Migrants, war drums and peace

Muhammad Zamir | Sunday, 2 October 2016

It was interesting that the United Nations decided to have an open-ended discussion on the migrant issue on September 19 ahead of the International Day of Peace that was celebrated on September 21. This equation assumed particular significance given the fact that today, according to the Global Peace Index, there are only 10 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict.
UN sources said that 193 United Nations member states discussed in New York, a city famous for taking in waves of migrants and refugees over the past century,  what to do with the world's tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free - and agreed to keep discussing things for two more years. This development led many to question as to whether the current efforts can be described as too little and too late.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tried to cast an optimistic light on the declaration on mass migration that emerged from the Summit and pointed out that it represented a collective breakthrough in terms of efforts to address the challenges of human mobility. He also expressed hopes that when the New York Declaration can be translated into reality, "more children can attend school, more workers can securely seek jobs instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace, and increase opportunities at home."
As expected, this optimism has been received with a large dose of caution. The year 2016 is on track to be another tragic year for migrants and refugees, with the Italian Coast Guard till now having rescued more than 6,500 in 41 operations in the Mediterranean in the recent past. Available data revealed by UNHCR ( United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has indicated that 300,000  refugees have already crossed the Mediterranean and entered Europe and 3,212 have already died this year while trying to  complete this journey to Europe.
One of the reasons for convening this Summit appears to have been the indignation openly expressed by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had earlier observed in this context that greater coordination in terms of responsibility was required and that the world had been failing to address this issue comprehensively. In a statement after the adoption of the UN Declaration he critically pointed out that "We're failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation. It is shameful that the victims of abominable crimes should be made to suffer further by our failures to give them protection."
The seriousness of the existing situation can be best understood by the fact that according to the United Nations, there were at the end of 2015 a total of 16.1 million refugees had taken shelter in different parts of the world.  Oxfam's analysis however has a higher figure - 24.5 million. They also state that the countries within the African Union host over a quarter of the world's refugees and asylum seekers. Whatever the figure, it is true that the refugees are scattered all over the world - with about 2.5 million in Turkey (as a result of the on-going conflict situation in Iraq and Syria), about 1.6 million in Pakistan (mostly from Afghanistan), nearly 1.1 million in Lebanon (due to unstable conditions in Syria and Palestine), 980,000 in Iran (due to unstable conditions in Afghanistan and in Baluchistan Province of Pakistan), about 740,000 in Ethiopia (mostly from different war-torn adjoining countries, Eritrea and South Sudan) and about 500,000 in Uganda (from neighbouring countries). There are also nearly 200,000 refugees of Rohingya origin who have crossed from Myanmar to Bangladesh and taken shelter in different parts of the Chittagong Division. Only about 30,000 are now in camps. The rest are trying to melt away into the host population.
Bangladesh, having had to deal with migrant refugees since its independence has always taken this matter very seriously.
Consequently, it was not surprising that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her address to the UN Migration Summit Meeting resolutely upheld the need for the countries of the world to address this issue with greater seriousness and in a more coordinated manner to minimise the pain faced by those forced to seek migration. She also underlined everyone should ensure safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration. She pointed out that UN member states have to acknowledge some of the benefits of migration, including its role "in stabilising global labour markets, spreading knowledge and ideas, creating diasporas that spur increased trade and investment and sustain developing economies worldwide through remittances, which pay for family members' healthcare, education and housing back home." She also drew the attention of the participants to the fact that the international community was struggling "to govern migration effectively" and that without global governance institutions and legal frameworks to guide international cooperation, most countries were resorting to unilateral management of their own migration flows. This dynamics, according to her, was creating a vacuum that was being filled by unscrupulous actors, smugglers, traffickers and those associated with organised crime. She expressed her hope that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) would play a meaningful role in this regard.
The BBC has reported that US President Barack Obama used his eighth and final UN address as President to call for a "course correction" to ensure that extremism and violence does not drive countries into a more divided world. Addressing the Summit meeting, he announced a pledge by 50 nations to take in 360,000 refugees from war-torn countries this year. He told the United Nations General Assembly that world leaders, notably Germany and Canada, had vowed to double the number from last year. He pointed out that nine million people alone had been internally displaced by the six-year conflict in Syria and more than four million others had fled the war-torn country. He announced that the US had agreed to take in 110,000 new refugees in the 2017 fiscal year - which begins on October 01- compared with the 85,000 refugees it expects by the end of September this year. The President's announcement included a pledge by countries to increase financial contributions to UN appeals and humanitarian groups by about $4.5 billion over that of the 2015 levels. This, it is believed will help fund schools for a million refugee children as well as assist in helping one million refugees to work legally.
While the constructive effort was underway in New York, Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President, presenting himself as a possible candidate for the next French Presidential election in 2017, brought up a new angle which is favoured openly by the rising Right sentiment in Europe. He denounced the 'tyranny of minorities' and  reiterated the need for immigrants integrating within the community that they had sought refuge in and assimilating within their new cultural paradigm. This argument has obviously been advocated by him to cash in on the rise of the anti-migrant sentiment that has surfaced through recent elections in Italy, Austria and Germany. Such a comment will obviously have its own impact on the prospective implementation of the new coordinated efforts aimed at by the UN.
Rights groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have expressed dissatisfaction and commented that the UN's approach has been apolitical, timid and that it had been all talk and no action. Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the declaration a "missed opportunity" but has acknowledged that it had at least affirmed the human rights of refugees.
Whatever be the observations, we need to agree that the world through this meeting has tried to address a dangerous issue that is creating ripples in the social, political, cultural, economic and religious horizons. The discussion has facilitated understanding that people forced to flee are only a symptom of root causes such as war, violence, persecution, climate change and poverty.  UN member states have now agreed that the world needs to do more to solve these.
We must not forget that entire generations of refugee children are missing out on education, and this is diminishing their chances of getting work and making money and paying taxes. Governments must ensure that girls and boys are given equal access to schools. Everyone who is forced to flee from conflict, violence, disaster or poverty or is in search for a better life has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Refugees also need opportunities for work and education and everything else that enables people to lead a dignified and productive life.
It remains to be seen however whether the UN member states can manage to implement the decisions agreed upon at the New York meeting by 2018 - and if there will be a strident enough response.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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