The Board of Trustees of the International Crisis Group calls on world leaders to take more coordinated, better principled action to address the global refugee crisis. The scale of the tragedy shines the spotlight on just how remiss the international order has been in managing, much less settling, the conflicts that generate so much of today’s human flight.
By many indicators, deadly conflict is on the rise: the concurrent spike in flight is no coincidence. The Syrian war alone has dislodged twelve million people, raising the global number of refugees and internally displaced to 60 million, the largest figure ever. More than half the world’s approximately 20 million refugees come from just three conflict-ravaged countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Left unaddressed, this crisis threatens worse. For frontline states such as Lebanon and Jordan, Turkey and Greece, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania, the economic, social, human rights, political and security implications of rapid, massive influxes of people are overwhelming. The failure to address the situation risks further conflict, triggering further refugee flows. The cost to future generations is no less alarming; among all child refugees globally some 50 per cent receive no schooling.
Importantly, this crisis is neither uniquely nor even predominantly European. It is states immediately adjacent to conflict that bear the biggest burden: 95 per cent of Syria’s refugees are in countries next door. Burundi’s neighbours receive increasing numbers fleeing violence; while Dadaab, in northern Kenya, is cited as the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting nearly 330,000 Somalis. Organised crime and the absence of state protection in Central America’s Northern Triangle trigger large-scale flight. Overall, some 86 per cent of the global total of displaced, including refugees, are in developing countries.
In recognising that it is largely Europe’s angst which has generated such focus on the plight of refugees, Crisis Group notes that uncomfortable questions will and should be asked about the continent’s apparent exceptionalism. Countries as far apart as Kenya, Pakistan, Chad, Thailand, Tanzania, Jordan and Ethiopia have hosted refugees on a massive scale for years, often with scant attention paid to the burdens this places on them.
Those valid questions notwithstanding, there are particular reasons for focusing on Europe: that it is a target destination for many; its developmental and humanitarian capacity; its real and aspirational foreign policy ambitions; and its central role in the elaboration of humanitarian norms. Further, left unresolved, this crisis threatens the continued viability of the Union, arguably the most successful inter-state peace project of the last century.
European states, as do all, have a legitimate concern in regulating access to their territory. Yet the current situation is marked by inadequate mobilisation of resources; unequal burdens between states; a deficit in popular faith that the situation is under control; and a push, in essence, to outsource the issue to others. The result threatens the worst of all worlds: policies that do little to reduce numbers of those seeking entry into Europe; a crumbling adherence to humanitarian and human rights law; a narrative infused with anxiety; and a fraying union.
In framing an effective response, the following should be borne in mind:
- The scale of the humanitarian crisis is beyond the capacity of any one state or regional grouping to resolve alone. Some states are playing a grossly outsized role in handling the crisis’ fallout in a fashion that is neither fair nor sustainable;
- The refugee crisis is a distinct phenomenon, to be treated as such. But it is part of the larger dynamic of the mass movement of people. There are some 170 million migrants globally. Demographic trends, economic stress, state weakness, climate change and growing inequality suggest that this trend is unlikely to recede imminently; and,
- Managing all aspects of the crisis – and for states concerned there are factors in play of domestic politics, security, absorptive capacity, legal obligation, and international relations – will be beyond any one electoral cycle. It will demand a complex blend of immediate response, long-term strategy and careful, honest messaging.
With that in mind, Crisis Group asserts that there are actions that all member states of the United Nations, particularly its most powerful and affluent, can take to work in unison toward bringing this crisis under control. These include:
- The full, prompt financing of the humanitarian response. In 2015, funding gaps meant some 1.6 million Syrian refugees had food rations cut; while refugee response plans for Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan were less than a quarter funded;
- Respecting fully the rights of refugees. Here, the European Union, founded on the supremacy of the rule of law, must unequivocally take the lead and desist from actions which in perception, if not reality, appear to short-circuit its commitments under international law. Meanwhile, a better organised and accelerated system of processing asylum claims is urgently required;
- Addressing as a priority the longer-term developmental dimensions of this crisis. Ramped-up support is vital to front-line states, and those of transit and resettlement; it is an upfront investment that will pay dividends in helping guard against state failure, conflict, and further refugee flight; and,
- More expansive action on how to improve prospects for the resettlement or local integration of refugees, or on the provision of temporary residency measures, easing family reunification, and the generation of jobs for both refugees and host communities.
Ultimately, any credible response to the crisis must address its principal driver – war. This starts with greater acknowledgement that conflict is, indeed, the primary cause of flight: the fear of violence, more than the allure of a new world. Refugee flows do not begin with the onset of violence; they begin as violence intensifies and hope for its resolution fades.
The increasing virulence of major and regional power rivalries has seriously weakened collective conflict management capacity. We cannot wish this away. There are, however, measures that can be taken; they will require more concerted leadership from the United Nations Security Council, and particularly its five permanent members, than that body has shown in recent times. These include:
- Reasserting the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law. More must be done to protect civilians caught up in, and fleeing from, conflict. Where violence metastasizes, both in complexity and horror, prospects for its resolution recede commensurately;
- Renewing efforts to resolve those conflicts which generate today’s refugee emergency. Exploring all avenues for dialogue and placing a premium on inclusivity must be at the core of these endeavours, as must doing more to highlight the destructive role played by spoilers and third parties in many of today’s wars. Crisis Group will continue its work to inform and support these processes in pursuit of sustainable peace; and,
- Lastly, states must make better use of the global institutions they created, in particular the United Nations system. Permanent members of the Security Council must not allow their rivalries to bleed into all their interactions but rather seek to find ways to strengthen the work of those aspects of the United Nations – including its mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities – which can and do contribute to the better management of conflict.
The refugee emergency is resolvable, both in its present incarnation and its prospects of more to come. Crisis Group will work to develop intelligent solutions to tackle these challenges at their root.