According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons in 2015, including 40.8 million internally displaced and 21.3 million refugees. This global humanitarian crisis, which consists of multiple, complex crises, is often characterized as a "refugee" crisis as if caused by refugees. Yet at its core is the failure of states to forego, prevent and effectively respond to conditions like armed conflict, repression, terrorism and breakdowns in the rule of law. UNHCR reports that refugee-generating conflicts have regularly "erupted or reignited," long-term crises "drag on with no solutions in sight," and, as a result, a vast "arc of crisis" extends from "southwest Asia through the Middle East to the Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad Basin." The United States, Mexico and Central American states are also experiencing large influxes of refugees and migrants due, in part, to the collapse of the rule of law in the northern triangle states of Central America.
These crises have not been met with anything close to equitable responsibility sharing. Eighty-six percent of the world's refugees live in developing states in proximity to troubled, refugee-producing nations. Developed states, in turn, adopt a range of strategies to prevent refugees from reaching their territory and requesting protection. The top three contributors to UNHCR provide more than 50 percent of the agency's annual budget, and many states, including those with means, contribute nothing or next to nothing. Funding for the one million South Sudanese refugees in neighboring states is at 20 percent of what's needed. In addition, states regularly make pledges that they do not fulfill.
The use of traditional "durable options" for refugees - safe and voluntary return, resettlement in a third country, or integration in the host community - are not available in anywhere near the number that would make a substantial dent in the refugee population, and promising alternative strategies must be brought to scale.
At the UN High-Level Plenary Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on September 19, 2016, 193 states agreed to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants which, inter alia, called for a "more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world's refugees," the development of a "comprehensive refugee response ... for each situation involving large movements of refugees," and "work toward the adoption in 2018 of a Global Compact on refugees." The following day a Leader's Summit
On Refugees, organized by the United States, produced public and private commitments for refugees, including:
• $4.5 billion in additional humanitarian aid, double the number of refugees resettled or granted access to immigration systems, improved access for one million more refugee children to attend schools and one million more refugees to work.
• Significant private sector commitments to long-term sustainable solutions for refugees and to refugee entrepreneurial activity, and
• Favorable financing for humanitarian and development projects intended to benefit both refugees and host communities.
The New York Declaration left in place border externalization, interdiction and other strategies that deny access to protection in wealthy states. It also failed to commit to producing guidelines on the need to protect the tens of millions in refugee-like situations who do not meet the narrow refugee definition.
Yet to its credit the Declaration offers a trenchant assessment of the causes of the global crisis and the overall steps needed to address it. Its strong endorsement of responsibility sharing matters, in part, because so many states fail to honor this concept in practice, and not just when it comes to refugee protection and integration, but to counter-terror and other challenges as well.
During the UN summit, the President of Macedonia, Dr. Gjorge Ivanov, described refugees as a military threat, a terrorist menace and a natural disaster all in one. After praising his own state's deployment of the military to channel migrants away from cities, Ivanov offered an extended metaphor in which refugees were characterized as a flood that required a disaster management response.
"The crisis management system must therefore develop contingency plans and make use of the strategy of eliminating the consequence of the flood (migrant flow) involving a defense system with so-called dams at the external borders, a cleaning process with hotspot approach and the securing of channels and control of the pipes at the entrance and exit corridors and routes used by refugees, migrants and foreign terrorist fighters."
He ended his speech on the ominous note that "[t]olerance for diversity must be substituted with respect for diversity," meaning apparently that Macedonia would no longer permit diversity within its borders, but would somehow respect this principle in the abstract.
That sentiment has found fertile ground in many European states, in Donald Trump's presidential bid, and among the 31 US governors who have taken various legal, political and symbolic steps to prevent Syrian and other refugees from resettling in their states.
As a case in point, Indiana Governor Mike Pence cited national security concerns in refusing to provide federal flow-through funds to resettle Syrian refugees. Earlier this month, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court decision to enjoin this policy. Judge Richard Posner's decision pointed out that the refugee program was the federal government's responsibility, no Syrian refugees had been prosecuted for attempted terrorist acts in the United States, and there was "nothing to suggest" that Indiana was "a magnet for Syrians." Posner characterized Pence's claim as "the equivalent of his saying ... that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they're black but because he's afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive he isn't discriminating. But that of course would be racial discrimination, just as his targeting Syrian refugees is discrimination on the basis of nationality."
Are refugees a threat to national security? Terrorists occasionally pose as refugees or legitimate visitors, which is why migrant and refugee populations need to be screened. And, of course, absolute security cannot be guaranteed for any population or immigration program. Yet it is counterintuitive at best for states to conflate refugees and terrorists. Bona fide refugees are not terrorists. Like citizens, they want to be safe in their own communities. In fact, the clearest connection between terrorism and refugees is that the former creates the latter. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that refugees enhance national security. Since 1975, the United States has admitted 3.2 million refugees, who have contributed to the nation's economic vitality, military strength, diplomatic standing, and civic values.
In the post-9/11 era, the United States has sought to secure refugee and migrant flows through better intelligence collection, information sharing, secure identity documents, and layered screening of those seeking admission. The US refugee resettlement program is easily the most secure US admissions program. By contrast, cooperation among European states has been in short supply, not just related to refugee protection, but to information sharing and refugee screening as well. Perhaps the greatest security challenges facing Europe are radicalization (particularly of youth) and the return of jihadist citizens. Radicalization is also a problem (albeit a lesser one) in the United States, including among teens and young adults in targeted immigrant communities.
Add to these challenges the self-inflicted wound of extremist rhetoric and proposals that undermine unity and run afoul of fundamental values. In the United States, Donald Trump has vowed to suspend the admission of Muslims, torture suspected terrorists, kill their families, prosecute Hillary Clinton, and (like his Vice-President) deny a haven to those fleeing violence and persecution. These proposals seek to portray strength. Yet there's nothing strong about flouting liberal democratic values or championing the kind of state tactics that create refugees. And it diminishes national and human security to undermine a refugee resettlement system that has saved the lives of millions and contributed immensely to the nation's well-being and international standing.