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Rights and wrongs

World leaders lack the political courage to agree a fair global share of migration

Life in limbo at the Azraq Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

Whether fleeing wars, oppression, dictatorial regimes, extreme poverty, climate displacement – or whether simply seeking a better life – irregular migrants are among the most vulnerable people on earth. Crossing land and sea in hazardous journeys that take thousands of lives every year, those migrants who do complete their journeys are frequently detained for lengthy periods or forced to live in squalid conditions on the margins of society. Even when they are afforded asylum or migrant status, they frequently experience racism and subjugation in the countries where they settle.

Blamed for everything from rising crime rates to falling economies, from terrorism to lack of housing, migrants are the whipping boys across the world.

Despite the dangers and suffering experienced by many, migration is on the rise. And given that it is one of the greatest challenges that we face as a global society, it is about time that innovative and holistic approaches are taken to dealing with this issue. But those who thought that such an approach would materialise at two global migration summits in New York on September 19 and 20 will be sadly mistaken. These meetings will make very little difference on the ground.

Watered down

On September 19 the UN General Assembly held a summit at which top UN staff in the field on refugees, human rights, migration and human trafficking emphasised the need for a better and more coordinated response to global migration. Discussions were planned during roundtable sessions focused on issues such as the causes and consequences of large movements of refugees and migrants, as well as sharing responsibility and protection for those people.

These are all crucial matters, but the UN is already known for providing a forum for discussions of key issues. The real test is whether these discussions produce any concrete changes. Judging by the negotiations on the draft declaration on migrants and refugees since it was published in early August, few real changes are likely to be implemented.

The draft declaration affirms humanitarian principles, but does little to go beyond existing words and phrases. There are legitimate concerns that the declaration may undermine countries’ existing human rights obligations towards migrants and refugees. By highlighting some obligations regarding water, sanitation, housing, food and health, and by stressing the need to protect vulnerable groups such as women and children, the text may be used by states as a tool for avoiding other human rights commitments to individuals within their countries. And by emphasising the role of non-state actors and the private sector, some countries may use the declaration as a method to shirk or pass on their human rights obligations.

These concerns are not in the abstract. Many countries are using the migration crisis to try to scale back their existing obligations. Some, like Denmark’s prime minister, have explicitly called for changes to, and the watering down of, existing conventions to place fewer obligations on states. Others, like the British prime minister, Theresa May, simply refuse to uphold their obligations while calling on others to do more to stem the tide of migration. May’s government is still refusing to allow 500 unaccompanied children in Calais to fulfil their right to join family members in the UK.

The General Assembly summit will be followed by a second high-level summit hosted by US President Barack Obama on September 20, at which he will ask world leaders to pledge more funds and more room for irregular migrants. Noble sentiments, indeed, but asking countries for money and spaces will not answer the fundamental question raised by the crisis: how to coordinate and implement a streamlined and global response to migration.

A global approach

What is needed is a system similar to the resettlement of migrants and refugees during and after the Indo-Chinese wars in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, the global community came together to determine the number of people that would be offered a place in each country. A managed global response enabled those migrants to reach their new homes in a safe and orderly fashion, and to integrate swiftly into their new societies. In contrast, today’s refugees fleeing the war in Syria have had to pay people smugglers in order to reach Europe in rubber dinghies and crossing the continent on foot. Those are the fortunate ones who have sufficient health and wealth not to languish for years in refugees camps across the Middle East.

Those who work on the ground, from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to the UN Special rapporteur on human rights and migrants, have long called for a responsible, managed global approach to migration. This would uphold the fundamental rights of migrants, would ensure that migration benefited the country and the individual, and would enable a coordinated and sustained approach whereby all countries took some responsibility for the crisis.

Refugee life-jackets in Brooklyn, New York, before the summit. Justin Lane/EPA

But those calls have been ignored by governments that are more concerned about securing domestic votes than they are about ensuring that all individuals have their fundamental human rights protected. Irregular migrants do not have votes in national elections. Irregular migrants do not have the ability to protest about their treatment – not if they need to remain in the shadows for fear of detention or deportation. Irregular migrants do not have the cultural capital needed to lobby domestic legislators.

So the domestic voices to which politicians listen come from those who claim that there is no room for new citizens, or those who claim that migrants commit crimes or acts of terrorism, or those who believe in nationalism and protectionism. And when those loud voices threaten to remove their votes unless politicians heed them, governments disregard the global in favour of the national.

These two summits provided a great opportunity for a new, measured and responsible approach to migration across the world. But, as many predicted would happen, that opportunity has been missed. Instead we have seen countries, regional groups and political blocs act in ways that are defensive and protectionist. The result: yet another UN text that will say little and do so in watered-down, tepid language.

A few states will continue to shoulder the financial and physical burden for many migrants, while others continue to shirk their duties and responsibilities. And, ultimately, what we will see is no change on the ground for the millions of people who will irregularly migrate in 2017.

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