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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Press the reset button on the refugee crisis

Preethi Nallu reflects on the mixed bag of last month's humanitarian summit in Istanbul
Efforts to control migration have proved unwieldy, expensive and ineffective, with few deportations from Greece and even fewer admittances into the EU under the one-in-one-out deal. Petros Giannakouris / AP Photo
Efforts to control migration have proved unwieldy, expensive and ineffective, with few deportations from Greece and even fewer admittances into the EU under the one-in-one-out deal. Petros Giannakouris / AP Photo

Slogans were plentiful at last month’s humanitarian summit in Istanbul. There was hope too, that the meeting would serve as a compelling prelude to the UN conference on refugees and migrants scheduled for New York in September. But all the hosts could muster – after three years of consultations with about 27,000 people across 153 countries – were vague commitments towards intentionally broad “core” basic principles.

The imminent problem was clear to every participant. The current rate of movement of people across borders is a consequence of globalisation and the unequal distribution of wealth and stability. With about 80 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in conflict-prone areas over the next decade, global strife will continue to outpace the humanitarian systems in place to deal with them.

The consultations that led to the Istanbul summit – the result of 400 written submissions over several years – prescribe reform of the humanitarian sector and changes to international law to cope with the current crises. From addressing displacement induced by climate change to the intensifying wrath of conflicts that permeate boundaries of nation states, the approaches that were put in place after the Second World War are clearly in need of a major overhaul.

But it was hard not to feel the folly of sitting at the closing ceremony of the summit last month. As the historical gateway between Asia and Europe since the time of Byzantium, Istanbul was a fitting venue to address the rapid migration flows from different directions that have triggered today’s global refugee crisis. Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population, with more than 2.8 million Syrian men, women and children. Anywhere up to 500,000 Syrians live in Istanbul alone.

But the mounting accusations against Turkey of shooting at civilians fleeing attacks by the Syrian regime and ISIL, made the venue less comfortable. If Turkey’s plans to build “smart” shooting towers at its borders are implemented, it will have concocted a ruthless and dystopian approach to mitigating migration.

Efforts to control migration have proved unwieldy, expensive and ineffective, with few deportations from Greece and even fewer admissions into the EU under the one-in-one-out deal. Dismayed humanitarian workers report an uneasy impasse as refugees biding their time to embark on boats have gone into hiding for fear of being detained. Others choosing alternate routes, including women and children, have disappeared, becoming even easier prey for traffickers.

With Italy eclipsing Greece with the number of arrivals over April and May, a centrally organised response system – one that minimises deaths at sea, offers humane reception to those arriving on the shores of Europe and, better yet, options of applying for asylum without having to undertake dangerous crossings – warranted explicit acknowledgement at the summit.

The 130 bodies that washed up on the Libyan coast in the days following the summit and the more than 1,040 deaths over the last two weeks should put us all to shame. Yet the declarations coming from the summit’s panels were vague, non-committal and underwhelming.

Gathering governmental and non-governmental organisation on a common platform is not without its merits. But by failing to delineate clear roles and responsibilities and skirting the basic acknowledgement that the most powerful participants have the most influence, the summit failed to address the elephants in the room that have made themselves at home.

For the UN to deliver aid during conflict, states must adhere to international humanitarian laws. For aid to be effective, the UN must become more efficient with its on-ground operations.

Several organisations have monitored these failings, but almost none are explicitly discussed. Doing so would mean pointing to specific violations by states and assessing the failures of the UN. It is equally important to acknowledge that the failures of the UN-led humanitarian system are rooted in its subordinate role to the nation-states that are its primary patrons.

The off-the-record conversations in Istanbul between sectors and among people who would otherwise not meet could turn out to be a worthy investment, especially as the trajectory is now pointing towards the New York summit.

Making use of the conversations that emanated in Istanbul will require getting into finer details, from managing borders and establishing early warning systems to analysing successful cases of the integration of refugee populations through freedom of movement.

Change must take place at all levels of the international humanitarian system with improving emergency response as the first tenet of that transformation. The overhaul must be all encompassing: from the UN’s lack of accountability to the bureaucratic mazes of governments and the gaps between the visions emanating from the headquarters of humanitarian organisations and the realities on the ground.

With the Mediterranean crossings by migrants climbing towards an ever-higher apex, the timing of the summit and the lead up to New York is in fact propitious. But, how do we best harness this sense of urgency? The only way forward is to hit the reset button.

Preethi Nallu is a multimedia and print journalist focused on migration. She is currently managing editor of Refugees Deeply.

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