At the World Humanitarian Summit on Monday and Tuesday, May 23-24, nations, humanitarian organizations, and civil society actors will identify ways to better address the global refugee crisis and other pressing humanitarian challenges. The summit is an opportunity to take steps towards improving the delivery of humanitarian aid and developing investment strategies that benefit both refugees and refugee-hosting states. Such strategies include creating jobs and economic opportunities for refugees and refugee-hosting communities.
Unfortunately it appears the summit may devote too little attention to many of the serious human rights violations that are contributing to the escalation of refugee-related humanitarian crises. Around the world, states are ignoring or circumventing their obligations under international law to allow refugees to enter their countries to seek protection.
The results are devastating. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have blocked thousands of refugees from fleeing Syria. The European Union, through its deal with Turkey, is sending the message that states can barter away their legal obligations to protect refugees and pass them on to other states—for a price. Kenya, pointing to the double-standard of “rich” states, has now announced plans to close two refugee camps holding hundreds of thousands of Somali and South Sudanese refugees, calling on the UNHCR to help repatriate refugees.
Doctors Without Borders recently pulled out of the summit, expressing concern that “the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to.” Noting in its statement that “shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis,” the organization stated, “The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.”
The international community—and the United States in particular—must take steps to reinforce the rule of law and press states to adhere to their obligations under humanitarian and refugee laws. If countries continue to violate the rules that were set up to protect civilians in times of conflict and persecution, not only will more people lose their lives, but the scale of humanitarian crises will continue to grow and so too will instability.
Both the World Humanitarian Summit and the high level refugee-related meetings scheduled in New York in September present opportunities for the United States to provide stronger global leadership by championing the importance of state adherence to their legal obligations under refugee and humanitarian law.
Human Rights First has urged the United States, in a series of reports and recommendations, to lead a comprehensive initiative to address the global refugee crisis. To effectively lead this global initiative, the United States should:
1. Champion the protection of the rights of refugees, including their right to work, access education, and cross borders in order to escape persecution. The president and secretary of state should press nations to allow refugees to cross borders to access international protection, and should make clear that efforts to prevent terrorists from crossing borders must be accompanied by measures that ensure refugees are permitted to cross borders.
The United States should urge the European Union to immediately implement safeguards to protect refugees from improper return, to reject the notion that Turkey is a “safe country” under refugee protection legal standards, and to cease deportations under the flawed E.U.-Turkey deal. The United States must also ensure that NATO actions do not violate the human rights of refugees and migrants, including the right to flee persecution and seek asylum.
2. Lead by example, abandoning policies and practices that undermine the protection of the rights of refugees at home. The United States should reform its own border and detention policies, including those that subject asylum seekers to expedited removal proceedings and arbitrary and unnecessary detention. The United States should treat the Central American refugee crisis as a regional refugee crisis to be managed in ways that respect the rights of refugees and migrants, rather than a political or border security crisis to be addressed through punitive and harsh tools designed to send a message and “stem the flow.”
3. Lead countries to resettle 10 percent of the refugee population – significantly demonstrating its own commitment to resettle Syrian refugees to encourage other nations to do more. A bipartisan group of former U.S. government officials with humanitarian and national security expertise recommended that the United States resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees, as did the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in March 2016. This commitment would be miniscule compared to that of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and would amount to just over 2 percent of the overall Syrian population hosted by states in the region, and only about 20 percent of the overall resettlement need, already estimated to exceed 480,000. The United States must also improve the pace and effectiveness of its resettlement process by ramping up efforts to address delays, bottlenecks, and efficiency gaps that hamper U.S. resettlement and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) initiatives.
4. Work with other donor states to meet humanitarian appeals, improve the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian aid delivery, and increase investment development strategies that help refugees work while also supporting frontline refugee hosting communities. The United States and other donors should expand and replicate initiatives that increase opportunities for refugees to work and access education, while also supporting refugee hosting communities.