Refugee advocates at UNGA attack 'unscrupulous politicians' for stoking fears

(From left to right) U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Canada’s Minister of Refugees and Integration Ahmed Hussen, and former Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa. Photos from: European Parliament, The Canadian Club of Toronto and World Economic Forum

NEW YORK — Refugee advocates and officials took aim at divisive global politics on Monday, calling out donor and host country leaders for misbehavior as many of the same heads of state take the stage at this week’s United Nations General Assembly.

Leaders who use refugees to stir fear in the population and win votes are neglecting their responsibility, but also ignoring a key constituency within their populations who would prefer solidarity, they said.

Leaders must tackle conflicts driving humanitarian crises, ICRC chief says

Global officials working on the refugee crisis called out leaders for using negative politicking, saying that a reframing of the issue is vital to addressing humanitarian concerns.

“I think we need to be realistic that the refugee issue … is an issue that generates much hostility. And this hostility, this fear, this apprehension, is fueled by unscrupulous politicians,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told the Concordia Summit. “[It] multiplies and translates itself into rejection,” which results in worse integration outcomes.  

Support for refugees does exist within host country populations, and must be leveraged, he said, noting that his agency raised $6 million in small donations from the public in just a few days in response to the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh near the Myanmar border.

Political actions will be vital to responding to the scope of the current refugee crisis, in which the largest number of people since WWII are currently displaced.

“Part of this is leadership, it’s what differentiates between emphasizing and looking at refugees as a security issue and a humanitarian issue; it takes leadership to say, we can do both,” Canada’s Minister of Refugees and Integration Ahmed Hussen said.

Hussen told Devex that he has employed two key strategies to explain the importance of refugee resettlement to the Canadian public. First, he’s putting the Canadian numbers into context as compared to the numbers of refugees hosted by countries such as Lebanon and Turkey; in comparison, they are very few.

Second, he urged leaders to “emphasize the positive contribution that refugees make on host communities, economically, culturally, socially.” Sharing the stories of refugees who have built businesses, for example, can help convince constituents about the economic opportunity of migration. “It may not change the minds of everyone, but certainly helps showcase the benefits of refugee resettlement for the whole structure and host communities,” he said.

Winning small battles in donor and resettlement countries can make a significant difference for host countries, for example, in the Middle East where lower and middle-income countries are hosting vast numbers of Syrian, Iraqi, and other refugees.

“I cannot miss to mention Chancellor [Angela] Merkel [who] has opened the door very courageously, insisted that it is a global responsibility,” Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, told Devex, referring to Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany. “[The] unprecedented number [of refugees] has been caused by the problems and conflicts and revolutions that have happened, because of global political mistakes. So the whole world is responsible,” he said.

Asked about his message for U.S. policymakers in the White House, Moussa urged efforts to prevent future crises “by investing in development, in education, in training,” and “a new approach to the refugee problem. It’s not a question of donation, it’s a question of investment in them.”

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About the author

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    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.