made headlines across the world this past winter when, as others were putting up razor wire and threatening to ban Muslims, he greeted refugees at the airport with snow suits for their children. He has used the G20 stage, most recently in China, to urge other world leaders to see the value of diversity, pluralism and inclusion, explaining that “Canada figured out a long time ago that differences should be a source of strength, not a source of weakness.” The participation of Canadians from all walks of life and of all ethnicities in Canada’s extraordinary private sponsorship program has captured the world’s attention, with many governments contemplating comparable programs at home. Moreover, Canada is seen by some global leaders as an “honest broker” capable of building consensus across international political divides.

    This gives Canada multiple opportunities to lead. Perhaps the most important issue that Canada can promote is more effective sharing of responsibility for this global problem and help develop mechanisms to anticipate, manage and appropriately fund large international refugee flows. Such responsibility sharing would afford refugees greater short-term protection and ultimately better lives, and it would also offer governments greater predictability and control. In short, better responsibility sharing would allow the world to manage the refugee issue pro-actively and comprehensively, rather than re-actively and inadequately.

    Beyond responsibility sharing, Canada could unequivocally affirm that education for all refugees is a human right, as well as a national and international interest, and pledge to share in underwriting some of the costs associated with enabling more refugee children and youth to attend school. Canada could also denounce publicly all xenophobia directed at refugees, and support UN efforts to combat hate propaganda. Furthermore, Canada could seek to enhance the focus of the UN Human Rights Council on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, specifically by encouraging council members to make protection of those fleeing persecution a top thematic priority of the Universal Periodic Review process. Last but not least, Canada could target some of its development assistance funding on poorer countries currently hosting large, long-term caseloads.

    The presence of a great need and the inadequacy of the global response provides Canada with a possibly once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead on an issue of transcendent importance. Let us seize it. 

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