Obama Summit a Welcome Step in the Right Direction, but Gaps and Serious Rights Violations Remain

New York City—Human Rights First today applauded President Obama for hosting yesterday’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, which brought together members of the international community to work together and commit to increases in refugee resettlement, aid, and access to work and education. While the summit produced a number of welcome concrete commitments, Human Rights First notes that these steps fall far short of addressing the current and acutely pressing global need.

“While commitments made yesterday are certainly an important step, we will be watching carefully to urge that countries actually follow through; otherwise the summit will have yielded little but talk,” said Eleanor Acer, who addressed the U.N.’s High Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants on Monday.

During the Leaders’ Summit, a number of countries committed to increase their provision of aid, resettlement, and other alternative pathways to live in safe countries. Countries participating in the summit increased commitments to U.N. appeals and agencies by $4.5 billion. Additionally, 360,000 formal refugee resettlement slots and other legal routes were pledged, doubling the number pledged in 2015 according to the administration. This number, however, pales in comparison to the global need.

The U.N. has said that 10 percent of refuges globally are in need of resettlement, and the number of refugees in the world has risen steeply in recent years, now exceeding 21 million. Nearly one in four has fled Syria. Seventy-six percent of the global refugee crisis comes from just ten countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Colombia. And ten countries – Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad – host 58 percent of refugees.  As front-line refugee hosting states like Jordan and Lebanon confirmed at the summit, the support of the international community is urgently needed to help assure their stability as they struggle to host so many refugees.

Also missing from the summit were strong commitments to take steps to ensure access to protection for the many refugees who—at this very moment—are blocked from fleeing across borders to access asylum and other international protection, many stranded in dangerous or difficult situations. Thousands of Syrians, for instance, have been blocked from crossing to safety.  A number of states participating in the summit have engaged in rights-violating policies and practices aimed at preventing refugees and migrants from reaching their own borders. “U.S. leadership is critical to addressing the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, but the administration must end policies at home that penalize refugees who seek protection at its own borders and must press other nations to allow refugees to cross borders to access asylum or other protection.”

Last week the Obama Administration announced that it would increase the number of refugees resettled in the United States to at least 110,000 in 2017, up from 85,000 in 2016. This is a welcome development, and Human Rights First urges the administration to resettle a higher number of refugees, commensurate with the level of the global crisis, and to work with Congress to ensure proper funding levels for the resettlement program. Congress has yet to pass appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, but as the bills stand now, Congress is set to drastically cut funding levels for refugee resettlement in FY2017. Human Rights First urges legislators to fully fund the program, in keeping with the United States’ historic commitment to protecting the persecuted. The organization notes that without proper funding levels, commitments made by President Obama will be difficult to execute. In addition, the Obama Administration should commit to ending policies within the United States that block access to protection at our own borders and send asylum seekers, including children and their families, to detention facilities.

National security experts have explained that U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees advances U.S. national security interests and would protect the stability of important U.S. allies in the region, as detailed in Human Rights First’s February report, “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Need for U.S. Leadership.” A December 2015 letter from a bipartisan group of 20 former U.S. national security advisors, CIA directors, secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security confirms this national security interest and that Syrian refugees are vetted more intensively than any other traveler to the United States. In addition, 32 of the nation’s most prominent national security leaders, retired military leaders, and former government officials, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, CIA Director General Michael Hayden, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), affirmed in a June 2016 Statement of Principles, “The United States has long been a refuge for those seeking safety and freedom, and for a simple reason: Americans believe their compassion and openness are sources not of weakness but strength. The demonstration of these qualities accords with the core ideals on which our nation was founded, and on which our greatness rests.”


Published on September 21, 2016


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