We need a new deal for refugees and refugee-hosting nations and we need it now

by 22nd Oct 2015
People queuing at the Serbia-Croatia border waiting to board buses to the camp of Opatovac inside Croatia, 21 October 2015 People queuing at the Serbia-Croatia border waiting to board buses to the camp of Opatovac inside Croatia, 21 October 2015

Tonight, CARE International hosts an event in London to discuss the global refugee crisis with representatives from DFID, UNHCR, the British Refugee Council, MSF and the Syrian Legal Development Programme, a local organisation working on the protection of civilians and adherence to international humanitarian law inside Syria. How the UK and others should respond to the refugee crisis is hotly debated amongst politicians, the media and general public. Here are four ideas for tonight’s debate.

Last year, I spent four months in Jordan working on CARE’s programmes to support refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq. Since then, the horrific violence in those countries has deteriorated and the numbers of people fleeing grown ever higher. The flight of refugees to Europe has also provoked the biggest-ever public, media and political debate on humanitarian issues in the world’s wealthy donor nations. This has brought out some of the best and some of the worst in those of us lucky enough to live in a part of the world sheltered from the devastation happening little more than a few hours flight away.

In advance of tonight’s event, here are four ideas for the debate:

The global refugee crisis is a primarily a political failure, not a humanitarian one.

Let’s be clear about this, the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ is the consequence of a political failure to end the war in Syria. It is also a consequence of the EU’s failure to provide safe and legal routes for those fleeing the violence. By designing a system of border control, which makes it ever harder for people fleeing war and destitution to gain safe passage over land, it was inevitable that people would be forced to seek ever more perilous routes by sea into the EU.

Just yesterday, one of our staff delivering aid to refugees at the EU’s border with Serbia told us: "I have worked in Somalia and Yemen and some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and the situation here on the Serbian border is comparable to those. People have little clothing, food or water. Many are forced to sleep in the open. Paths are muddy and covered with waste. The fact that it is in Europe is a tragedy and embarrassment."

European states have the resources and capacity to meet the needs of Syrian refugees, what they lack is political will. Even Greece is seven times richer than Lebanon, which hosts over a million refugees – more than Germany expects in even its worst case scenarios – and Lebanon has been hosting these for four years. So even the notion of a ‘European refugee crisis’ is offensive. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 was first drafted and signed by European politicians, but today’s generation of EU leaders seem busy unravelling it. If there is a European refugee crisis, then this arguably is it.

The crisis reflects the need for a new global deal for refugees and refugee-hosting nations.

Europe’s unravelling of the UN Refugee Convention is setting the worst kind of precedent for other states globally. At last month’s executive committee meeting of the UNHCR, a range of states in the global South pointed to the EU’s approach, asking why should they be asked to do what the world’s wealthiest countries will not? Representatives from South Africa, for example, expressed their ‘bemusement’ at Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, highlighting that South Africa alone has accepted more refugees than all of Europe put together.

So we desperately need a new deal for refugees and host nations. What should it consist of? While the crisis is a multi-faceted one, CARE and others believe that the economic impacts of displacement for both refugees and refugee-hosting nations should be at its heart.

Going back to the 1980s, humanitarians have long called for the economic and livelihoods aspects of displacement to be addressed. The Executive Committee of UNHCR issued a landmark statement in 2008 calling for a shift away from so-called ‘care and maintenance approaches’ towards ‘self-reliance’ and livelihoods. But it wasn’t until almost six years later that we started to see this vision translate into meaningful shifts in operational policy and planning. UNHCR’s recently released ‘Alternatives to Camps Policy’ and ‘Livelihoods and Self-Reliance Strategy’ form critical components of this. International funding for displaced people is generally relegated to humanitarian budgets alone. Donors have generally not integrated displaced people into their development programmes – in large part due to the fact that refugees and internally displaced people are often not reflected in national development plans.  

To overcome these obstacles, the concerns of refugee-hosting governments come to the fore. It is their policies on refugees’ right to work, access to education and freedom of movement, which play critical roles in dictating the boundaries of the national development strategy. This is why we need a new deal for refugees and refugee-hosting nations. The deal needs to offer those states a politically compelling package which they can communicate to their voters describing how economic impacts will be mitigated and support will benefit the local host community, as well as refugees.  

Alongside longer-term development investments, refugee-hosting nations should be eligible for preferential trade incentives, soft loans from international finance institutions and increased private sector investment. Market-based approaches can help to create jobs and address the vulnerability of both refugees and host communities, but these need to be designed with those goals of addressing vulnerability and reaching those affected deliberately to have impact. These kinds of approaches are outside the comfort zone of traditional humanitarian action and the private sector.   

In the spirit of this ‘new deal’, the international community must launch a ‘grand bargain’ with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey at the G20 this November.  

The G20 summit in Antalya next month offers an opportunity to model this kind of ‘new deal’ for refugees and refugee-hosting nations for countries affected by the Syrian conflict. Currently, some 4 million Syria refugees have fled to neighbouring countries: 2 million are in Turkey alone, and in Lebanon, 1 in 4 people are Syrian refugees. Urgent action is needed to support these economies to limit the long-term effects of the crisis on growth and infrastructure, and prevent the potential for further instability and conflict beyond Syria’s borders.

For this reason, G20 leaders should agree a communiqué that begins work on a comprehensive plan to support countries neighbouring Syria as they seek to mitigate the economic and wider impacts of the crisis. We have already seen in Jordan moves by the national authorities to open up the space for Syrian refugees to undertake vocational training. In Lebanon, CARE is working with local municipalities to repair and reinforce water and sewage infrastructure at the community level and strengthen basic social services to benefit both local host communities and Syrian refugees.  In Egypt, we are implementing a programme which supports national education programmes, while increasing the acceptance of Syrian refugees in Egyptian schools.  

For these kinds of initiatives to be scaled up, the UK should work with international partners and states neighbouring Syria to agree a Regional Growth and Stability Plan akin to the Marshall Plan that fostered Europe’s recovery at the end of the Second World War.

A global ‘new deal’ for refugees should be agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

If the Syrian crisis is our wake-up call today, then the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) is perhaps our opportunity to reform the international system to better respond to these kinds of crisis in future. The WHS is mooted as a ‘once in a generation’ chance for root and branch reform of the global humanitarian system. The two hottest debates towards the Summit have been how to empower national institutions in humanitarian action; and how to strengthen compliance with international laws on the protection of civilians affected by conflict. In both those debates – on ‘localisation’ and ‘protection’ – the predicament of refugees, and the roles of states hosting them, are absolutely central.

So what do we need from the Summit? One of the novelties of the process so far is that it has brought together development and humanitarian agencies, as well as governments of the North and South, to discuss options for radical reform. These are precisely the institutions with power that can address the livelihoods issue. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, is due to publish his report outlining options for the summit outcomes in January 2016. A report providing a synthesis of consultations so far towards the Summit calls for a comprehensive “refugee hosting deal” including longer-term financial support; giving refugees self-reliance through livelihood opportunities; and creating more equitable arrangements for their resettlement in third countries. If the Summit can get real change on these fronts, then this could help.

Refugees – the world’s 24th biggest (non-)nation

Across the world, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest. We hope tonight’s debate helps build momentum in the UK towards a new global deal for refugees. Of course, the root causes of displacement, including the indiscriminate violence against civilians and the conflict, have to be addressed. But while people are displaced, we need more attention to their livelihoods and those of nations hosting them. Please share your comments below, and let us know what else you think should be in the mix.

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