In the short time since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has suspended the entire US refugee resettlement programme and barred the admission of citizens from a number of Muslim-majority countries that produce significant numbers of refugees, including Syria, Somalia and Iraq. This comes at a time when the international community is striving to ensure an effective follow-up to a September 2016 UN Summit on the refugee issue. The main outcome of that meeting was the New York Declaration, a document that ‘expresses the political will of world leaders to protect the rights of refugees, to save lives and share responsibility for large movements on a global scale.’
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has suggested that the Declaration constitutes ‘a minor miracle’, given the highly contentious nature of the refugee issue. It represents ‘a revival of multilateralism as an antidote to isolationism’ and is ‘a truly remarkable achievement in today’s complex and retrogressive climate.’ Among its many provisions, the Declaration includes commitments to improve the delivery of assistance to refugee populations; to support those countries that receive and host the largest number of exiles; to find new homes for all refugees who need them by means of resettlement to other countries; and to condemn and combat xenophobia.
But the Declaration has been subject to very mixed reviews, and other commentators (the current author included) have been more critical. At the time when the Declaration was being drafted, they observed that none of the commitments included in the document are binding on states, and drew attention to the fact that governments were trying to water down the document’s language on the human rights of refugees.
They pointed to the gap between the lofty language of the Declaration and the way that governments actually treat people who are in need of asylum. And they asked why the implementation of the Declaration had been delayed for two years, when the needs of refugees are so great and so urgent. According to Amnesty International, the Declaration was nothing but ‘a nicely worded piece of paper, authorizing inaction and business as usual.’
The events of the past week have given added weight to such scepticism. For many decades the US has devoted more attention and resources to the refugee issue than any other country. But it is now set for a dramatic reduction in the support and opportunities that it provides to exiled populations.
Such action has been taken despite the fact that refugees undergo an extensive vetting procedure before they are allowed to enter the US, and in the absence of any evidence that resettled refugees have been engaged in acts of terrorism.
In 2015, around 82,000 refugees were resettled in other countries under UNHCR auspices, 53,000 of whom (just under 65 per cent) were admitted to the US. It therefore seems inconceivable that an expansion in global resettlement numbers – a key objective of the New York Declaration – will be attained.
At the same time, President Trump has announced an urgent review of US funding to all UN agencies, with clear indications that its contributions will be reduced. UNHCR, which currently receives around 40 per cent of its resources from Washington DC, is likely to be on the sharp end of this process. In such circumstances it will be extremely difficult to improve the shelter, health and education available to refugees, as envisaged by the Declaration.
Since the New York summit, events elsewhere have raised serious questions about the viability of the Declaration’s objectives. In Iraq, the World Food Programme (another important recipient of US funds) has been obliged to halve the food rations provided to 1.4 million displaced people. In Greece and Serbia, refugees have literally been left out in the cold, accommodated in snow-covered tents and freezing factories.
Rather than sharing responsibility for refugees more equitably, the EU has been forging partnerships with a number of authoritarian and dysfunctional states, including Belarus, Eritrea, Sudan and Turkey, explicitly designed to contain refugees within their own regions and to obstruct their arrival in Europe. In the continent itself, public attitudes towards asylum seekers seem to be hardening.
Perhaps Trump will reconsider his policies, recognizing that it is in the US’s own interest to address the refugee issue in a more effective and equitable manner. Perhaps other states can be persuaded to fill some of the shortfall in resettlement places and humanitarian funding if there is no change of heart in Washington. And perhaps Antonio Guterres, the new UN secretary general and former UNHCR chief, can launch the ‘surge in diplomacy for peace’ that he has promised, thereby averting the need for people to leave their own country and enabling some refugees to return to their homes.
But looking to the future, it is difficult to be optimistic. In an increasingly unstable world, mass movements of dispossessed and destitute people will bring untold suffering and stretch the resources of receiving states and humanitarian organizations alike.
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