What will Obama's refugee summit accomplish?

By Michael Igoe 19 September 2016

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with U.S. President Barack Obama. Behind them are U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

At his final United Nations General Assembly as U.S. president, Barack Obama faces an uphill battle to compel countries — including his own — to take action for the world’s refugees.

Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees is one of the headline sessions of this year’s 71st UNGA and a “centerpiece of the president’s trip,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters by phone on Friday. The administration calls it an “action-forcing event,” meant to leverage the United States’ “unrivaled leadership in terms of humanitarian assistance,” to get other countries to do things they would not otherwise commit to doing, Power said.

In practice, that means the U.S. is pushing for commitments on humanitarian financing, resettlement, and host country conditions for refugees. Power expects pledges not just from big donors but also developing countries, where 80 percent of the world’s refugees reside.

Both Obama’s summit and the United Nations summit on migrants and refugees that precedes it Monday have drawn preemptive criticism from civil society groups, which warn that talking about problems instead of addressing them directly risks prolonging a painful status quo for the world’s displaced people and migrants. Most groups want to see Europe and the United States commit to accepting a far greater number of refugees than they have so far been willing to do.

Refugees, climate change, aid and superbugs: Can solutions be found in New York?

The U.N. General Assembly has a full schedule, discussing the world's most pressing crises, from refugees to global health to climate change. Devex will be on scene as the week unfolds. Here's what to expect from the world's largest gathering of governments, U.N. agencies and development professionals.

Just as the Obama administration is using the occasion of the summit to compel other countries to take action, so are civil society groups seizing on the high-visibility events of this week to advocate.

“These Summits must go beyond stating challenges. They must expand resources, modernize systems, update strategies and combat the fatigue of refugees and receiving populations alike,” said International Rescue Committee President David Miliband.

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect on each summit goal.

Humanitarian financing

A record 65 million people are currently displaced from their homes. Twenty-one million of them have crossed international borders, of which 5 million are from Syria.

While the crisis in Europe — and the “burden” migrants and refugees have placed on countries there — has garnered far more media attention, developing countries host 80 percent of the world’s refugees, according to UNHCR.

In many crises, aid funding is stretched to the point of failing to meet even the most basic needs. Seeking to raise more funds, the U.S. will argue that helping refugees and migrants where they are can prevent flight options — for example by boat across the Mediterranean into Europe.

“We saw that some of the very significant flight into Europe” by Syrians, Power said, “happened in part because individuals received text messages from the World Food Programme that their rations were being slashed, because the money had run out.”

Refugee resettlement

The summit will push for more and safer avenues for resettlement.

“Providing legal avenues of admission, whether that’s humanitarian parole or permanent resettlements, university scholarships, you’re going to see a range of announcements by different world leaders,” Power said.

The United States recently met its own commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees ahead of schedule. That number will form part of the expected 100,000 the U.S. will accept this fiscal year.

Host country commitments

“Very significantly, I think you’ll hear in this summit refugee-hosting countries, not merely the donor countries … announcing commitments to help the refugee populations that are within their borders gain better access employment and to education,” Power said.

Crucial in this realm is the idea of integration: helping migrants and refugees to become self-sufficient, and economically contributing members of the host community. Many host countries limit refugees’ access to the labor market as well as other national services.

For now, refugees “in underdeveloped countries [who] are looking to become self-reliant have had a very challenging time. The resources, the schools, the job markets, the social services are all very strained by large influxes of people,” Power said.

This may also mean addressing the concerns of internally displaced people. Devex spoke with Rita Manchandra, research director at the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, who is working with the Women’s Regional Network to propose a human rights tribunal for internally displaced women in South Asia. The network’s members believe these women’s voices are getting lost and hope to find support for their proposal in New York this week.

Rita Manchandra, research director at the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, speaks about a proposed human rights tribunal for South Asia’s internally displaced women.

The idea of shared responsibility between developed and developing countries is in keeping with the tone U.S. and other donor country delegations have tried to set at other global summits in recent years. Both the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa last year and the Paris climate conference placed a large emphasis on partnership, pressing developed and developing countries alike to contribute resources in the pursuit of mutual goals.

Power said she expects “dozens” of countries to participate in Tuesday’s event. As of Friday, the U.S. organizers were still corralling commitments. “We’re still in a world of countries coming to us and saying, ‘this is what we’re going to commit,’ and us saying, ‘actually that’s not new or significant,’ and then some of those countries going back to the drawing board,” Power said.

Check back on our coverage of New York Global Dev Week here, follow @Devex and join the conversation using #GlobalGoals.

About the author

Igoe michael 1
Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


Join the Discussion