As I write, 177 people, including 34 children, are stuck on board an Italian coastguard ship at a Sicilian port. They’ve been refused permission to disembark by the Italian interior minister until other European countries agree to take them.
Venezuelan refugees face violence and closed borders as they try to flee to neighbouring countries. Yemeni refugees have been met with huge protests in South Korea.
A new international agreement, the Global Compact on Refugees, could change these desperate situations. And it cannot come a moment too soon.
2017 was a record year for the number of people forced to migrate worldwide because of war, poverty, environmental disaster, conflict and persecution: 68.5 million by the end of the year, 25.4 million of whom are classified as refugees and a further 40 million displaced within their own countries. A shocking 16.2 million were newly displaced during the last year alone.
The responsibility for caring for refugees typically falls on the countries of conflict themselves or their closest neighbours.
As a result, the majority of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries – some of them almost as badly off and at risk of destabilisation.
In Lebanon, more than one person in four is a refugee, mainly from Syria – the largest proportion of any country’s population. Turkey has the largest total number of refugees – 3.5 million; about half the total number in Europe. The UK helps some of these people by contributing aid to the region.
Nonetheless, many of these people, stuck in camps or other limbo conditions for years, with few opportunities for education or work, may make dangerous journeys at the mercy of exploitative people traffickers. Some countries have raised barriers to try to make it harder for people to make journeys. This has not stopped the journeys but has increased the risks.
A safer response is to provide safe and legal routes to third countries via ‘resettlement’.
This also allows more countries to share the responsibility for the world’s refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 1.2 million refugees were in need of resettlement in 2017, with the number actually resettled in 2017 falling to 75,000.
In the UK, we can and should take more refugees, welcoming them and providing opportunities for integration while they’re here and for as long as they need it.
Another sustainable response is supporting local integration of refugees into the neighbouring host country they arrive in after leaving their own. In Uganda, for example, refugees are given land and resources to grow food and start work or a business. We can learn from such examples in the UK.
In 2016, President Obama hosted a UN summit on refugees, which culminated in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants 2016. All 193 member states of the UN signed up, agreeing that protecting people forced to flee, and supporting countries that host them, should be shared responsibilities. This process is due to culminate in the signing of a Global Compact on Refugees in September 2018.
The Global Compact, through international cooperation and shared responsibility, aims to:
- ease pressures on host countries;
- enhance refugee self-reliance;
- expand access to third countries (refugee resettlement); and
- support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.
If properly implemented, these commitments could truly transform the lives of millions of refugees and others.
There are, of course, people who believe that refugees are not our problem, or are just a security risk or burden. In the Labour Party we reject those views.
Our values dictate that we must work to improve the treatment of those who seek sanctuary in other countries.
Why? Because if we do nothing or stick to what does not work, the refugee crisis will get worse. There will be more refugees making dangerous journeys. There will be difficulties for host countries. There will be people who resent refugees, and refugees who resent the world. This provides fertile ground for terrorists and traffickers to hurt and harm not just refugees but others.
Regional instability travels. It promotes desperation, which is dangerous, as it allows millions of children to grow up undereducated, often undernourished, and with little sense of having a stake and a place in the world.
Wealthier countries end up spending more and more enforcing borders, running camps and attempting to deter refugees. Millions of people are left unproductive, their skills allowed to atrophy. This hurts us all. For those of us on the Left, this situation should spur us to action.
We would all benefit from changing our response to the refugee crisis. The Global Compact on Refugees offers us an opportunity to do that.