US News & World Report: Countries Must Act With Urgency on Refugees

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Countries Must Act With Urgency on Refugees
Elections will tempt politicians to stir sentiments antagonistic to the displaced. They must resist.

By Michel Gabaudan | Contributor
Feb. 3, 2016, at 3:01 p.m.

WASHINGTON – As 2015 closed, distressing images of large numbers of men, women and children taking enormous risks to seek some hope for their future brought the plight of refugees to the forefront of the world's attention. Today, there are well over 60 million people who have been displaced due to violence and fear of persecution, a number that harkens back to the dark years of the immediate post-World War II period. But this number is not just a statistic. It represents 60 million individual tragedies.

As the number of displaced people continues to rise, the international community is facing increasing difficulties in responding to this global crisis. Seemingly endless unrest in places such as Somalia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has resulted in long-term refugee situations, while more recent conflicts in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Iraq and Syria show no sign of resolution and are becoming protracted in turn. And still new crises continue to emerge. In Burundi last year, political turmoil resulted in violence that has forced thousands to flee their homes, with the potential that extreme unrest could engulf the country and have a potentially disastrous impact across the region.

Closer to home, in Mexico and Central America, the violence vested upon civilians by narcotraffickers and criminal gangs has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the past few years.

Unfortunately, the plight of these displaced is not being addressed by their governments, which are either unwilling or unable to respond to their most basic protection and survival needs. With few options for security in their home countries, tens of thousands have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere. However in 2014, when more than 50,000 unaccompanied Mexican and Central American children arrived at the U.S. border seeking protection, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to intercept children inside Mexico. Within months, Mexico had deported more of these Central American children than ever before in its history, and few children were able to seek asylum protection in the U.S. or Mexico. As a result, many of those displaced by gang violence are hiding inside their countries, with few safe options and no access to education, and more are being forced to make the treacherous journey north over and over again.

This acute international crisis of violent displacement has stretched the capacity – in both financial and human terms – of the international humanitarian community to respond adequately to the needs of people who have lost relatives and friends, resources and roots, and who increasingly see no hope for themselves and their families. In 2015, funding from the essentially Western donor community, led by the U.S., to respond to these crises didn't even meet 50 percent of what was requested, and many humanitarian response programs have seen dramatic reductions of such fundamental relief items as basic food rations. Many of the countries who play host to the displaced – some quite generously over the past few years – are becoming more intolerant of the burdens they have had to assume as their own populations increasingly resent, rightly or wrongly, the diversion of scant national resources toward refugees.

As a result, we have witnessed a general deterioration of the conditions for displaced populations, many of whose most basic needs are not being met according to international standards. The desperateness of the situation is leading many to seek another solution. Increasing numbers who manage to afford the exorbitant costs demanded by smugglers and traffickers are seeking a way out by moving toward the global North. In addition to the movement of Central Americans, 2015 saw a well-documented surge in arrivals in Europe by desperate Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and sub-Saharan Africans; and the continued movement toward Australia by refugees and asylum seekers across Asia and the Middle East.

Yet in many of these cases, these refugee flows have been met with staunch stonewalling by governments that have sought to block and discourage such movements by all means. Border barriers reminiscent of the Cold War era have been erected across the Balkans, with the stated goal of "directing the inflow of people" masking ugly undertones of anti-refugee sentiments. And here in the U.S., some politicians play on the politics of fear in an attempt to defame refugees by conflating them with terrorists.

So, as we begin 2016, it is imperative that major donors to humanitarian crises increase their levels of aid substantially. This is essential to address critical gaps in providing a response to refugees and displaced people, and reflects the compassion and solidarity that have been the landmarks of Western international assistance. International aid is also important in helping address a well-supported concern for the stability of the countries hosting refugees. Such help must be provided not only through the usual humanitarian channels, but increasingly through development institutions with a view to integrate, even if only temporarily, displaced populations within their host communities. Increased support to local civil society by traditional international donors should also be given long-overdue priority with a view to ensuring the sustainability of homegrown efforts.

Those countries that have become destinations for refugees must reassess their response in the context of the global and interconnected world that has taken shape in the last decade. While the right of every country to protect its borders is well understood, the obligation to protect those who cannot be returned safely remains a paramount responsibility of all countries that have subscribed to the United Nations Refugee Convention. In this respect, a more principled approach to border management must ensure due process for all people arriving at transit or destination countries so as to clearly identify those with a genuine protection need who must be admitted.

This approach should be complemented by a series of initiatives that would give some level of hope for an orderly departure, including a global increase in the number of resettlement places, student grants, work permits and family reunification programs. The planned global refugee summit, scheduled to be held around the United Nations General Assembly in September, could offer an opportunity to discuss real solutions and to positively influence the overall rhetoric among high-level policymakers.

However, this will be a tall order at a time when elections this year in the U.S. and next year in some key European countries ­– notably Germany and France – will tempt many politicians to drum up anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiments to bolster their popularity. Using the false arguments of national security, abuse of welfare benefits or job protection is, sadly, one of the oldest tricks of populist electioneering. We have already heard both in the U.S. and in Europe attempts to set political platforms by demonizing refugees on account of the regions they come from, their ethnicity or their religion. This is utterly amoral and wrong.

It is in times of crisis that the real values of people and countries alike reveal themselves. The global displacement crisis demands that refugees and other displaced not be used as political leverage for candidates. Rather, this is a time for the international community to unite under the common values of compassion, understanding and tolerance to provide a better future for some of the world's most vulnerable people.