Paola Subacchi
Research Director, International Economics
The silence is deafening.
Hungarian police officers stop a group of refugees near a makeshift camp for asylum seekers in Roszke, southern Hungary, 9 September, 2015. Photo by Thomas Campean /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.Police officers stop a group of refugees near a makeshift camp for asylum seekers in Roszke, southern Hungary, 9 September 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Last week, as the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders reached one of its most dramatic moments, the finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 countries met in Ankara for the third time under this year’s Turkish presidency. The G20 bundles together countries that comprise 85 per cent of the world’s GDP. Members of the G20 group are geopolitical heavyweights; but among them there are also countries that have been deeply involved in this crisis, such as Italy and Germany. This year the group is chaired by Turkey, a country that has been dealing with the Syrian crisis for some time.

And yet, the communique that was released after the meeting fails to mention the crisis entirely. There’s not even a footnote to express grief for the huge humanitarian emergency. In fact, the finance ministers of countries that are pivotal to the refugee crisis gathered together, but somehow failed to even attempt to use this opportunity to talk about the refugee crisis, much less broker an agreement on how to tackle this massive displacement of people from war-afflicted and poverty-stricken countries. At very least they could have made the point that this is not a domestic issue, but an international one. To do this would have required courage and imagination; the G20 has shown that it lacks these characteristics. Its meeting last week was a huge missed opportunity to either take the moral high ground or demonstrate the G20’s relevance.

International organizations and intergovernmental bodies tend to work along strictly defined lines of competence. The G20 is the premier forum for economic and financial affairs and its agenda stretches from macroeconomics and international financial reforms to sustainable development and tax systems. International aid falls within the remit of the G7 (of course, all seven of these countries are members of the G20). Technically, the G20 should not deal with anything that is not strictly part of that remit. After all, the refugee crisis is unlikely to derail the economic recovery that the G20 is trying to keep on track. By the same token, this crisis will not undermine financial stability. So the refugee crisis is not the G20’s responsibility. Technically.

Is this division of labour tenable? And does it make sense in an increasingly interconnected and complex world where those lines of competence often get blurred? Of course, the issue of refugees is politically sensitive in many countries, especially those that are preferred destinations for refugees. However, since the beginning of this summer — and much longer for countries, like Italy and Turkey, that are closer to conflict zones — it has become clear that the flow of displaced people cannot be dealt with only by the receiving country. The draconian measures imposed on refugees and displaced individuals and families are less and less acceptable and increasingly at odds with the urgency of this crisis. The tragic death of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned on the shore of Turkey last week, has shaken consciences around the world and has shamed many countries for their inaction.

So far, the G20 countries have responded by treating the refugee crisis as an entirely domestic matter. And each country has chosen to act in a way that has been dictated by the geographical distance to the war zones and to the alleged hostility of domestic constituencies. Germany and Italy — both open to helping refugees despite significant domestic pressures from anti-immigrant groups — sit together with Britain and Canada, which maintain that the problem of refugees can only be dealt with in the countries of origin. Since the beginning of the year, Britain and Canada have donated approximately $475 million and $142 million respectively to the United Nations Syria response. Britain is the largest donor after the United States and this position reflects the government’s reluctance to give refugee status to a significant number of people. The best that the British government has offered so far is to host 20,000 refugees from now through 2020. Saudi Arabia, a pivotal country in the region, has been conspicuous for its lack of commitment, fiddling with the definition of refugees and a tiny financial commitment — $18 million so far to United Nations Syria response, or 0.5 per cent of the total donations. As for Turkey, it is surprising that it has not used its chair of the G20 to call for a coordinated action.

But the refugee crisis is not a domestic crisis as it is not only a European crisis, even if the EU is now in the line of fire. The G20’s inability to deal with it — or lack of will to even try — contradicts the group’s very principles. If member states prefer to kick the can down the road rather than face the political, financial, and logistical burdens of this humanitarian crisis, they risk eroding any claim that they can work together to prevent and resolve economic and financial crises. Can they be credible when they commit, for instance, to 'collective action for inclusive and robust growth'?

The G20 needs to act as a proper crisis committee and use the freedom that comes from being an informal forum — it does not have a secretariat — to connect the dots between politics and economics and take up issues that arenot on the agenda. It should provide a ground for policy discussion and policy experimentation rather than just a 'process' for producing working papers and bureaucratic communiques. If it cannot take a lead in a crisis that is unfolding before the eyes and on the borders of its members, then what is its purpose?

The refugee crisis is unlikely to abate in the next few weeks. The G20 meets again in Antalya, Turkey on 15-16 November. At that point, it will be difficult for the heads of state — unlike the finance ministers — to duck the issue. They will have to begin a dialogue on how to stabilize the war zones. It is not up to the G20 to come up with a plan, but to even initiate a dialogue has proved difficult.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.

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