This year, the number of refugees and displaced people worldwide has climbed to its highest level on record. Over 68 million people have been forced from their homes by violence, persecution, and violations of human rights. This tragedy is the great humanitarian challenge of our time. And yet, support for the world’s most vulnerable is under threat. Borders are closing, wealthy nations are turning inwards, and humanitarian crises remain chronically underfunded.
The coming year will once again test the world’s commitment to humanitarianism as refugees and internally displaced persons continue to confront enormous challenges. In 2018, Refugees International’s advocates travelled to over twenty countries to meet with individuals forced from their homes and to advocate for lifesaving assistance and protection on their behalf. Based on what our advocates have witnessed, we asked them to forecast what would be the most urgent challenges for the humanitarian community in 2019. Here are their answers.
Protecting the Internally Displaced
Nearly twice as many people are displaced by conflict within their own country than flee across borders as refugees. In 2018, I traveled to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia to assess the situation for internally displaced persons (IDPs). In each country, governments are failing to provide adequate assistance and protection to their own citizens displaced by violence. However, no one UN agency or international organization is clearly responsible or accountable at a global level for IDP populations.
This past year, UN member states advanced global compacts aimed at improving the response for migrants and refugees – but neither compact addressed the plight of people displaced internally. In 2019, however, there may be new opportunities for progress. Norway has called on the UN Secretary General to appoint a high-level panel to “galvanize global attention and action on IDPs.” The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), for its part, is launching a new policy on its operational response to IDPs. Additionally, the tenth anniversary of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of IDPs in Africa will provide an opportunity to take stock of progress and challenges to date. Humanitarians must seize these opportunities to up our collective game in responding to the needs of 40 million people worldwide who are internally displaced.
Giving Refugees the Right to Work – In Law And in Practice
Too often, refugees are treated as people who have many needs but nothing to offer. This misconception not only fails to recognize their individual skills and qualifications, but also denies their host country of the valuable contributions they can make when given the chance.
Over the past year, I met dozens of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Though their backgrounds and their journeys differed, their goals were the same. They want to work and those with families want to send their children to school in order to build a future for themselves and contribute to their new environments. Unfortunately, many host countries restrict the right of refugees to work. In Turkey and Jordan, where I was most recently, refugees must have an employer request a work permit for them in order to work, and many job sectors are closed to foreigners. This leaves most refugees with no choice but to work in the informal sector, where exploitation is common. The recently adopted Global Compact on Refugees takes an important step in the right direction by emphasizing the need to provide refugees with work opportunities and strengthen their skills through language and vocational training. In 2019, it will be up to host countries, the private sector, and the UN to work together to make this a reality for refugee women and men.
A Dwindling U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program
Resettlement of refugees in the United States is a critical tool of American foreign and humanitarian policy. Resettlement is a visible way for the United States not only to reduce the suffering of the most vulnerable, but also to influence outcomes in regions where it has vital interests. Yet the Trump administration, through both policy and rhetoric, has demonstrated its desire to dismantle the refugee resettlement infrastructure in the United States. In fact, the Trump administration resettled just 22,491 refugees out of the 45,000 that would have been possible under the FY2018 ceiling. For FY2019, it has dramatically slashed the refugee cap to an all-time low of 30,000. The failure of the United States to lead by example in resettlement will result in missed opportunities for the country and stolen hopes for the world’s most vulnerable in 2019.
In 2018, a UN scientific panel released a major report warning that – absent immediate and ambitious action – climate change will have severe and irreversible impacts. This is especially true for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Among the report’s key findings are that higher temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and other effects of climate change will contribute to human displacement, migration, and conflict worldwide.
From Africa to the United States, the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable are already apparent. This past year, I met with pastoralists in Ethiopia, where a severe, protracted drought has left half a million people displaced and contributed to inter-communal violence. In Puerto Rico, I met with low-income families – including many elderly and infirm – who had yet to receive sufficient assistance to repair their homes almost one year after Hurricane Maria hit.
In 2019, responding to the growing humanitarian needs of those on the front lines of climate change will continue to present immense challenges to a humanitarian community that is already woefully over-stretched and underfunded. Programs aimed at reducing disaster risk and building the resilience of vulnerable communities must be rapidly brought up to scale. In addition, countries must work collaboratively to implement measures aimed at alleviating the drivers and impacts of climate displacement as outlined in the recently-adopted Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration and by the Paris Climate Agreement’s Task Force on Displacement.
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the lives of millions are up-rooted by deepening economic and political crises, violent persecution, and intense conflict. Donor fatigue has clearly taken root in many of Africa’s protracted crises. This has led to dangerous, chronic underfunding of humanitarian efforts. As a result, short-term progress at the front end of an emergency is often short lived, and humanitarians find themselves forced to divert resources from one crisis in order to address another.
I just returned from the Central African Republic. The small country’s major humanitarian crisis perfectly illustrates these troubling dynamics. One in five people are displaced, and more than half of the population requires humanitarian assistance. However, poor funding, insecurity, and damaged infrastructure keep humanitarian actors and UN peacekeepers from providing critical aid and protection to the millions of civilians in need.
These challenges will continue into 2019. But the optimist in me hopes that this new year will be marked by better protection of civilians by peacekeepers and humanitarians alike, stronger donor engagement to provide life-saving aid, and sustainable solutions to the political problems that force millions to flee their homes.
Addressing the Needs of the Rohingya
This year, another 15,000 Rohingya fled persecution in Myanmar. With nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees already living in Bangladesh, the possibility of returns to Rakhine State will remain a key point of debate through 2019. To be clear, the conditions for their safe, voluntary, and dignified return do not currently exist. Indeed, a recent Reuters investigative report revealed that many of the homes and villages of Rohingya who fled have been destroyed and are being repopulated by Rakhine Buddhists. The chair of the UN-mandated independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar has said that Rohingya in Myanmar face “ongoing genocide.”
Any prospects for returns will depend on the Myanmar government’s willingness and ability to take steps to address the root causes behind the plight of the Rohingya. At a most basic level, the Rohingya will need freedom of movement, a path to citizenship, and accountability for the atrocities committed against them. In the meantime, they will remain in overcrowded mega camps in Bangladesh.
I traveled to Bangladesh twice in 2018 to assess the response to the Rohingya crisis and evaluate conditions for the Rohingya in their home state. It was clear that the scale of this crisis makes it one of the most pressing challenges in the year ahead. The government of Bangladesh must continue to be supported in its hosting efforts, but also pushed to lift bureaucratic barriers on humanitarians and restrictions on the ability of Rohingya to pursue education and livelihood opportunities. Efforts must also be made to improve the coordination among UN agencies in the humanitarian response.
Renewed pressure on Myanmar to create conditions conducive to return, as well as sustained efforts to improve the humanitarian response for Rohingya still stuck in Bangladesh, will be vital for 2019 to be a more encouraging year for the Rohingya.
Building Sustainable Hope for Syria
As 2018 comes to a close, an immediate humanitarian concern will be the abrupt U.S. disengagement from Syria. In the northeast, a sudden U.S. withdrawal will likely result in a power vacuum that could spark new fighting and displacement. Turkey is already poised to launch new incursions against Kurdish communities, while the Assad regime may push to reassert control over the area. In southern Syria, over 40,000 Syrians who fled the Assad regime are sheltering in squalid conditions in the makeshift camp of Rukban close by the American base at Tanf. Once the base closes, Rukban’s inhabitants will again be at the regime’s mercy.
Beyond the immediate concern about the situation in northern Syria, humanitarian needs in the country will continue to be enormous in 2019—in areas both within and outside of Syrian government control. One of the main challenges of 2019 will be the fact that most of the people in need will reside in government-controlled areas. Humanitarians are struggling to figure out how to deliver assistance under these circumstances. With only a handful of exceptions, aid groups not registered with Damascus are not allowed to work in government-controlled regions. But many of those same groups are reluctant to register their operations for fear of punishment, retaliation against individual staff members, and government interference in their decisions about whom to help and how.
This is especially true of local Syrian groups, many of which were established in an effort to respond to needs in people’s own neighborhoods and communities. Local Syrian groups have long provided the majority of humanitarian aid inside Syria, sometimes with the support of INGOs and UN agencies. However, those partnerships will likely be compromised if registration with the regime is required.
Groups that worked in opposition-controlled areas have genuine fears for their safety if they are on Damascus’ radar. Indeed, in some areas – such as Dera’a – where the government ultimately took control, local aid groups simply disappeared. Thus, at a time when vulnerability continues to increase, fewer organizations can safely serve people. If today’s rules about registration in Syria remain, the humanitarian crisis is likely to become larger and deeper in 2019.