UN migrant summit: Search is on for a global solution

Meeting of 193 UN member states in New York will address global refugee crisis

An Oxfam worker holds lifejackets  collected from the beaches of Chios, Greece and used by adults and children. They are on display at the Brooklyn Bridge park ahead of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

An Oxfam worker holds lifejackets collected from the beaches of Chios, Greece and used by adults and children. They are on display at the Brooklyn Bridge park ahead of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

 

It is more than a year since the images of the washed-up bodies of children and other migrants shocked the world, exposing the failures to cope with a large movement of people across borders.

Syria’s five-year civil war has opened eyes to horrific international shortcomings in coping with the transit of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and hunger, or just seeking a better life.

This is far from a new crisis, yet remarkably the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, being held tomorrow in New York, will be the first time that the global body has dealt with the plight of both migrants and refugees at a high-level meeting of all 193 member states at the UN general assembly.

“It was time to see whether we could devise global solutions and global approaches which would ease the kind of problems that we have been seeing in managing the outflows of people from Syria, ” said David Donoghue, who, as Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN, co-chaired talks with Jordan to draft a UN agreement setting out universal commitments to protect refugees and migrants.

Negotiations were tricky. The challenge was to balance the views of countries that champion the needs of voluntary migrants as a positive development and countries struggling to cope with an influx of migrants forced to flee their homes due to war and refugees fleeing political or religious persecution.

Agreement

Five months of discussions chaired by Donoghue and Jordan’s permanent representative to the UN, Dina Kawar, led to an agreement being reached on August 2nd. It is a lucky day for Donoghue. It marked the first anniversary of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a wish-list of goals for the planet by the year 2030 that Donoghue helped negotiate as co-chair with Kenya’s ambassador to the UN. The Irish diplomat says this year’s negotiations were equally arduous.

“It was technically and legally quite complex: you had to find language which would enable all 193 member states that would [to] be comfortable with what was being said,” Donoghue explained.

He believes that the agreement sets out a coordinated plan to create “a more human dignified regime” for migrants and refugees relocating in large movements. The agreement contains details on handling migrants and refugees from where they leave their country of origin, when they travel through a passage country and onto their country of destination.

Like last year’s 2030 agenda, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants will be politically and morally binding but carries no legal force. It will be up to the UN, individual nations and others, including Irish man Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for international migration, to encourage countries to comply.

Sutherland has hailed the agreement as an achievement given how a decade ago some countries would not even discuss the topic in a multilateral setting.

The timing is critical, not just because of the ongoing conflict in Syria but wider migration trends expected over the coming decades.

Fraction

About 1.2 million migrants crossed into Europe in 2015, most of them by sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration. This is just a fraction of the numbers moving globally.

About 65 million have been displaced from their homes due to conflict, violence or political persecution, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The number of migrants is estimated to amount to tens of millions more; the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs put the figure at 244 million in 2015. Climate change is expected to increase these numbers further. Oxford-based scientist Prof Norman Myers has put the number at 200 million climate refugees by 2050, a figure quoted at the UN and by various non-government organisations.

Monday’s meeting, along with a summit of leaders on the refugee crisis hosted by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, comes against the backdrop of rising anti-migrant and refugee speech in Europe, and the US, where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has fanned fears about the dangers to national security from migrants and refugees arriving from war-torn countries.

“This is unacceptable,” said former Irish president and one-time UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. “There needs to be much stronger counter-voice speaking up for migrants, speaking up for the contribution that they make to countries and speaking up for the reality of managing well, rather than being fearful of a problem. It is just one of the biggest challenges we have.”

As a member of The Elders, a group of global leaders fighting for peace and human rights, Mrs Robinson, along with fellow Elders Pakistani activist Hina Jilani and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, visited the headquarters of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City on the eve of the refugee summit to meet refugees recently resettled in the US.

Human rights

The Elders have just launched a report calling for a more coordinated international response towards refugees and migrants that protects their human rights.

“We have to keep up the pressure in changing the understanding of migration,” said Mrs Robinson, noting the past contributions migrants have made to their new countries and calling them the “movers and shakers of their community”.

“Irish people should understand that better than most.”

As for Ireland’s contribution, the IRC has said that the country can go further. It has called on the Irish Government to take 6,116 refugees over the next five years, or 1,223 a year. According to the IRC, Ireland resettled 96 people in 2014 and 176 people in 2015. The Department of Justice has said about 520 refugees are to be resettled by the end of this year.

“We really look to Ireland to show some leadership on its resettlement commitments,” said Melanie Ward, associate director for policy and advocacy at the IRC’s European headquarters in London.

Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald will represent Ireland at Monday’s UN summit. David Donoghue believes that Ireland’s role in the development goals and the refugee and migrant declaration will help the country’s case to be elected to a two-year place as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council in 2021-22. Before then comes the challenge of pushing countries to abide by the commitments they are agreeing to this week under the refugee and migrant pledge.

“My hope is that this agreement will indeed change the lives of the thousands of people seeking refuge in Europe. The commitments are all there that we need,” said Donoghue.

“We just have to make sure that they are implemented.”

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