The Global Response to the Refugee Crisis

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonia Guterres, continues to appeal to the EU and the United States, citing refugee resettlement as an international issue of burden sharing. With 100,000 settlement places on offer covering less than three per cent of the total number of Syrian refugees, the world has been forced into a collective response to the worsening refugee crisis.

Currently, there are almost 60 million people forcibly displaced around the globe with the UNHCR citing current refugee emergencies in Nigeria, Iraq, Central African Republic (CAR), Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The UNHCR website states that this is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II with the greatest numbers of refugees coming out of Syria; over 4 million refugees have already fled the war-torn State, and almost double (7.6 million) are internally displaced.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other international treaties, form the foundation of law for the protection of refugees. Within these protocols is found the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, in which no person may be sent back to any place in which their lives could be in danger. The four-year conflict in Syria has initiated an out-flux of refugees by land and sea, requiring a process of integration and resettlement as the continuing conflict makes it more unlikely that Syrian nationals will be able to return home.

Australia has responded to the crisis with a commitment to accept another 12,000 Syrian refugees and to add a further AU$44 million in financial support to immigration housing, processing and societal integration. Traditionally, the government has upheld a strict immigration policy, however immigration minister Peter Dutton returned from talks with UNHCR in Geneva last week with news that Australians would be proud of. Australian attitudes toward the crisis are considered to have seen a pivotal change since the devastating and confronting image of Aylan Kurdi was released and spread across social media. The photograph of the three-year old Syrian child depicts his lifeless body on a Turkish beach after his family drowned trying to reach Greece. Images such as this reflect the devastating impact of conflict upon civilians and children in particular and highlight the dangers of unregistered sea travel across the Mediterranean. Over 2,800 have died this year trying to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

The European Commission met on Monday 14th September to discuss a collective response for 160,000 asylum seekers across the continent, but failed to establish any binding quotas. The meeting was considered difficult, with heated debate that eventuated in a majority agreement in principle and further negotiations to continue ahead of the next meeting in October.The Schengen system of free travel between European Union nations has so far allowed 500,000 people to enter Europe this year. Traditional EU rules accorded the first country of entry as responsible for dealing with any protection requirements for asylum seekers. Germany had originally waived this rule and was praised for their welcoming response to the refugee crisis but has since been overwhelmed by the burgeoning numbers of arrivals. On Saturday alone over 13,000 displaced persons arrived in Munich and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the reintroduction of border controls. This move was met with approval from Hungarian president Viktor Orban as the fence was completed along the Serbian border and legislation was passed that would mean any illegal immigrant penetrating the fence could face up to three years imprisonment. Similarly, the Czech Republic is boosting security, while other Eastern European countries such as Poland, Austria and Slovakia have consistently opposed implementation of binding quotas.

In the United Kingdom, Richard Harrington MP has been appointed to deal specifically with the 20,000 Syrian refugees that Britain has agreed to resettle. In the position of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State jointly at the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for International Development, Harrington was appointed in response to Prime Minister David Cameron’s personal visit to Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.

As the conflict in Syria and other parts of the world persists and the global community is forced to consider a collective response to the growing population of displaced persons, the United Nations called on members to work swiftly. The overarching principles of cooperation, compromise and solidarity are needed to establish a more internationally cohesive system for dealing with the refugee crisis as people continue to risk their lives in the journey to safer lands.