Responding to Today’s Global Refugee Crisis: How Will History Judge Us? | The Center for Victims of Torture

Responding to Today’s Global Refugee Crisis: How Will History Judge Us?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Annie Sovcik is director of the Washington Office

(Photo credit: Dreamstime)

As the UN General Assembly gathers in New York for its first ever High Level Meeting on Large Movements of Migrants and Refugees and the Obama Administration hosts a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, a diplomatic spotlight is on the scale and severity of the current global refugee crisis. In the face of unprecedented levels of forced displacement, the global response has ranged from tepid to hostile. This week’s summits can be a turning point for U.S. and global policy—and an opportunity to avoid repeating tragic mistakes of the past.

In June of 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that for the first time global forced displacement surpassed that of World War II. With millions of people displaced as a result of the Holocaust, the World War II era is marked by notable failures in the world’s ability to respond in a timely and adequate way to the plight of refugees fleeing persecution and destruction. For example, as the global displacement crisis worsened in the late 1930’s, immigration restrictions in the United States increased. Shamefully, in 1939, when a German ship holding 937 passengers, mostly Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, sailed toward the port of Miami, the United States turned it away, forcing the passengers back to Europe where more than a quarter were murdered.

In the years following World War II, countries gathered to draft and adopt the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and establish UNHCR. The cornerstone of refugee protection is non-refoulement: the guarantee to not return a refugee to a place in which they face persecution.   

Today, the United States is the largest financial contributor to UNHCR, the most generous of countries supporting humanitarian assistance efforts globally, and it tends to accept approximately half of the refugees referred by UNHCR for third country resettlement globally. But even as its accomplishments are laudable, the scale and severity of the current displacement situation demands a much more robust response and, therefore, stronger leadership from the United States.

UNHCR reports that there are over 65.3 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, 21.3 million of whom are refugees, having crossed an international border. Of these, the largest displaced population is Syrians who have fled a devastating conflict that has been marked by the widespread use of torture, targeting of civilians, use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and besieged cities cut off from basic humanitarian assistance. Over half of the almost 5 million Syrians who have fled into neighboring countries and beyond are children.

The overwhelming nature of the Syrian crisis is compounded by the fact that Syrian refugees represent less than a quarter of the global refugee population. For example, the equivalent of almost 10% of Afghanistan’s entire population is living as refugees. Eritreans continue to flee a repressive regime in which arbitrary detention, forced indefinite military conscription, and torture is commonplace. Somali refugees are in the world’s most protracted refugee situation, with second and third generations of Somali refugees being born into exile. Central American families and children are fleeing violence by drug cartels and gangs combined with the ineptitude of governments that are either unable or unwilling to protect their people. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans are displaced throughout the region while many have sought protection in the United States, only to find themselves held in immigration detention and put into removal proceedings.

The list goes on with high levels of new and protracted displacement from countries in which conflict, instability, and persecution are rampant, such as South Sudan, Burundi, Iraq, Ethiopia, Yemen, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Myanmar, among others.

Civil society organizations, including the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), have called upon States to show collective leadership by taking concrete steps to address the tremendous refugee protection needs that exist around the world. These steps, however, should be rooted in a core vision that ensures that every refugee can access asylum from persecution; every refugee is given an opportunity for a durable solution; and every refugee, displaced person, and migrant is treated with dignity and afforded their basic human rights.

The United States must lead by example. The Obama Administration’s initiative in coordinating the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees is a strong step but, as millions of lives are at risk and in limbo, its value will be measured on its outcomes and concrete deliverables.

As a member of Refugee Council USA, CVT endorses the recommendations put forward by the coalition. Those include:

  • Resettlement:  While the recent announcement that the President intends to admit 110,000 refugees in FY 2017 is a welcome increase over the current admissions level of 85,000, the scale of the current crisis demands an even greater commitment. The United States should commit to provide protection to 200,000 refugees in FY 2017 through a combination of traditional refugee resettlement and additional legal and secure approaches. Likewise, the United States should ensure that there is a commensurate increase in the social services and integration support for refugees—including access to specialized rehabilitation services for survivors of torture—as they restart their lives in this country.
  • Education:  The United States should pledge new financial support, while also mobilizing other countries to do the same, in support of delivering education opportunities alongside other essential protection and social services, both in emergency and protracted refugee contexts.
  • Employment:  The United States should work with refugee-hosting countries and other international actors to invest substantially more in assisting and incentivizing host countries to integrate refugee adults into their workforces to help countries make work rights a reality in both policy and practice.
  • Asylum:  The United States should also demonstrate leadership at home, particularly in its response to Central American refugees seeking asylum along its own southern border, including by recognizing the forced displacement of people from the Northern Triangle as the refugee crisis it truly is and responding accordingly.

We cannot change mistakes of the past but we can make amends by not repeating them. As we look back on the atrocities that occurred during World War II, it is shocking to also know how the failure to provide safe haven to refugees fleeing for their lives led so many to perish and suffer. Today, we are faced with the same challenge but an opportunity to do better. How will history judge the world’s response today?

At CVT healing centers in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States, we extend interdisciplinary rehabilitative care to refugees from around the world. Learn more about CVT’s advocacy work in Washington D.C. on behalf of refugees here.



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