UN must look beyond national solutions to the refugee crisis

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Refugees arrive at Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean from Turkey. [Jordi Bernabeu Farrús/Flickr]

The forthcoming UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants need not be another missed opportunity. UN member states must involve the private sector and local authorities to finally address the global refugee crisis, writes Solon Ardittis.

Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour. He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organisation for Migration.

On 19 September, the UN will hold the first ever Summit of Heads of State and Government focusing exclusively on the global refugee and migration crisis. A number of other events are also scheduled on the margins of the summit, including a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees convened by US President Obama, who will invite all UN member states to pledge formally the number of refugees they are willing to accept, as well as other forms of support they are willing to provide, and a Private Sector Forum on Migration and Refugees organised by Concordia, Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative, the International Organisation for Migration and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This will gather the world’s most prominent business, government and civil society leaders to discuss the private sector’s role and responsibility in addressing global migration and refugee challenges.

Despite a statement by the UNHCR earlier this week suggesting that the UN Summit could provide significant momentum and become “a game changer for refugee protection and for migrants who are on the move”, over the past few weeks an increasing number of NGOs and other commentators have expressed scepticism about the likelihood of the summit resulting in anything close to a progressive and actionable set of resolutions. This can be explained, to a large extent, by the fact that a number of proposals contained in the initial summit documents, including the proposal to resettle 10% of the world’s refugees annually, have eventually been rejected, or watered down, by a number of key member states.

Does this then signal yet another abdication by the international community of its responsibility to address, in a practical and comprehensive manner, the wide-ranging challenges resulting from mass displacement? It does not if one is prepared to accept the notion that fully-fledged solutions to the on-going refugee crisis can no longer be confined exclusively to central government initiatives and actions.

As recent developments in Europe and elsewhere have largely ascertained, responsibility sharing in the field of refugee policy is a notion that has never been fully endorsed by states. Pledges made by the EU member states under the EU Relocation and Resettlement Agreements, which to date have remained dramatically below target, are testimony to this. Worldwide, only 81,893 out of the 134,044 cases submitted by the UNHCR were accepted for resettlement in 2015.

By involving both the private sector and local authorities in the identification of innovative solutions to the effects of mass displacement, the side events organised during the UN summit bode well for the ultimate success of the New York gatherings. The Private Sector Forum on Migration and Refugees, in particular, is expected to issue a ‘Call to Action’ to all summit attendees on the need to combine efforts and form partnerships across sectors to provide tangible solutions for forced migration. The forum will address such critical issues as new investment model for refugee-hosting areas, innovative approaches to skills matching, investments in refugee education, private sponsorship for refugee resettlement, municipal partnerships for protection and reception and the role of public-private partnerships in solving forced displacement.

As an increasing number of commentators have come to recognise, the contribution of the private and community sectors, particularly in supplementing the role of states in supporting refugee resettlement, has yet to be exploited to its full potential. To take but one example, the lessons drawn from the successful Private Sponsorship of Refugees Programme that Canada has been implementing for almost 40 years, and which relies on community and business organisations and smaller citizen-led groups taking responsibility for the refugees entering the country, have yet to be incorporated into legal and policy revisions in most other refugee host countries. In Europe, except for the local private refugee sponsorship schemes implemented in a number of German Länder, to date only the United Kingdom has decided, in July of this year, to launch its community sponsorship scheme for refugees, which will enable community groups including charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to take on the role of supporting resettled refugees in the UK

Similarly, legal, political and financial support for local authorities, which must bear most of the burden for refugee reception and integration, particularly in the field of housing and education, remains very poor. This is despite an increasing number of calls and initiatives by major cities in Europe, and globally, including through the Mayoral Forum on Mobility, Migration, and Development.

The UN summit will offer, for the first time in history, a high-level, multi-stakeholder forum in which to expose, discuss and negotiate innovative pathways to alleviate some of the most pressing needs resulting from global forced migration. We should be investing in and honing our strategies for such an opportunity, not condemning it before it has even got off the ground.

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