One year on, here’s how UN member states have failed and succeeded to help refugees

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President Donald Trump’s maiden speech on development, management, peace, and security will likely dominate this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA). But it’s a historic promise made one year ago this week that may affect the lives of millions more people.

Last September at the UN General Assembly’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants, 193 member states made a historic pact to bear the burden of the world’s refugee population, a promise that the Trump administration has largely vowed to renege on going into the 2018 fiscal year.

Last year, the most immediate concern at the UNGA was getting Syrians away from brutal bombings, especially at the hands of government-sanctioned airstrikes. At present, the world is bearing witness to the horrors of Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The global refugee crisis continues to grow from last year’s 65 million displaced individuals, with more than 20 million people in Africa and Yemen at risk of famine, according to Michael Klosson, the Vice President of Policy and Humanitarian Response at Save the Children.

But since the UN’s adoption of an action plan to deal with the refugee crisis last year — namely share the burden of hosting refugees; help refugees become self-reliant; expand resettlement pathways in third countries; and make home countries safe enough so that refugees can voluntarily return — only some member states have opened up their welcome mats.

Last year, former President Barack Obama called for “collective action” on the refugee crisis, ramping up refugee admissions to 110,000. After Trump’s election win, his administration officials began plans to lower the number of refugees admitted to the United States to below 50,000, a figure at its lowest level since at least 1980. The resettlement process is so slow and restricted that only 913 people entered the United States by the end of August, as compared to 13,000 people in the same time frame last year. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Trump White House permission to move ahead with its executive order to prohibit refugees from entering the country as the court continues to review legal challenges to the president’s travel ban.

“The U.S. has led the world for 70 years and it’s hard to think of an issue more important than refugees for the U.S. to lead now,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, told reporters on a teleconference Monday.

“We have a strong humanitarian dimension,” Crocker added, suggesting the United States raise its “absolute minimum” number of refugee admissions to 75,000 for the next fiscal year. “If we don’t make that gesture, we are damaging something unique to us as Americans. And if we don’t make that gesture, we are probably moving away from American leadership on this issue.”

Within the last year, five countries — Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada — created a Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI) guidebook to help develop a community sponsorship program to help ease refugee resettlement. The guidebook is supposed to be used by government officials, civil society organizations, and communities to help design sponsorship programs that would fit their communities to bridge the gap between resettlement needs and host locations.

Syrian refugees changed the way people responded to the global crisis beyond giving out supplies, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said Monday on the sidelines of this year’s UNGA, with more European cities focused on integrating Syrians and Iraqis into communities.

“The Syrian crisis was a turning point in so many ways,” Grandi said, according to The National, an Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates-based newspaper. “Not just because of the scale with 6-8 million Syrians forced out of the country. Not just its intractable character. Because so many moved toward Europe and found refuge in cities.”

“Given the demographic changes in northern European economies it makes much sense to integrate refugees in our towns and cities,” Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena, Germany, told the publication. “This is not a one-way street for us. We will need to get to know other cultures, other religions and we will all be richer for it.”

Arrivals to Europe dropped 57 percent between last year and this year, Al Jazeera reported. But although fewer people are crossing the Mediterranean this year, more people are taking the most dangerous route through the Central Mediterranean. Along this route, smugglers are making the journey incredibly dangerous by “forgoing boats for rubber dinghies, using less fuel and preventing refugees from carrying much drinking water,” human rights groups told Al Jazeera.

Elsewhere, an area that’s still a work in progress is education. Member states made education a top priority for global action for the next 15 years at last year’s summit. This is important in large part because 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, with more than a quarter hosted in the world’s least developed countries. According to a UN agency report, more than half of the world’s out-of-school refugees are in seven countries where “governments are already struggling to educate their own children” including Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey. Refugee children already miss out on an average of three to four years of schooling, but as the UN agency found out over the past year, education is “considered a luxury, a non-essential optional extra after food, water, shelter and medical care.” The Lebanese government has committed to educating all children between the ages of 5 and 17 by the end of 2021.

Some human rights organizations indicate that it wouldn’t take much to help alleviate what’s going on if wealthier countries would only shoulder the burden. As War Child CEO Rob Williams and activist and Ban Ki-Moon youth and security advisor Salim Salamah (who was born in a Syrian refugee camp) told ThinkProgress reporter D. Parvaz last year, a “detailed political response to what’s going on” would cost just “peanuts” for wealthy countries.

Over the past year, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme have urged donor nations to fund life-saving aid to South Sudanese refugees through the end of 2017 through a response plan that was only 14 percent funded through May. According to the UN, the 1.8 million South Sudanese refugees, including one million children, are part of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Other African countries are also facing serious funding shortages. More than 600 Burundian refugees fled to Rwanda by July, a higher average than the 500 arrivals arriving in major hosting countries, Relief Web said, pointing out that country’s crisis is “severely under-funded at 5 percent out of the total requirement of USD 250 million.”

“We are really seeing a glimpse in many ways what the world looks like if the US chooses not to step forward,” Michael Breen, President and CEO of Truman National Security Project, said on the same teleconference Monday. “This is about much more. This is about U.S. leadership in the world — to continue a successful stragey of investing in that leadership or choosing to pull back and hope something pans out in that leadership. Our allies in Europe are likely worried if we make that second choice.”

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