On 19 September, the United Nations will host a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim to better coordinate the international response to this challenge that has reached a global dimension.
“Since earliest times, humanity has been on the move.” These are the opening words of “The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” to be adopted next week. Indeed, migration was present all throughout the history of humankind. Humans always moved from the places where they started living, or they settled for shorter or longer periods of time, driven by hunger, by the cold or the floods, by invasions of other more powerful groups, or by fear of persecution.
In recent decades, people also migrate to experience different types of school and university education, for cultural exchanges or a better professional accomplishment. Migrations were blamed for having brought destruction of illustrious civilizations and Empires – like the Persian, the Roman or the Maya – but in other circumstances they were the engine of development of strong and rich countries, and what better example than the history of the American continent.
This phenomenon has reached now unprecedented levels: 244 million international migrants in 2015, with 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes – more than at any time since the end of the Second World War (more than 40 million displaced people within countries, over 21 million refugees and 3 million asylum seekers). Last year almost one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, while 3,500 died at sea. Only last week, thirteen thousand migrants and refugees dropped on the Italian shores. There are 400 refugee camps in the world. Without proper means to resolve its causes, it is to be expected that every migration wave will outrank the previous one.
The basic root-causes of such large movements can be found in conflicts, terrorism, human rights violations, poverty, growing inequalities, poor governance, climate change, environmental disasters. Many people move for a combination of these factors. Currently, 1.5 billion persons live in countries affected by violent conflict. The stabilization of conflict zones is therefore a prerequisite to bringing to an end the flow of refugees and to creating the premises for a safe return of individuals to their countries of origin. At the same time, a World Bank report released in 2016 found that water scarcity exacerbated by climate change can generate waves of migration, violence and conflicts within countries.
Romania contributes to alleviate the refugee situation by hosting, already since 2008, the Emergency Transit Center for Refugees in the city of Timisoara which, at the time of its establishment, was the first such facility in the world. Based on the principles of solidarity and shared responsibility, we are also part of the European Union efforts to relocate individuals who arrived in Europe in need of international protection. Additionally, Romania increased its financial contribution to UNHCR and the World Food Program. Many other countries do the same. But no State can manage such movements on its own. The large scale refugee crisis calls for a global approach and requires global solutions. We need a renewed multilateralism, and the best place for it is the United Nations.
The UN undertook a series of initiatives in 2016: the conference on the Syria humanitarian crisis in London (February), the Resettlement Plus conference in Geneva (March), the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May), and the High-Level Summit on managing large movements of migrants and refugees in New York, which will be the biggest issue at the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations next week.
This Summit is expected to be a historical landmark for creating a more responsible and predictable system to address the root causes of large movements of refugees, the positive contributions of migrants and the international cooperation on this issue, as well as to shape a comprehensive refugee response framework and a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration. It will also tackle the vulnerabilities of refugees and migrants on their journeys from the countries of origin to the countries of arrival.
There are separate legal definitions for “refugees” and “migrants”. Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of persecution, violence or conflict, and they require international protection. International migrants are persons who change their country of residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. However, refugees and migrants have the same universal human rights and, as stated in the UN documents prepared for the Summit, “they face many common challenges and have similar vulnerabilities,” which may suggest that the boundaries between these groups are blurred.
65 years ago, the UN adopted the Convention related to the Status of Refugees, to protect refugees after the Second World War. Today again, the international community has to take up its responsibility to protect people on the move and find long-term solutions both for refugees and migrants, as well as for their societies. The New York Declaration mentions that “our challenge is above all moral and humanitarian”, therefore such solutions have to be inspired by the essence of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development: “to leave no one behind”. In doing so, we must keep in mind that the immigration has to be tackled first at source, that we need to develop a worldwide culture of peace and non-violence, and that this is not a task only for governments, but also for civil society organizations, the business community, refugees and migrants alike. At the same time, there is a need for more empathy with refugees and migrants. The UN is a reflection of the world as it is, and as we want it to be. We must step up with responsibility sharing, not with responsibility shifting.
*Dr. Ion Jinga is Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations, New York