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Refugees and migrants: UN Summit and role of NGOs

By Rene Wadlow

The UN has called for a high level Summit on “Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants”. The forum is scheduled for 19 September 2016 at the United Nations in New York, one day before the opening of the UN General Assembly. A report of the Secretary-General will be published in May to structure the discussions and to facilitate research and the collection of up-to-date information at the national and regional levels. There is agreement among the representatives of governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that it is time to take a more comprehensive look at the various dimensions of the migration and refugee issue which affects countries of origin, transit and destination. We need to understand better the causes of international flows of people and their complex inter-relations with development, armed conflict and environmental changes.

Ms Karen Abu Zayd of the USA has been appointed as the Special Adviser for the Summit, in effect its organizer.  From 2005 to 2010, she was Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Previously she held high posts in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She is an academic specialist on the Middle East.

Recently, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) published a report on international migration indicating that there are some 244 million migrants, some 76 million live in Europe, 75 million in Asia, 54 million in North America, others in the Middle East, Latin America, and the Pacific, especially Australia and New Zealand.  In addition, there are some 20 million refugees − people who have crossed State frontiers fleeing armed conflict and repression as well as some 40 million internally displaced persons.Acute poverty, population growth, high unemployment levels and armed conflicts provide the incentives for people to move, while easier communications and transport are the means. People flee their countries for a variety of reasons and usually as a result of a combination of factors rather than a single one: wars and insurrections, the breakdown of law and order, oppression, persecution and the denial of socio-economic opportunities.  Some persons may not have been singled out for repression (the narrow definition of the right to ask for refugee status), however, they feel that their country cannot provide an adequate future and wish to try their chance elsewhere.  Others, especially those who represent ethnic or religious minorities may be deliberately forced out.

The flow of refugees and migrants toward Europe during 2015 has made the issue of migration and refugee flows “front page news”. The disorganized and very uneven response of European governments to this flow has indicated that governments are unprepared to deal with such massive movements of people. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have not been able to deal adequately with this large number of persons despite many good-will efforts. Certain political movements and political parties have used the refugee issue to promote narrow nationalist and sometimes racist policies. A much small flow of refugees to the USA has also provoked very mixed reactions − few of them welcoming.

The COP 21 conference in Paris in December was an opportunity to highlight what  is increasingly called “ecological refugees” − people who move due to changes in the climate and the environment. The persistent drought in the Sahel States of Sub-Saharan Africa has led to large scale movements and the creation of very difficult socio-economic conditions.

The September 2016 UN Summit provides an opportunity for coordinated NGO action. UN conferences or Summit forums serve as a magnet, pulling Governments to agree to higher ideals and standards collectively than they would proclaim individually.  This is not only hypocrisy − though there is certainly an element of hypocrisy as Governments have no plans to put these aims into practice. Rather it is a sort of “collective unconscious” of Government representatives who have a vision of an emerging world society based on justice and peace.

The role of non-governmental organizations is to remind constantly Government representatives of the seriousness of the issues and for the need for collective action. Migration does not have a well-organized NGO network to highlight issues in the way that there are well-organized networks of human rights or equality of womenorganizations.  National NGOs can highlight local conditions and thus provide information to the international NGOs in consultative status with the UN who will be at the Summit in New York.  NGOs, close to the people can provide a realistic view of needs of individual families and the type of community responses required. NGOs will also stress poverty reduction, conflict resolution support, and respect for human rights.  Between now and the end of August gives us as NGO representatives time to assemble the research, to analyze both short and longer-term consequences and to make policy proposals to governments. However, there is no time to loose and efforts must be made now.

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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