As world leaders prepare for the UN summit on refugees and protesters mobilise in London, Shabbir Lakha looks at some of the issues involved
World leaders are set to meet in New York next week for a High Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants at the 71st United Nations General Assembly. The idea is that the representatives of 193 countries can come together and discuss the best way to improve protection of refugees and get consensus on a Declaration of commitments towards refugees and migrants.
But in the face of multiple global crises involving mass migration, with refugee numbers – over 65 million globally –at the highest they’ve ever been, combined with the lack of political will we’ve witnessed thus far, it’s difficult to be optimistic.
Ahead of the Summit, a national demonstration will be taking place in London to show solidarity with refugees and send a clear message to the Summit that not enough has been done to protect and support refugees.
Theresa May, who will be representing the UK at the Summit, has faced sharp criticism since 7 September when her government announced plans to build a mile-long concrete wall around the refugee camp in Calais to stop refugees attempting to cross the Channel.
There are currently up to 10,000 refugees mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa in the makeshift camp in Calais. The conditions in the camp have been described as ‘squalid’ by Amnesty International and ‘diabolical’ by Doctors of the World. Muhayman Jamil, a doctor and volunteer in Calais, was quoted in an exhibition by the Migration Museum Project saying:
“You wouldn’t wish the conditions they live in on our worst enemy. In mid-winter, people dressed in sandals and T-shirts, bending over by a tap, which is running into the mud, trying to brush their teeth at the tap because there aren’t enough adequate facilities. This is not some Third World country, this is not a war zone, this is Western Europe in the 21st century. Surely we could do better.”
The refusal of the French and British governments to address the situation as a humanitarian emergency and adapt the currently failing asylum processes has left refugees vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, sexual violence and human trafficking – particularly unaccompanied children.
The majority of the 10,000 refugees in the makeshift camp in Calais have a legal right to asylum in the UK under international law and EU regulations, but the Home Office have made legal routes to the UK mostly inaccessible by setting excessive evidence requirements.
Earlier this year, Oxfam called out the UK for failing to accept its fair share of refugees. The UK has only agreed to take on 20,000 refugees from camps near Syria up to 2020 and an unspecified number of unaccompanied minors. Over 1.4 million refugees have entered Europe in 2015/16, there are 3 million refugees in Turkey and 1.5 million and 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan respectively.
The UK, along with the EU, has consistently taken measures over the last two years to reduce the flow of refugees into Europe. The abandonment of search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the restriction of the Aegean route by the EU-Turkey deal is largely responsible for the large numbers of refugees that have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea over the last year.
It should also be noted that having refused to be a part of the European refugee sharing deal, even the 20,000 commitment only came after the world was gripped by images of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey and a massive demonstration on the streets of London supporting refugees.
The pushing back of refugees into Turkey has made the situation for the 3 million refugees in Turkey, who are barely or not at all supported, even more difficult. It has also been established by human rights organisations that Turkey cannot be deemed a safe country for refugees when there is evidence of refoulment of refugees to Syria, shooting of refugees trying to cross into Turkey from Syria, intentional capsizing of boats trying to cross the Aegean, and widespread xenophobic rhetoric within Turkey that make refugees even more vulnerable.
In the global context, Australia continues to illegally deport and detain refugees in an off-shore camp in Nauru with impunity. The European response to the refugee crisis was used as a reason by Kenyan authorities to begin closing down the Dadaab refugee camp (the largest in the world), providing shelter for over 300,000 Somali refugees and Sudanese refugees – who this week crossed the million refugee mark. Refoulment of these refugees has now begun and a Human Rights Watch report this week claimed that it is a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The UNHCR, the Kenyan and Somali governments are not acting within international law.
There is a huge task at hand for the international community in accepting responsibility for refugees and adhering to international law – particularly for the UK, whose military interventions have played a serious role in destabilising and exacerbating violence in the Middle East.
It’s difficult to imagine any significant commitment for the protection of refugees coming out of the Summit, particularly from Theresa May, but protesters in London will make clear that as far as the people are concerned, refugees are welcome here and Theresa May must try harder.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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