Refugees from South Sudan arrive in Elegu, northern Uganda (Credit: UNHCR/Will Swanson)
A global crisis demands a global response. Nowhere is this more apparent than when looking at how the world responds to refugees and mass migration - an issue that leaves virtually no corner of the globe untouched.
There are more people on the move today than ever before. A quarter of a billion have left their homes for new lives abroad. Sixty-five million have been displaced by war or persecution.
The millions of people fleeing the devastating war in Syria have attracted considerable media attention over the past two years, but their plight mirrors that of countless others in less “visible” conflicts from Afghanistan to Congo or the vicious gang violence in Central America that has driven so many to seek safety in the United States.
In this context, the fact that the United Nations is convening a special summit on refugees and migrants during the high-level week of its General Assembly in New York, and that President Barack Obama will chair a donor summit the following day is very welcome.
These are two moments for the world to come together and move beyond warm words to concrete actions that will help the most vulnerable people.
Because for all the summits and deliberations of recent years, it is clear that the world can - and must - do more to protect refugees and migrants, and ensure that their basic human rights are respected in the process.
This is the key message of a new report The Elders have just issued. Entitled “In Challenge Lies Opportunity: How the world must respond to refugees and mass migration”, it sets out four key principles that we believe must be at the heart of a coherent international response: better coordinated response mechanisms to large flows of people; enhanced assistance to major refugee-hosting countries; increased resettlement opportunities and additional pathways for refugees; and respect for human rights and protection.
The Elders' report on refugees and mass migration (Credit: Ilias Bartolini/Flickr)
The heads of state meeting in New York this week have a responsibility to prove that they take these matters seriously, and reject the politics of prejudice and populism that are proving all too resonant on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
As Kofi Annan, Chair of The Elders, said on his recent visit to Germany to discuss these issues with top government officials, the solution to increased numbers of refugees can never be walls, fences or militarised borders.
Prosperous countries of the world must show genuine compassion and shoulder their fair share of the burden of hosting refugees. How can it be fair that a tiny country like Lebanon, with a population of only 4 million people, hosts at least 1.5 million refugees, when some much wealthier European countries quibble about even receiving a few thousand?
But equally, states in the developing world need to assume their own responsibilities. Leaders need to be held to account for the dire social, economic and human rights situations that cause so many of their citizens to flee abroad, believing there is no prospect of peace or security in their homeland. Addressing the root causes of flight is the key, not treating the symptoms.
Pakistan, my home country, has been host to over three million refugees from Afghanistan ever since the Soviet invasion nearly 40 years ago. Most of these poor people have been languishing in squalid urban camps for decades - as, I should add, have millions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and of course Syria, where they now find themselves victims of yet another war.
This week in New York, leaders at the United Nations - in particular, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who have the heaviest responsibility - must demonstrate their willingness to prioritise saving lives over political rivalries, whether in Syria, Ukraine or other conflicts too often seen through the prism of realpolitik than that of protecting civilians.
Only a concerted international approach guided by the principles of solidarity, human rights and respect can deliver a durable solution Failure to rise to the challenge will only exacerbate the plethora of refugee crises the world faces today which in turn will further worsen global stability.
The founder of The Elders, Nelson Mandela, saw this all too clearly when discussing refugee problems in Africa in 1997. His words still resonate today and will continue to inform The Elders’ engagement on refugees and migration in the months and years ahead:
“Unresolved refugee problems become a source of instability, violence and further population displacements. Dealing with these problems is inextricably linked to achieving peace, upholding the rule of law and entrenching a human rights culture and democracy.”