from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Thy Neighbor’s Keeper: Improving Global Humanitarian Response

April 28, 2016

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Coauthored with Theresa Lou, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A record-setting sixty-million individuals are currently displaced due to violent conflict. While the world’s attention has been gripped by the million who have reached Europe’s shores over the past year, the global crisis of displacement is vastly greater in scope. In anticipation of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2016, the International Institutions and Global Governance program held a workshop to diagnose shortcomings of the current humanitarian regime and propose recommendations for its reform. Here are five important takeaways.

1. Limited responsibility sharing is unsustainable.

The 1951 Refugee Convention outlines states’ obligations to protect asylum seekers, but it fails to establish mechanisms for member states to equitably distribute the responsibilities and monetary costs of hosting refugees. Accordingly, the burdens for providing emergency relief and hosting refugees fall disproportionately on neighboring countries. To make matters worse, these hosting countries are often fragile states with weak capacities to provide essential services. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, developing countries today host more than 86 percent of the world’s refugees. Allowing geographic proximity to determine refugee burdens generates tensions between states forced to accept refugees and those that can turn the other cheek, jeopardizes the safety of asylum seekers, and undermines the legitimacy of the humanitarian regime.

2. The humanitarian regime needs to adapt to the times.

Established in the wake of World War II, the international humanitarian regime is no longer fit for purpose. It has failed to adapt to a world of fragile states and nonstate actors, in which humanitarian crises are more complex and protracted. Being a refugee is no longer a temporary situation: today the average duration of displacement is a shocking seventeen years. Instead of offering short term assistance, international actors must increasingly seek durable solutions. They must also adjust to the communications revolution. As the Syrian experience shows, today’s refugees often have access to satellite based navigation technologies and social media communication, which they can use to guide themselves toward hospitable destinations and services. But these same technologies also encourage secondary movements, whereby asylum seekers transit potential asylum countries for more desirable onward destinations. This trend exacerbates backlogs in processing asylum claims and complicates the task of distinguishing refugees from economic migrants.

Indeed, today’s complex emergencies blur the distinction between those who qualify as refugees under the 1951 convention and those who do not deserve asylum. For example, what should be the status and legal protections afforded so-called “survival migrants”—those who cross international borders to escape deprivation, even death, thanks to collapsing governance or climate change-induced famine? Likewise, the existing humanitarian regime fails to offer adequate protections for the roughly 40 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who continue to reside within their country’s borders, in often desperate circumstances. Although IDPs are often among the most vulnerable individuals, aid organizations struggle to access and protect them, in a world still organized around state sovereignty.

3. The world must bridge the gap between humanitarian and development aid.

In the immediate wake of crisis, affected populations require emergency assistance. As displacement persists, however, refugees and IDPs increasingly need development assistance so that they can rebuild livelihoods and homes and gain access to essentials services from water and sanitation to health and education. Bridging the gap between humanitarian and development action requires agencies to break out of their bureaucratic boxes and get more comfortable both with doing things differently and doing different things. In one promising step, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Islamic Development Bank Group jointly launched a new financing initiative in October 2015 to meet both the humanitarian and development needs of the Middle East and North Africa countries coping with the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis.

4. Opportunities for education and employment must be part of the long-term solution.

Finding durable solutions to the global humanitarian crisis requires us to think more creatively about the linkages between states, markets, and refugees. By providing refugees with employment opportunities, host countries are empowering them to become self-reliant economic actors. Such an approach not only benefits the local economy, but also may minimize the level of secondary movement, because refugees now have the means to support themselves and their family in place. It also provides them with skills they can take back to their homes when conflict subsides. This approach has proven successful in studies conducted by the University of Oxford in Uganda, where refugees were found to make “a positive contribution to the host state economy.”

Today, children make up more than half of the global refugee population. All too often, they have limited access to education in host countries, due to shortages of schools, lack of transportation, and other obstacles. This is a ticking time bomb, inasmuch as children not enrolled in school are more likely to end up working in hazardous conditions or to be recruited into militant organizations. At the 2016 conference on Supporting Syria and the Region in London, participants committed to provide education to all Syrian refugee children by the end of the 2016–17 school year. Though such an endeavor will cost at least $1.4 billion annually, it seems a reasonable price to prevent the emergence of a “lost generation.”

5. The world must seize upon upcoming opportunities to harness global momentum for change.

Given the growing number of fragile states, as well as the strains of climate change, mass human movements are likely to be the wave of the future. The world needs to act accordingly. Fortunately, the remainder of 2016 offers at least three opportunities for humanitarian actors and member states to focus on pressing reforms.

In May, the United Nations will host the world Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. In September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a plenary meeting on humanitarian issues at the seventy-first session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Finally, President Barack Obama will host a high-level summit on the sidelines of UNGA to “secure new commitments” for humanitarian action. The United States has established the following laudable goals:

  • Increase global response to UN humanitarian funding appeals by 30 percent
  • Increase the number of regular humanitarian donors by at least ten
  • Double (at a minimum) the number of slots for refugee resettlement globally
  • Increase by at least ten the number of countries admitting refugees
  • Enroll one million refugees children in school and provide one million refugees with lawful employment

Though much work remains to be done, this “Year of Summits” offers member states and humanitarian actors an opportunity to harness political momentum for necessary reforms to protect the growing number of forced migrants and refugees.

 To learn more, read the full report: “The Global Humanitarian Regime: Priorities and Prospects for Reform.”

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