This is Barack Obama’s last UN General Assembly, and it comes amid the worst refugee crisis since the advent of the United Nations 71 years ago. There are some 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world. The single largest cohort of displaced come from Syria. But conflicts, repression and violence in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Honduras and elsewhere have created an ever increasing number of refugees and displaced around the world.
One meeting he is holding today is the substantive highlight of Barack Obama’s final visit to the UN, and deals directly with the single largest global humanitarian challenge of his presidency. The White House has for months prioritized this “Leaders Summit on Refugees” as the most tangible outcome from his week in New York.
This is a “pay to play” summit in which the price of admission are concrete financial and policy commitments for refugees around the world. Top administration officials, including the president himself, have have been working the phones in advance of this summit and it seems that the effort has paid off. As the meeting began, the White House announced that 52 countries and international organizations that participated in summit made commitments that increased the total 2016 financial contributions to UN appeals and international humanitarian organizations by about $4.5 billion over 2015 levels; and also roughly doubled the number of refugees to be resettled.
The commitments made by delegates attending the summit were not only financial. Host countries like Jordan and Turkey pledged to enact new policies to increase access to eduction and enable refugees’ entry into the workforce. For example, at the meeting, the King of Jordan, which is home to 1.5 million Syrians, announced a goal of increasing access to schools for 40,000 additional Syrian children. Ethiopia, which hosts 750,000 refugees from the Horn of Africa, pledged to reserve 30% of a new 50,000 person jobs plan for refugees. Meanwhile, traditional donor countries like Sweden announced new $30.5 million toward global funds to support refugees. Justin Trudeau, who along with Angela Merkel were the only leaders personally name-checked by Obama, also announced new funding commitments. The United States, for its part, flagged a decision by the White House earlier this month to to increase the refugee resettlement ceiling from numbers from 80,000 people to 110,000 this fiscal year.
Even non-traditional global humanitarian players, like China, joined. Premier Li Keqiang announced $300 million in new humanitarian assistance over the next three years. Meanwhile, The World Bank rolled out a new low-interest loan program–the Global Crisis Response Platform — available to low and middle income countries that host large numbers of refugees. The United States intends to contribute at least $50 million over the next five years to the platform.
Why This Matters
The international humanitarian system — that is, the way the world responds to man-made crises and natural disasters — is stretched to its breaking point. This system is funded mostly through the voluntary contributions by governments, but those contributions are no-where near the level required to adequately deal with the scale of the global refugee crisis. In the meantime, the number of refugees is only increasing–and it’s not just being driven by the conflict in Syria. Earlier this week, the number of refugees who have fled South Sudan surpassed the one million mark. These refugees will, on average, live in their host countries for about a decade.
In the meantime, there is a growing movement in some countries to place new restrictions on refugees. That is evident here in the United States in some political circles, and also clearly manifest by new policies imposed by governments in Europe. But that attitude is not restricted to the global north. Kenya, for example, has threatened to close down the world’s largest refugee camp and illegally repatriate thousands of Somalis. refugees.
The summit organized by the White House is a counter to that trend. It is a coalition of the willing assembled to to confront one of the most urgent issues of our era. To be sure, the pledges and commitments made today could be more robust. The scale of the crisis is simply enormous. Still, this meeting pushes the needle in the right direction and is a powerful symbolic demonstration that the international community is not yet willing to abandon refugees around the world.