Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
In this Aug. 13, 2015 file photo, a man carries a girl in his arm as they arrive with other migrants just after dawn on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey to the island of Kos in southeastern Greece. The question of what to do about the world’s 65.3 million displaced people takes center stage at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, when leaders from around the globe converge on New York for the first-ever summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

UN makes big push to help refugees, but political tides have shifted

This year's General Assembly meeting confronts a counter-current of global resistance to helping refugees. Leaders who do act, such as Germany's Merkel, face political risk.

Last year Syrian refugee teenager Yusra Mardini swam for three hours in the Aegean Sea, pushing a boatload of marooned fellow refugees to the safety of European shores.

On Monday, Ms. Mardini – who swam on the Olympic Refugee Team in Rio this summer – told leaders assembled at the United Nations that it’s time for the world to jump in and rescue the record 65 million refugees and displaced people around the globe.

As world leaders gather at the UN for the annual opening of the General Assembly, the focus is on ensuring that an unprecedented 21 million refugees – as well as more than 40 million internally displaced people – are afforded ways to live secure and productive lives despite their status. 

But even as leaders seek new ways to address the largest refugee crisis since World War II, they are confronting at the same time a counter-current of rising global resistance to refugees and migrants that is putting leaders who do act at political risk.

Case in point: German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who last summer was portrayed in German and international media as the patron saint of refugees for her generous welcome to the more than 1 million who arrived in Germany last year alone – is pointedly absent from New York this week as her political party suffers election setbacks over her open-door refugee policy.

On Tuesday, President Obama will hold a leaders summit on refugees at the UN where participating countries will be required to put on the table higher refugee resettlement numbers, new money for refugee assistance, and initiatives for expanding refugees’ education and employment opportunities.

Mr. Obama’s summit will follow on the heels of a high-level meeting hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Monday at which countries reconfirmed their commitment to a six-decade-old international convention on receiving and assisting refugees.

But even as some countries tout a new dedication to assisting the rising numbers of people uprooted by conflict, refugee advocates warn that a pulling back from some goals and a watering down of some commitments could leave the displaced in no better shape than they are now.

“These efforts by the international community to commit to new levels of support for refugees and to address the rising phenomenon of migration are positive, but the truth is we already have the international conventions and compacts to guide action on this,” says Shannon Scribner, who heads Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy team in Washington. “What we’ve seen since this crisis surged onto the world stage is a chipping away at these existing agreements as leaders have come under pressure.”

As originally envisioned, the UN’s Monday gathering was to have adopted a new “compact” committing (or recommitting) countries to international principles – such as no forced return of refugees facing danger at home, Ms. Scribner says. 

Instead, the adopted document uses a lot of language like “where appropriate” and “where possible,” she adds, while pledging to work toward increasing the number of refugees with employment by 1 million and the number of refugee children in school by 1 million in coming years.

The problem is that even as countries reconfirm principles and pledge new support for refugees, facts on the ground paint a different picture.

Refugee advocates compile a list of recent actions that point to a backlash. 

The European Union’s agreement with Turkey, whereby most asylum seekers in Europe would be returned to Turkey, appears to be unraveling. The EU is holding conversations with refugee-sending countries like Sudan and Eritrea about financing detention facilities in those countries for would-be refugees. Australia has faced searing international criticism for housing asylum-seekers on inhospitable islands.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta persists in his pledge to close Dabaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, by the end of the year. If carried out, the camp closing would send 260,000 Somalis back to their unstable and violence-torn homeland. And even Jordan, which normally receives kudos for accepting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, recently closed its border with Syria over security concerns – trapping 75,000 Syrians in the desert.

With such actions on the rise, world leaders must move beyond hopeful pledges to recommitting to international standards on treatment of refugees, human rights activists say.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Monday. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.” 

Still, advocates like Mr. Roth say summits like Obama’s on Tuesday, with its “pay-to-play” format, are useful nonetheless. More than 30 countries are expected to attend – and announce concrete pledges that the US says will double refugee resettlement numbers, boost aid to refugees and the countries hosting them by 30 percent, and substantially increase refugees’ education and employment opportunities.

Another innovation of Obama’s summit is that it involves the private sector and will highlight companies’ commitments to working with refugees.

At the same time, simply holding a summit does not place Obama out of range of the kind of criticism hitting other wealthy countries over their treatment of refugees. In particular, rights groups blast the Obama administration over aspects of its policy toward Central American asylum-seekers – for example, repatriating migrants who face violence in their home countries, and detaining unaccompanied minors. 

White House officials point out that Obama has announced a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of refugees the US will take in next fiscal year, to 110,000. And they underscore that the US remains the No. 1 provider of humanitarian assistance to the nearly 5 million Syrians who have fled their country’s civil war. 

But officials also acknowledge that Obama is dealing with the same political friction that other world leaders face. Obama's modest plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the US in fiscal year 2016 met with stiff resistance, as mostly Republican governors as well as Republican congressmen said the risks of terrorists slipping in as refugees was too great. By late August, the Obama administration made good on its commitment to resettle that number, but public opinion surveys show that widespread concerns persist about welcoming Muslims, particularly from Middle Eastern countries.

“I’m sure the president would be willing to consider increasing this commitment further if Congress were prepared to provide the resources to get it done,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week.

But, he said, Obama’s commitment to doing more for the world’s record number of displaced people does not meet with the approval of “a lot of people in Congress, including … a lot of people in the Republican majority.”  And that, he added, “has an impact in terms of the resources that are dedicated to this effort.”

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