This new Conservative government takes office at a crucial time for UK leadership on the global stage. ‘Brexit’ may dominate the domestic agenda, but we cannot renegotiate our relationship to Europe without examining our role as a global leader. We are in the midst of a global displacement crisis and consequently, a challenge to international values of human rights, the likes of which we have not experienced since World War Two. In 1951 British lawyers led the drafting of the Refugee and Geneva Conventions, a heroic response to a world in ruins. Today the challenges are different, but the need for courage and vision from world leaders is just as pressing. The UK must build and maintain these values in the face of this crisis.
Over the last five years we have grown used to the images of refugees fleeing war and persecution seeking sanctuary in Europe, but these offer a wildly distorted picture of global displacement. Contrary to common perception, most refugees – 84 percent – are hosted in developing countries, often with little infrastructure to help, and never even consider travel to richer countries. Perhaps even more strikingly, the vast majority of people who are forced from their homes through conflict or disaster have not yet crossed international borders, to be officially classed as ‘a refugee’. The tens of millions of ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs) outnumber refugees two to one, yet their stories are rarely heard. Those who, by choice or by necessity, stay behind in their war torn and politically unstable homelands, struggling every day to survive. For them, the situation is deteriorating, as health and education systems collapse, food supply chains are disrupted and basic infrastructure is destroyed by conflict.
There are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced around the globe; 40.3 million of those, or more than six out of ten, are IDPs. In Syria, there are 6.3 million internally displaced people; in Iraq 2.3m. Most of these people have been displaced for prolonged periods of time, and as the conflicts intensify this is only expected to rise. The decades-long conflict in Colombia has left over 7.4m displaced, and the devastating famines across East Africa make this a new epicentre of mass displacement whose consequences will be felt for many years.
We cannot limit who we help based on lines on a map or the status of individuals – whether they are IDPs or refugees has little impact on their humanitarian needs that must be addressed in a principled and needs-based manner. IDPs, by the very nature of remaining in fragile and conflict affected states, are often more vulnerable than refugees, who have fled to ‘safer’ places, but they are less visible and under-resourced. While research into the complexity of internal displacement is still emerging, we already know from long experience that many refugees were first internally displaced. Is today’s IDP tomorrow’s refugee?
In September 2018, a UN summit will agree two new Compacts on refugees and migrants. This is a major opportunity to demonstrate British leadership on the world stage and highlight the plight and needs of displaced populations. There must be four priorities.
Firstly, it must be ambitious. Many agencies are rightly insisting on no backsliding on existing protections, but that is not enough for 21st century challenges. The Refugee Convention ignores two thirds of those forced to flee; fails to recognise issues from persecution based on sexual orientation to environmental displacement; and leaves many behind. UNHCR’s mandate only covers cross-border refugees; there is no agency responsible for IDPs. The Compacts must not miss these opportunities to get ahead of the curve in the century of migration.
Secondly, there must be urgent attention to the in adequacy of the international humanitarian system. People are displaced for, on average, 17 years, many are displaced multiple times, and most live outside camps in poor host communities. Disasters displace three times as many people as conflicts, and most are not legally classified as refugees. Thus, we require a new approach to the design and delivery of humanitarian aid for those forced from their homes that recognizes the needs and rights of all those on the move, not just those that cross international borders. The UN bureaucracy – and the developing and middle-income countries who host the majority of refugees and IDPs – are failing to adapt to this new norm.
Thirdly, funding. The UN reports that displacement situations are consistently underfunded and too often donors do not follow through on the pledges they make. The UK’s response to the four famines across East Africa, and at the 2016 London-based Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, are models of leadership – but with the Trump administration’s withdrawal of aid funds and the recurring reality of ‘donor fatigue’, the UK must redouble its efforts to establish predictable, multi-year funding from all donors.
Finally, the Compacts must be rights-based. Northern states including the UK favour a ‘command and control’ approach to migrants and refugees, emphasising border controls, legal categorisation and statistics. This managerial approach not only rides roughshod over the highly complex reasons people move and the choices they make, but in too many cases allows governments to continue violating the rights of citizens and refugees with impunity. Human rights and humanitarian principles must come first.
The UN has set the table for world leaders to sign agreements that can enhance the rights and dignity of all people on the move and create a structure for true cooperation. Our history shows that in moments of crisis the world can come together and choose the right, if not the easiest, path. Time and again the UK has been at the forefront of these efforts. Will we rise to the challenge?
Tom Viita is Head of Advocacy at Christian Aid