Geneva Refugee Summit Grapples With Issues of Equity

They keep on coming, fleeing the killing fields of war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, escaping the random violence of vicious drug gangs in Central America, and running from repressive regimes in Asia.A world in crisis means more refugee...

They keep on coming, fleeing the killing fields of war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, escaping the random violence of vicious drug gangs in Central America, and running from repressive regimes in Asia.

A world in crisis means more refugees, and the trend lines are not promising.

There are now more than 70 million refugees and displaced people around the world nearly 26 million outside the borders of their own countries, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

Speaking ahead of the UNHCR's first Global Refugee Forum, which formally started Monday in Geneva, U.N. officials say they expect those numbers will climb when they have concluded the final troubling tally for 2019.

Opening the forum, Filippo Grandi, UNHCR's top official, said the three-day meeting needs to see "very concrete commitments" made by governments, businesses and relief organizations.

"The purpose of this meeting, this conference, is not just to talk but to rally international support for countries hosting refugees in a spirit and with the objective of sharing the burden more equitably," Grandi said.

Organized in cooperation with Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, Pakistan and Turkey, the forum's goal is to strengthen international support for refugees by dividing up responsibility between nations to ease pressures on so-called "front-line countries" those who are receiving the greatest numbers of refugees and to outline clear markers for what should be expected in terms of improving access to education and jobs, and providing protection for the displaced until they can return safely to their homes.

'Solutions and opportunities'

The organizers have promised bold new measures, including ways of enhancing refugee self-reliance and a sense of inclusion. The UNCHR hopes additional countries and other international agencies and charities, as well as faith organizations and private sector businesses, will declare their commitment to improve the plight of refugees. And U.N. officials hope to start engineering legal and diplomatic adjustments that will help refugees integrate better in their temporary homes.

The forum comes a year after the U.N. General Assembly agreed that governments need to establish a more predictable and equitable approach to the treatment of refugees. Some hope the Geneva gathering will later be seen as an inflection point, thanks to the pooling together of ideas by heads of state, government ministers, business leaders, humanitarians and refugees themselves.

"We are at the end of a decade that has been more than tumultuous in terms of levels of displacement," U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements told AFP in an interview. "We see the need for states, for international organizations, for the private sector (to help explore) how the international community can better help to respond."

On Monday, representatives from Zambia showcased some of their innovative approaches to help refugees find work or resume their education by having their previous education attainment and qualifications recognized. UNESCO is drawing on the Zambian experience to develop an international qualifications passport.

"This will help people who possess the knowledge but don't possess the papers," said Muhammed, a Syrian refugee living in Germany who spoke Monday at the forum. "There is a lot of potential amongst refugees that is being unused. There are brilliant minds available that these passports can unlock."

Similar pilot projects to Zambia's are set to be rolled out in 2020 in Iraq and Colombia.

Also at the forum on Monday, which attracted around 3,000 participants, seven African countries showcased their regional and coordinated efforts to find long-term solutions to ease the plight of refugees in the Horn of Africa.

"It may be a region of great displacement, but (it) has also become a region of solutions and opportunities," Grandi said.

Detention camps

But following a decade in which the number of refugees and the displaced have reached unprecedented proportions, overcoming donor fatigue could be difficult. Pledges may well be made, but the money and aid may not necessarily be forthcoming, warn some analysts.

A bigger challenge will come with the idea of greater burden-sharing between countries. The forum coincides with another flare-up between European Union countries over the sharing of responsibility for the continent's refugee influx, with Greece announcing controversial plans to build closed detention camps for migrants and refugees to cope with a new surge of asylum-seekers.

Humanitarian organizations have denounced the planned camps as "prisons," saying they go in the opposite direction from the Geneva forum with its emphasis on fostering inclusion for asylum-seekers.

"I made it clear to the (Greek) government that UNHCR policy is against detaining asylum-seekers seeking asylum is not a crime," Grandi told Greek officials during a visit to Athens last month.

Since coming into office in July, Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has mounted a series of appeals to EU member states to demonstrate greater solidarity with the front-line states of southern Europe.

Most disturbing for Athens is that the latest surge is not slowing, despite stormy winter weather. Rickety boats laden with refugees seeking safety or a better economic life are continuing to land on Greek shores.

In September, 10,551 newcomers arrived in Greece, the highest in a single month since the EU struck a deal with Turkey to curb migrant flows at the height of Syria's civil war in 2016.

Now, Greece's center-right government, which was elected on a tough law-and-order platform, is under domestic pressure to make good on its electoral promise to pursue a deterrence and deportation approach toward asylum-seekers.

Last week, Mitsotakis told top EU officials that his country had "reached its limits."

"This is not a Greek-Turkish problem," he told officials during a visit to Athens. "It's an issue that affects the European Union as a whole, and we are looking forward to your help, as well as a firm European policy, to address it."

Burden-sharing

EU countries have struggled for years to agree to a firm policy on burden-sharing, with stiff resistance to every plan coming from the Visegrad countries of Central Europe, led by Hungary.

The countries have adamantly declined to take in asylum-seekers who landed in Italy, Greece or Spain. Part of the issue is a continuing dispute about who should be considered a refugee, and who should be counted as an economic migrant.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban argues that by welcoming asylum-seekers, Europe acts as a magnet for them, and the continent risks being swamped and its security compromised.

Orban and other opponents of burden-sharing also maintain that previous international treaties stipulate that war refugees should seek sanctuary in the first safe third country they reach, and that the responsibility lies with front-line states.

Forum organizers are determined to keep major policy differences in the background in Geneva. That may be difficult, especially with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acting as one of the co-hosts of the forum.

Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan has been accused of "weaponizing" refugees for political and economic purposes with his plans to resettle them in Kurdish areas of northern Syria.

Speaking before his arrival in Geneva, a combative Erdogan warned that Turkey "can no longer carry this burden alone."

He complained that Turkey had only received half of the $6 billion in aid the EU promised in 2016 for Turkish efforts to stanch the influx of Mideast refugees into Europe.

"Whenever we meet, they say that it is about to come. But nothing has come yet," Erdogan said.

Source: Voice of America