Two Summits in Two Days: Obama’s Response to the UN’s Disappointing Summit on Migrants

Leaders' Summit on Refugees takes place in the margins of UNGA 71

“Wir schaffen das”, which can be translated to “we can do it”, were the words uttered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel a little over a year ago in reference to the German response to the refugee crisis. Since those words were said, the United Kingdom has decided, through a referendum, in which immigration was a – if not the – key issue, to leave the European Union. Meanwhile in the United States, Donald Trump, with his hallmark anti-immigrant rhetoric, has become the Republican party’s presidential candidate. Most recently, the much criticized conditions in which Australia is detaining asylum seekers has made headlines around the world. Chancellor Merkel’s own party has suffered in state elections as a result of her willingness to accept refugees, leading Merkel to distance herself from her own slogan.

In the meantime, the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes has continued to rise and there is no end in sight for the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. There are currently over 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide of which a little under a third are refugees according to the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees. The migration and, more specifically, refugee crises are thus not only pressing global issues which the world has to resolve but also prove deeply divisive, both at the national and international levels.

An illustration of this discord came this week when, on Monday September 19, the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants failed to make significant headway on the issue. This was the first time that the General Assembly of the UN brought together the world’s Heads of State and Government in an attempt to address these crises. Expectations were low, as no substantial agreement had been reached beforehand. Governments could not even agree to a pledge to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees, i.e. less than 3.3 percent of the total amount of forcibly displaced people. All the summit’s Outcome Document, the “New York Declaration”, does is give governments another two years to reach an agreement. Considering the lack of progress with regard to the Syrian conflict, responsible for almost a quarter of all of today’s refugees, the crisis can be expected to worsen further during this period.

In response to this failure U.S. President Obama organized a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees the next day, to which only States considered to have significantly contributed to alleviating the plight of refugees were invited. President Obama, having indicated that he wants to raise the number of Syrian refugees that the U.S. will accept from 10,000 to 100,000, had announced three goals for this second summit: 1) a 30 percent increase in contributions to humanitarian aid and international organizations; 2) a 100 percent increase in the number of refugees admitted through legal means; and 3) further inclusion of refugees in societies through schooling and the possibility to work.

The need for a second summit a day after the first one, in combination with a more selective guest list, is indicative of the UN’s limitations, but also of the impossibility of genuine progress and commitment when it comes to dealing with the entire global community. The move can be seen as an abandonment of the use of the UN as the vehicle through which the protection of refugees can be undertaken, with only a very limited amount of states willing to do more to help. This questions whether the global governance of migration is feasible or whether we are limited to the lowest common denominator among small coalitions of those willing to help. Considering that the States present at the second summit were those which are already doing the most, the inaction of other States remains uncontested. Furthermore, the fact that President Obama’s summit focused only on refugees and not migrants reveals we are struggling to find the lowest possible denominator also in terms of subject matter. In other words, Internally Displaced Persons, environmental refugees, and other vulnerable migrants run the risk of being neglected.

Nevertheless, President Obama’s efforts may provide some hope. The list of countries that participated in the second summit is indicative of a growing understanding of the need to tackle the problem. Participants represented both developed and developing countries, which is significant considering the latter host 86 percent of refugees. Furthermore, the summit was not solely led by the U.S., but co-hosted with the UN Secretary-General. This shows that, despite the failure of the UN’s summit, the organization still has an active role to play. The fact that more than 30 participating countries agreed to increase donations and further refugee integration into societies is indicative of a will not to remain idle but to keep moving forward. Leading by example may well be the best way to break the stalemate and urge reluctant states to engage.

Towards progress, the question remains whether the willing states can redouble their efforts while convincing others to do the same and that, by 2018, an actual, significant agreement can be adopted at the UN level, preferably including all vulnerable migrants. It is here that initiatives like The Hague Institute’s Global Governance Reform Initiative, with its upcoming international workshop on migration governance in The Hague on 8-9 December, aims to contribute innovative ideas and to build momentum for overcoming the current policy gridlock.

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