Thu, Sep 22, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Why won’t the world tackle the refugee crisis?

Two major summits this week, called by the UN and the US president, will try to tackle the problems caused by unprecedented refugee flows, but they are under fire from relief groups before talks have even begun

By Tracy McVeigh and Mark Townsend  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

It is now the greatest movement of the uprooted that the world has ever known. About 65 million people have been displaced from their homes, 21.3 million of them refugees for whom flight is virtually compulsory — involuntary victims of politics, war or natural catastrophe.

With just less than 1 percent of the world’s population homeless and seeking a better, safer life, a global crisis is under way, exacerbated by a lack of political cooperation — and several states, including the UK, are flouting international agreements designed to deal with the crisis.

This week’s two major summits in New York, called by the UN General Assembly and by US President Barack Obama, came under intense criticism before the first world leaders even took their seats.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and refugee charities were among those accusing both summits of being “toothless” and saying that a declaration ratified by the UN imposes no obligations on the 193 General Assembly nations to resettle refugees.

The Obama-led summit was designed to extract pledges of funding, which critics say too often fail to materialize.

“Funding is great and very much needed, but it’s not going to tackle the central point of some sharing of responsibility. The scale of imbalance there is growing, and growing with disastrous consequence,” said Steve Symonds, refugee program director at Amnesty.

He said nations were sabotaging agreements through self-interest.

“It’s very, very difficult to feel any optimism about this summit or what it will do for people looking for a safe place for them and their families right at this moment, nor tackle the awful actions of countries who are now thinking: ‘If other countries won’t help take responsibility, then why should we?’ and are now driving back desperate people,” he said.

“Compelling refugees to go back to countries where there is conflict and instability doesn’t help this awful merry-go-round going on and on,” he said.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth attacked the UN summit as a missed opportunity, adding that “millions of lives hang in the balance.”

He said there were now huge concerns that the foundations of refugee protection were under threat from forced repatriation, border walls and aggressive policing by nation states.

The world’s newest country, South Sudan, saw its 1 millionth citizen flee on Friday last week — something which might threaten the progressive, welcoming policies of neighboring Uganda, where refugees are given land and encouraged to contribute.

The figure also represents a miserable milestone for another neighbor, Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of other refugees from the Somalian conflict and famine are already living in camps. The east African nation is threatening to close down the largest, at Dadaab, and is coming under fire for its efforts to start trying to push back refugees into their war-torn countries of origin.

Pakistan is facing the same criticism for its efforts to forcibly return a number of its 2 million Afghan residents, some of whom have been in the country for years. A clampdown on refugees from Syria coming into Jordan — a country which already hosts 1 million Syrians — has left 75,000 people stranded in a desert no-man’s land between the two countries.

Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece have cited a lack of support from other countries for forcing them to take restrictive action on Syrian and Afghan refugees.

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