CARE scorecard on our petition to Theresa May on the Global Refugee Summits

by 17th Oct 2016
Refugees gathering in a park in Belgrade, Serbia, in July 2016 Refugees gathering in a park in Belgrade, Serbia, in July 2016

In the run-up to the Global Summits on Refugees and Migrants at the United Nations in September 2016, CARE launched a petition to campaign for better protection for innocent civilians fleeing conflicts and natural disasters. We had three asks in our petition targeting the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, which secured the support of over 21,000 people. So to what extent did the Refugee and Migrant Summits deliver on our demands?

Demand 1: Open safe and legal routes for people to flee violence and persecution, like refugee family reunion, so they don’t have to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers.

While the global picture is a mixed one – some good, some bad outcomes at the Summit – the picture in terms of what the British Prime Minister had to offer in September is quite worrying.

Globally, we saw increased recognition that rich countries should do more. 360,000 new resettlement places for refugees were offered globally. That figure needs to be seen in the context of more than 20 million refugees worldwide, and half of these based in just 10 countries. So while that’s a big number, it’s a drop in the ocean. But it is better than nothing.

The ‘Political Declaration’ at the UN Refugee and Migrant Summit reaffirmed the importance of protecting the human rights of refugees and migrants. CARE does take issue with some aspects of the Declaration, for example its backsliding on existing commitments which condemn the detention of child asylum-seekers. Detention of children is never in their best interest, and its use as a ‘last resort’ has prolonged and become the norm in too many contexts. Yet overall, we welcome how the Political Declaration reaffirms existing refugee and human rights law and standards, with specific references to vulnerabilities of children and including the principle of non-refoulement.

In contrast, Theresa May’s speeches on the British government’s position came from a very different angle. She basically argued that as the UK is doing its bit in international aid, then it does not need to accept hosting its fair share of refugees. May said that Britain would “be a confident, strong and dependable partner internationally – true to the universal values that we share together.” Yet that dependable partnership and commitment to sharing universal values does not apparently stretch to sharing the responsibility for hosting refugees.

What’s more, the Prime Minister used the Summit to call for a global clampdown on “uncontrolled migration”, saying it is the right and the duty of countries to control their borders and ‘protect their citizens’. She said that said a “migration crisis” had been “exacerbated” by “unprecedented” numbers of economic migrants. This is dangerous language that implies that refugees are a security threat and distorts the reality of the refugee crisis.

CARE International does not dispute that there are different categories of refugees – people fleeing violence and persecution – and people seeking a better life as economic migrants. However, all should be treated with humanity. The problem is that British politicians – and others elsewhere – are blurring the distinction between these categories of refugee. For example, the UK and other European countries have now determined that Afghanistan is a safe enough country to forcibly return so-called Afghan ‘migrants’ to. This is despite the fact that Afghanistan has just experienced its most violent year on record since 2001. This approach to determining which nationalities are worthy of asylum, and which are not, is unfair and arbitrary.

By blurring the categories and in effect criminalising people that seek to cross borders to find a place of safety or a better life, then the UK and other states risk putting people at more risk, not less, of trafficking and other dangers.

This can be seen as part of a wider shift by wealthy governments to build legal and physical walls forcing people fleeing crises to undertake irregular journeys, and put their lives in the hands of people smugglers. This is why we have called on governments like the UK to open up safe and legal routes, like family reunion. Refugee family reunion opportunities are especially important for women and children, as men often seek refuge abroad first.

The Summit offered an opportunity for Theresa May to announce plans to expand the definition of refugee family reunion, as well as to speed-up the reunion of family members currently torn apart by the crisis. Right now, there are children in the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp near Calais which have family members based in the UK, whom they should legally be allowed to reunite with. If Theresa May wants to demonstrate that she is serious about protecting vulnerable refugees and countering trafficking (or ‘modern slavery’ as she calls it), then she should take steps to open up legal and safe routes for them. This did not happen at the Summits. We hope she and the Government will have a change of heart on this soon.

Demand 2: Deliver on promises to help developing countries, which shelter the majority of the world’s refugees. Any funding to governments must be matched by commitments to respect the dignity and protection of refugees, and monitoring to ensure tangible improvements in the lives of refugees and local communities hosting them.

The British government continues to be a generous donor to international humanitarian aid for refugees. That funding plays a vital role in saving lives, and that has to be recognised and welcomed. It means that young children, women and men whose homes are destroyed by war or natural disasters can find access to shelter, clean water, food and other basic requirements when displaced by crisis.

Overall, governments at the Obama summit pledged to increase aid funding for the refugee response by US$4.5 billion over 2015 levels. Fifty-one US companies committed to donating, investing or raising more than US$650 million, including a US$500 million donation by investor and philanthropist George Soros.

However, our worry now is that UK funding might become increasingly tied to ‘containing’ refugees in countries – often countries that cannot and don’t offer them a safe or dignified place of refuge. A secret EU memo  was recently leaked, in advance of an international conference on Afghanistan in Brussels, suggesting that European governments are looking to make funding to that country conditional on them accepting back the forced deportees. Furthermore in Lebanon – a country beset by poverty and instability – one in every three citizens is a refugee. No amount of funding can absolve the world’s wealthy countries from shouldering their part of the responsibility to help host these refugees too.

What’s more – unless the UK does more along with other states, then countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon will continue to close their borders, trapping innocent civilians inside the horrific warzone that is Syria at this time. As you read this scorecard, over 75,000 people are trapped inside the desert in Syria, close to the border with Jordan, as the government of Jordan will not let them in. The King of Jordan himself has said: “If you want to take the moral high ground on this issue, we'll get them all to an airbase and we’re more than happy to relocate them to your country.”

The impacts of the ‘refugee containment’ and border closure approach by the UK and other wealthy states are being felt around the world, not just for civilians trapped inside Syria. For example, the government of Kenya has already started forcibly returning Somali refugees to Somalia – despite the continued violence in that country. Other states globally have also started to question why they should host refugees, if Western governments are not willing to do their bit.

Demand 3: Empower displaced women and girls to raise their voice in decisions made on the crisis response, and protect them from sexual violence and trafficking.

The Political Declaration at the UN Refugee and Migrants Summit includes some strong language on women and girls. The text refers to “combatting sexual and gender-based violence” and “gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls” and “access to sexual and reproductive health-care services”.

On the eve of the Obama Summit, CARE International convened a high-level panel event hosted by the Canadian Mission to the UN at which senior policy-makers talked through the issues with refugee and migrant women activists from Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, the Philippines and Greece. At this event, the minister from Mexico promised to help convene a follow-up event to look into plugging practical experience on addressing the priorities of women and girls into the follow-up to the Summits – namely the implementation of ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response Frameworks’ in selected countries, as well as the negotiation of new ‘Global Compacts’ on refugees and migrants towards 2018 and beyond. The hosting nation, Canada, also highlighted how they have committed to implement a ‘feminist foreign policy’ going forward, and their willingness to champion the voices and priorities raised.

Translating the positive language and rhetoric at the Summits on women and girls into action is now the challenge. For example, it is great that the UN Political Declaration acknowledges that refugees, and specifically refugee women, should contribute to decision-making on crisis responses.

But for this to happen, we need governments to enable them to participate.

For example, in many countries like Jordan and Lebanon, governments have imposed complicated bureaucratic obstacles on refugee women legally registering civil society organisations. This obstructs them from accessing funding or participating in a more structured way in decision-making. In many other contexts, like Greece for example, there has been no consistent effort to establish structures in refugee camps – like camp committees – to provide a clear way for consulting refugees on their needs and concerns, despite this being a basic good practice used around the world.

A representative of the British Mission to the UN in New York attended our event and affirmed the importance of follow-up on priorities raised by women and girls at the Summits. This is great and we will press the UK to work with us on this. Yet, as mentioned further above, a good first step to prove the UK’s commitment to this this would be for the Government to expand opportunities for refugee family reunion, and accept more of those women and girls currently living in limbo in Greece and the Balkans as a “confident, strong and dependable partner” to other states in Europe and across the Middle East coping with the displacement caused by violence in Iraq, Syria, Libya and further afield. 

So going forward we need to keep up the pressure on both the UK government, the UN and other powerful states globally to deliver on what we liked in the Summit outcomes, and fix the gaps and weaknesses in what was agreed.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.

Email: Mollett@careinternational.org

Twitter @HowardMollett