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Empty Promises? Radical Policy Shift Needed on Refugees and Migrants

On Monday 19th September 2016, the UN General Assembly brought together for the first time all UN Member States to work on a more “coordinated and humane approach” to large movements of refugees and migrants. Described as a “historic opportunity to come up with a blue print for a better international response” – the timing of this High Level Meeting could not have been better. With millions of refugees and migrants on the move and a deadly epidemic of restrictive migration and asylum policies spreading from country to country, it’s time for world leaders to radically rethink their response to the large scale movement of migrants and refugees.

Commentators have questioned whether the summit was a failure or a success. It might be too early to say. The only action plans – two separate global compacts – are not expected to be adopted before 2018.

The only outcome of the meeting so far, as expected, is indeed the adoption of the New York Declaration where UN Member States reaffirm their obligations toward existing legal frameworks that govern state responses to these movements. They promised to “fully respect the rights of migrants and refugees regardless of legal status”, expressed their determination to save lives and recognised the desperate ordeal faced by millions of refugees and migrants forced to take deadly risks and endure “uncertain reception and a precarious future”. They committed to providing greater assistance and protection and promised to “consider reviewing their migration policies with a view to examining their possible unintended negative consequences”. These are astonishing promises given that negative consequences are not ‘unintended’; they are the stated objectives of the restrictions imposed by these very states. These cruel policies are inked by governments who hope that inhumane reception or detention will act as a deterrent, presenting migration publicly as a threat to citizen’s employment, wealth, health or security. This is the reality we witness in too many of our projects across the world where the very same signatories to these promises in New York, violate basic rights and implement increasingly cruel and restrictive policies, causing harm to millions.

All over the world, UN member states are collectively failing to respond humanely to large movements of refugees and migrants and some are head to head in a race to the bottom. Which state will win the title of “least attractive destination for refugees and other migrants”?  Their policies continue to ignore that people will flee from war, human rights violations or in search of a life in dignity at any cost. The large movements of refugees and migrants is not a lifestyle choice.

During the Summit, states representatives from counties of origin, transit and destination of refugees and migrants made statements expressing concern about the situation of people on the move worldwide. Many called for the ‘international community’ to work together. Very few talked about the changes they are willing to make at national level, none acknowledged the human cost of their own actions. In September 2016, prolonged detention, including of children, refoulement and push-backs, state funded border violence and the confinement of refugees and migrants in squalid camps have become an important source of human suffering. Our doctors and nurses have witnessed the medical consequences of the degradation of the international response that the UN rightly wants to improve.

While they make promises to uphold refugees and migrants rights, states are currently innovating on new deterrence strategies: from the EU-Turkey deal with border closures in return for billions of euros in aid, to the building of walls and the outsourcing of asylum claims to prison islands. These policies not only violate the human rights states say they want to protect but put people’s health and life at risk. They dramatically limit people’s ability to seek and enjoy protection and criminalize refugees and migrants. Their options are reduced so much that smugglers are their only viable way forward. States at the summit have repeatedly condemned the ill-treatment of refugees and migrants at the hands of smugglers, neglecting to mention that their very own deterrence policies leave people precious few alternatives to escape and reach safety.  As loud as the indignation and condemnation of the smugglers was, we have not heard any state condemn the violence suffered at the hands of their own border forces.

Now a two year-process of negotiations start in order to adopt the global compacts leading to a comprehensive refugee response and safe, orderly and regular migration. While the practical details of these negotiations remain unclear, they have the possibility to put these issues on the priority list of states. The fact that migration, often seen as a national rather than international matter, will be the focus of multilateral discussions is a positive step. However, adopting concrete measures in two years is simply not good enough.

If many of the commitments of the Declaration will take time to address, such as addressing root causes and creating the conditions for people who can and want to stay home to do so, there are immediate actions states can already take, in line with their commitments on Monday. The 75.000 Syrians stranded in a desperate situation at the border with Jordan cannot wait for 2 years. We cannot continue to count in the thousands the lives lost at sea and on other borders. The lack of international burden-sharing, migration control, security or economic concerns are never legitimate justifications for the mass violation of human rights and the non-refoulement principle or to resort to violence and denial of humanitarian assistance.

For the New York Declaration to become meaningful, states must respect their legal obligations towards people in need of their protection. They must end border control policies that restrict the right to seek asylum and trigger violations of human rights. For “safe, orderly and regular migration” to become a reality, safe and legal channels rather than sealed borders and inhumane and cruel reception are needed. In 2016, the response to refugees and migrants can no longer be driven by deterrence. The commitments made by states on Monday must be turned into radical policy shifts ensuring that the promising rhetoric matches reality. A failure to do so will have deadly consequences and make the Summit nothing more than window dressing.

By Aurélie Ponthieu.  Photo by Ricardo Garcia Vilanova © MSF, 2016.

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