Reflections on the UN Refugee and Migration Summit - Suzanne Keatinge

30 september 2016

The UN-led summit on refugees and migration held last week in New York brought into sharp focus the harrowing experiences faced by the millions of people forced to leave their homes because of fear, conflict and uncertainty.  It also brought into focus the many hurdles faced by the 65 million people who are on the move today, desperate to reach a place of safety, hope and prosperity for their families.  

Dóchas was part of the official Irish Delegation at the summit, led by the Tánaiste, Francis Fitzgerald, along with Irish civil society colleagues from World Vision, Oxfam, Concern and UNICEF.  Irish representatives from the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission were also there.

Building Inclusive Societies

At the summit, we learnt of an increasingly polarised Europe, where the narrative of fear and building walls was being peddled as a solution, when the real answer is quite the opposite. Thankfully, US President Obama and UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, showed their true statesmanship by making strong impassioned statements which underlined the importance of building inclusive, equal societies, where communities act out of global solidarity to protect and safeguard dignity.  

We also heard of further atrocities in Syria, as 20 aid workers were killed on 19 September while trying to bring relief to the thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo.  And whilst the politicians continued to argue over who did what to whom, it felt as if we were getting ever further from the much needed political solution to ending this war. It was a stark reminder of how far we’ve travelled from the time when strong political leadership at the Security Council meant ending wars and committing to international human rights, in particular the responsibility to protect civilians in times of war.  The case for reform of the Security Council is surely as strong as ever. 

Pathways to success

But for the world leaders, refugees, migrants and civil society representatives that did gather in New York, they heard of practical and manageable pathways to solve these problems. These pathways had been teased out during months of tireless negotiations led by the Irish Ambassador to the UN, David Donoghue, and his Jordanian counterpart, Dina Kawar, and have resulted in a UN General Assembly resolution and framework document, known as “The New York Declaration for refugees and migrants.

We know that at times the negotiations over the summer were tense. Civil society watched every word spoken and pushed against every line that could be crossed out, all in the hope that the dignity and rights of migrants and refugees would remain central to the outcome.  And in that, we were largely successful.

However, civil society has voiced its concern that the final document has not gone far enough to underline the urgency of the situation. We know that the practical implementation of these resolutions will not be decided for another two years, but action is needed today.  At least we do now have a process that we can engage with.

No room for complacency

Civil society was not alone in demanding urgent action. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCRC), Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, drew the loudest applause of the day with his speech encouraging states to embrace refugees and those who have fled human rights abuses: 

“‘This summit cannot be reduced to speeches and feel-good interviews, a dash of self-congratulation and we move on. The bitter truth is, this summit was called because we have been largely failing”.

The High Commissioner helpfully reminded us that we do not get to pick and choose who has rights by virtue of their geography. Those of us lucky enough to be born into states with functioning social welfare systems and peaceful societies must be shaken from our complacency.

We also need to remind ourselves that it was almost exactly a year ago - on 25 September 2015 - that the same group of leaders gathered in New York to commit to another ambitious transformative agenda, known as the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs).  Here was a roadmap to “free the human race from tyranny of poverty”, and to make sure no-one was left behind. 

We cannot honestly speak of making real progress towards the SDGs if we are intent on allowing the tragedy in the Mediterranean to continue, or indeed to leave one set of people in the dark.  

No quick fixes

We know that the reasons for forced displacement are complex, and they vary from country to country. There are no quick fixes. It will take a combination of short, medium and long-term approaches to alleviate the negative drivers of migration, as well as to provide safe passages for those that do choose to move.  Equally, we cannot expect to end migration and nor should we want to. Instead, we need to celebrate it and view it through the positive lens of opportunity and benefit for our societies.

Ireland’s slow progress

We have the means – in terms of expertise and resources – to solve this crisis, but we need strong political leadership to follow through and transform the promises into real and tangible action.  

In Ireland, we are already behind and we have to do more.  Only 311 refugees have arrived here since the Government pledged to take in 4000 people this time last year.  Even that number seems insignificant against the thousands stranded in the islands of Greece or Italy, or worse still, in detention centres in Libya.  As the Tánaiste herself said in her speech at the summit, “Right now, the burden of hosting refugees is disproportionally borne by developing countries. A more equitable sharing of responsibilities is urgently needed.” We have to keep her to her word that “Ireland is willing to step up to the plate on this.”

We also have to keep the pressure up to support development efforts that are tackling the root causes and drives of displacement.  That will need to include a much greater push towards reaching the target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA). We are currently far behind with just 0.39% of GNI committed to ODA in 2015.

My lasting impression from the summit is of the self-agency, resilience and dignity of those who are displaced and of our responsibility to harness those attributes. We cannot let them down.

Further resources:

A round-up of key commentary from the summit by Refugees Deeply -

A blog from the CEO of Concern Worldwide Dominic McSorley on his reflections on the summit -

Reflections on the summit from the Migration Policy Institute -

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland call for action from the Irish Government following the summit -

Thoughts from Oxfam Ireland on the highlights of the summit -

World Vision demand action not words at UN summit -

UN youth delegates attend summit -