The indefinite ban on Syrian refugees imposed by the United States has cast a bright spotlight on one of the great challenges of our time. What should we do with the millions of refugees fleeing war and persecution around the world?
The scale of today’s refugee crisis is staggering: worldwide, an unprecedented 65 million people have been forced to flee from their homes; and, in 2016 alone, over 7,500 migrants – men, women, and children – died while desperately trying to reach safety, of which 5,083 perished in the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Andaman Sea, thousands of migrants have been stranded on boats without a port of disembarkation, while traffickers hold them for ransom; similar vulnerabilities have been observed in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Central American corridor.
Meanwhile, anti-migrant sentiment in host countries is reaching fever pitch. Instead of building trust, many politicians have been sowing fear, and calling for ethnic or religious discrimination against those who have been forced from their homelands. Rather than promoting safe and orderly migration, many countries are proposing policies to reduce or stop migration altogether.
In this political climate, some politicians have tried to downplay their legal and humanitarian obligations toward refugees and migrants by lumping them together, implying that none of them deserves protection. Others, meanwhile, have reluctantly acknowledged their countries’ duty to accept refugees, but then declare that all economic migrants must leave.
But both groups are our collective responsibility. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community has a legal duty to uphold the rights of displaced people. And, under the 1990 Convention on Migrants’ Rights, countries are morally and politically obligated to address vulnerable migrants’ needs. Indeed, as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, world leaders identified refugees, the internally displaced, and migrants as vulnerable populations that deserve protection. Specifically, they pledged to cooperate in order “to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status, of refugees, and of displaced persons.”
No reasonable person should want to halt human mobility. Migrants, after all, bring immense benefits to their host countries, as well as to their countries of origin. And yet no one can deny the challenge posed by irregular flows of migrants and refugees – who often travel together in a form of “mixed migration.”
People who embark on irregular journeys are extremely vulnerable, regardless of whether they are refugees or migrants. And by resorting to unofficial channels and circumventing the legal obligations for crossing borders, they also inadvertently undermine the rule of law. Many are forced to solicit smugglers’ services, in turn contributing to organized crime. Ultimately, the challenges that migrants and refugees face, and the help they need from governments and the international community, are very similar, though, of course, international law assures refugees additional protections, including non-refoulement.
Last September, world leaders attending the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants recognised these similarities for the first time. At the end of the summit, delegates adopted the New York Declaration, which includes commitments to address migrants and refugees’ common needs and challenges, and outlines processes for developing global compacts to share responsibility for helping refugees, and to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration.
The ongoing migrant and refugee crisis demands a new, comprehensive, and coherent global-governance framework. It is time to address mobility as a whole, and in all forms, regardless of whether people are moving for reasons beyond their control, such as a natural disaster, or in pursuit of opportunities to improve their lives.
Today’s migrant and refugee flows are an inseparable part of a complex new geopolitical reality, and they can no longer be addressed effectively as discrete issues. The international community has agreed to develop separate compacts for each, but it also must ensure that the processes for doing so are closely coordinated. Only by explicitly acknowledging the linkages between migrants and refugee flows can we ensure that all UN member states agree to adhere to both compacts, and participate in a coherent, systematic response to vulnerable people’s needs.
Moving forward, we must be open, inclusive, and bold in our approach, and we should look beyond business as usual or institutional mandates. We have a unique opportunity to develop a comprehensive framework for addressing human mobility in all its dimensions – whether refugees and migrants who are forced to move, and who may resort to irregular means or smuggling, or those who go through official channels in search of a better life.
By working together toward a coherent solution, we can significantly improve the global governance of human mobility. This is our only realistic option for helping people on the move and strengthening the communities they will eventually call home. - Project Syndicate