The Mediterranean crisis and the UN

Last week had no shortage of shocking images to illustrate our collective paralysis in the face of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. A three year old boy dead on a beach, waves lapping around his shoes. Thousands of forcibly displaced people marching through the heart of Europe watched by silent onlookers. Borders going back up in Schengen under the guise of traffic control and migrant searches.

The first locus of action to address the Mediterranean crisis has to be where it is taking place - on and off the shores of Europe. Germany, to its credit, has received more refugees than any other country. The Chancellor has called for action to defend not only the refugees but European values on asylum and freedom of movement, in a welcome bit of visionary leadership from one who often seemed bereft of solidarity in the face of Greek hardship. The failed attempt to agree on national quotas to receive these desperate people over the summer needs to be revived, and European commitment to civil rights retrieved from the hole into which it has sunk. The British and French offers to receive more refugees are a promising start.

Yet the refugee crisis should also be a wake-up call at the UN. The UN will convene the World Humanitarian Summit next year in Istanbul. Despite facing more displaced people globally than at any time since the end of World War II, the proposals under discussion do not yet match up to the gravity of the situation. The Summit should consider new international mechanisms to protect the displaced at their point of origin and to share the burden of refugee flows, as well as financial instruments to compensate neighboring countries hardest hit by their impact – as has been the case with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Arab countries as well as the developed world need to invest in these tools, with the Gulf countries doing more to mitigate the crisis.

With heads of state expected in September to launch the Sustainable Development Goals, government should also recognize the links with global development. The SDGs are an ambitious attempt to create a new global compact, replacing the Millenium Development Goals. While they underpinned significant progress in poverty reduction, the MDGs were criticized at the end of their implementation period for failing to address the grievances over justice, corruption and lack of voice which fuelled the Arab Spring (Tunisia, famously, was lauded for being a good MDG performer just before the revolution).

The SDGs have fixed these problems, but they do not contain much action of relevance to displaced people. Member states should strengthen the statement that displaced people will be included in these goals and ask for practical action before the humanitarian summit. It is too late to add detail – but a strong statement of intent would demonstrate that heads of government meeting in September are not blind to the images of suffering unfolding.

Last and most fundamentally, the refugees boarding shaky craft in the Mediterranean are not there to flee economic misfortune – they are there because the conflict in Syria has escalated in the face of brutal leadership on the ground and paralysis at the Security Council. The Council will hold a debate in September, under the Russian Presidency, on terrorism in the Middle East. That debate should not be another chance to display P5 divisions over the treatment of the Assad regime. Rather it should be used as an opportunity to identify what immediate actions can be taken to restart an international political process in Syria. This is needed to give hope to those who have never been violent extremists, but who first took to the streets to protest an authoritarian government and are now leaving the combat zone in desperation by the boatload. Ending their suffering requires political as well as humanitarian action.

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Sep 08, 2015
Sarah Cliffe
Europe, Middle East, Syria