The World Has Lost the Will to Deal With the Worst Refugee Crisis Since World War II

The World Has Lost the Will to Deal With the Worst Refugee Crisis Since World War II
A child migrant from Central America waits outside the U.N.’s office that is dedicated to supporting refugees, in Tapachula, Mexico, June 3, 2019 (AP photo by Marco Ugarte).
Disturbing scenes emanating from detention centers along the southern U.S. border have underscored the Trump administration’s indifference to the suffering of strangers, even young children seeking asylum. Unfortunately, the current administration in Washington is far from alone in scorning those seeking refuge in foreign lands. The world is in the midst of a global crisis of displacement, one that is testing both established humanitarian principles and the will of wealthy countries to ease the plight of those affected. This calamity shows no signs of abating. The world is utterly failing to assist and protect those most in need. Late last month, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, announced that its global caseload had topped 74.8 million people in 2018—up from 43 million just five years earlier. Some 41.4 million of these individuals are internally displaced persons, or IDPs, uprooted from homes but still within their country, while another 20.4 million are refugees, having crossed international borders. The remainder includes 3.9 million stateless persons lacking recognized nationality, 3.5 million registered asylum-seekers, and 2.9 million recently returned refugees and IDPs. Unsurprisingly, violence is the single biggest driver of displacement. In Africa, refugees and IDPs have almost tripled over the past decade, thanks to chronic conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. The Americas, meanwhile, face “a displacement situation of complexity and magnitude not seen in decades,” according to the U.N. More than 3 million people fled Venezuela in 2018. Most of them arrived in Colombia, which was already grappling with 7.8 million IDPs of its own. To the north, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have sought asylum in the United States to escape rampant gang violence and abusive governments. In Afghanistan, now entering its fourth straight decade of war, insecurity and drought displaced another 500,000 people in 2018, bringing the total of internally displaced to 2.1 million. An additional 2.4 million Afghan refugees have fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Bangladesh, meanwhile, hosts more than 900,000 Rohingya Muslims who have escaped persecution in Myanmar. Compounding their plight, the Rohingya—ethnic minorities in Myanmar—remain stateless. The situation is even worse in the Middle East, which is home to “three of the largest and most violent humanitarian and displacement crises in the world,” the U.N. has warned. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq have generated more than 10 million IDPs and 7.2 million refugees and asylum-seekers. If that wasn’t bad enough, UNHCR’s emergency appeals for Syria in 2018 attracted only 49 percent of required funding. In Yemen, “funds were insufficient to meet the needs of even the most vulnerable.” Many of the world’s desperate have wound up on Europe’s shores—when they have avoided drowning at sea, as one in 50 people did trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, according to the UNHCR. Although refugee arrivals and asylum claims have shrunk dramatically since 2015, Europe’s reception has turned chilly, with some authorities prosecuting their own citizens who assist refugees.

Among the most alarming humanitarian trends is the growing animus toward refugees in advanced market democracies.

It was not supposed to be this way. Last December, the vast majority of U.N. member states—with the conspicuous exception of the United States—approved a Global Compact for Refugees. The nonbinding document endorsed a set of basic principles of “burden- and responsibility-sharing,” intended to ease pressures on host countries, enhance the self reliance of refugees, expand refugee resettlement in third countries, and support conditions in countries of origin so that refugees could “return in safety and dignity.” In practice, however, these countries have done far too little to fix a broken humanitarian system. Among its defects are chronic funding shortfalls, failure to recognize the right to seek asylum, growing political resistance to admitting refugees, slow donor adjustment to the realities of prolonged displacement, and the continued use of emergency humanitarian assistance as a substitute for more vigorous diplomatic efforts to reduce, contain or end the violence that is the root cause of human suffering. Funding: At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, donors reached a so-called “Grand Bargain” intended to close an estimated $15 billion financing gap in relief assistance while making that aid more efficient, effective and equitable. While the organizations that implement that aid have improved coordination among themselves and with local actors in affected countries, large funding gaps remain. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, global financial requirements for humanitarian emergencies amounted to $25.2 billion in 2018, while available funding was only $15.1 billion—a more than $10 billion gap that left many urgent needs unmet. Legal obligations: The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of persecution” and prohibits states parties from returning refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened—the principle of non-refoulement. In principle, international law gives refugees the right to cross borders to seek asylum. The reality, though, is messier. “The EU,” The Guardian newspaper reports, “has tried to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching its territory whenever possible.” So has the United States; President Donald Trump dismisses U.S. asylum law as “a scam.” Even when countries do take custody of refugees, they may ignore asylum requests. A case in point is Australia. Last year, the U.N.’s working group on arbitrary detentions condemned Australia for its open-ended detention of asylum-seekers—including one who was held for nearly a decade. Refugee admissions: Among the most alarming humanitarian trends is the growing animus toward refugees in advanced market democracies. Under the Trump administration, the ceiling for refugee admissions in the United States has been slashed from 85,000 in 2016 to 30,000 in 2019, and actual admissions have been significantly lower than authorized. The president’s own hysterical rhetoric has helped poison discourse on the topic, by depicting victims of violence as potential terrorists or “frauds” seeking to exploit American generosity. Of the 25 nations that accepted refugees in 2018, Canada—with a population little more than a tenth of America’s—ranked first, taking in 28,100 of the 92,400 resettled worldwide. Linking relief with development: The international community is still waking up to the reality that displacement is rarely a short-term situation. It lasts, on average, 17 years. Rather than warehousing IDPs and refugees in temporary camps, humanitarian organizations and countries themselves need to work with aid agencies to encourage long-term development in place. The World Bank has been a pioneer here. In the most recent replenishment of its International Development Association fund, the World Bank created a $2 billion Refugee Sub-Window, or RSW, which allows it to support low-income countries that host large refugee populations, such as Ethiopia and Pakistan. In a recent report, the Center for Global Development and the International Rescue Committee applauded the World Bank’s new role, while still recognizing the need for more work to be done. The most enduring shortcoming in the global response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II remains the failure to combine aid with diplomacy to address the underlying grievances and conflicts that lie at the root of this human exodus around the world. It is often said that there are no purely humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. The scope of today’s relief efforts is at once a testament to human generosity and an indictment of a collective failure of political will. Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.