T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the former United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees, is obviously frustrated. Speaking at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul at the end of May—billed by the UN as an opportunity to “initiate a set of concrete actions” responding to the global refugee crisis—Aleinikoff did not see the solutions that he and others had hoped would emerge from the meeting. “We may be at the point where a global bargain is feasible,” he said, looking out over the glittering blue waters of the Bosphorus toward the Asian side of Turkey, where millions of refugees await both temporary aid and a permanent solution to their displacement. “But the international community doesn’t want to make a deal.”
Aleinikoff has been outspoken about the “sclerotic” tendencies of the UN and the failure of the international community to solve the problem of long-term refugeeism. His willingness to confront the shortcomings of the international humanitarian system stood in contrast to the platitudes offered by most of the summit’s participants. The tone was set by a bright blue-and-white sign hung over the summit pavilion, sponsored by the Turkish government, which announced, “People Matter and We Care!” The official summit literature urged participants to “leave no one behind.”
These slogans had an unintentional irony, proclaimed as they were from behind a tight police cordon that surrounded the Istanbul Convention Center and the upscale Hilton. There, approximately 9,000 participants, including 55 heads of state, lunched on soups from around the world and listened to an orchestra. At “high-level roundtables,” VIPs sought to devise concrete responses to the rapid escalation in human suffering that now affects more than 60 million displaced people globally. Although this was the largest meeting that the UN has ever held on humanitarian relief, it produced no binding agreements and no document for states to sign. Instead what came out of the meeting was a chaotic patchwork of 1,500 “commitments”—mostly vague statements of principle offered by governments and NGOs.
There were several potential deals on the table at the summit. The UN was hoping for what it called the Grand Bargain, in which five or six of the largest donor countries would have pledged to close the $15 billion gap between what the UN and NGOs have requested and what they have thus far received. The UN has proposed that the majority of that would be routed through its Central Emergency Fund. The money would then be dispersed to UN agencies such as the World Food Program and the High Commission for Refugees, as well as to international aid organizations and local NGOs, which are often shouldered with finally, actually giving aid to those in need.
The lack of long-term aid to refugees will only spur more—and more dangerous—migration.
The financial need of the UN is dire: it is now so cash-strapped that its World Food Program recently had to cut food aid to refugees in Lebanon to $13.50 a person— per month—and to stop giving aid to some refugees in Jordan and Turkey altogether. The situation is so bad that Antonio Guterres, who until early this year was the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, declared baldly, “We are financially broke.”
But the summit did not produce anywhere near $15 billion in pledged aid.
“I thought the Grand Bargain would be the crown jewel of the summit,” said Christina Bennett of Overseas Development Initiatives, an NGO. “But in the end, there was a lot of resistance.” Although $90 million was raised for a new fund to provide education to children in emergency situations, and although Canada pledged an additional $605 million in aid, there were few other significant promises of donor money. One reason for the dearth was that, apart from German chancellor Angela Merkel, none of the leaders of the G7, the world’s most developed countries, were in attendance. Ban Ki-Moon, UN secretary-general, chastised the absent leaders, saying, “We expect developed countries, rich countries, to do more. We can find the money.”
Merkel, though, was at the summit for a different deal altogether. By placating Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Merkel hoped to hold together the already-fraying deal struck in March between the EU and Turkey to stem the tide of refugees migrating to Europe. There are more than 2.5 million refugees in Turkey, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, which makes Turkey the largest refugee-hosting country in the world. The EU has agreed to provide the Turkish government with what amounts to a bribe: €6 billion in aid, along with political considerations like accelerated accession to the EU, if Turkey will take an active role in managing the flow of refugees—which is to say, in preventing them from reaching Europe.
Rather than resettling hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, which would spread the burden of hosting across more countries, the deal specifies a one-for-one exchange in which the EU will only be required to resettle one Syrian refugee for every one it can deport back to Turkey. In other words, under the deal, Europe’s Syrian refugee population would be zero sum. And because the EU does not have the capacity to evaluate the cases of hundreds of thousands of migrants individually, refugees will meanwhile remain stuck in camps in Greece or in overcrowded housing in Turkish cities waiting to find someplace permanent to go.
For Peter Sutherland, UN special representative for international migration, the EU-Turkey deal does not fix the primary problem behind the refugee crisis. He notes that the global humanitarian system is currently based on “responsibility by proximity,” in which the countries closest to a conflict are largely responsible for meeting refugees’ needs. He does not mince words about the absurd burden this places on countries such as Turkey and Lebanon: “If you’re unlucky enough to be nearby, the world points a finger at you and says, ‘Why don’t you take care of them?’ But why the hell should a country like Lebanon have one fourth of [its] population be refugees? Why should the Greeks and the EU be carrying the can? It’s bloody ludicrous.”
This is why, for Aleinikoff, neither the Grand Bargain nor the EU-Turkey deal is the deal that should have been worked out in Istanbul. What is needed, he says, is a global deal. He argues that governments around the world should sign a binding agreement to help during any large refugee movement, no matter where it is, in order to take pressure off surrounding countries.
The lack of a global agreement to provide long-term aid to displaced people will only spur more migration. Deteriorating conditions in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have already pushed many refugees to risk the dangerous journey across the Aegean or the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Kenya’s recent decision to close camps—including Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world—makes the situation even more volatile. “If 600,000 people are thrown out of Dadaab, where will they go?” asks Sutherland. Migration to Europe via Libya, whose government is unequipped to regulate mass population movements, may be the only alternative. “We have passed the point of no return,” says Aleinikoff, who thinks it is unlikely that refugees from Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan will return home for years. “All these people will need to be integrated and included somewhere.”
Having failed to achieve a long-term multinational agreement, the UN has put the weight of its PR machine behind emphasizing that the summit was only ever meant to be a starting point. Kicking the can down the road, the UN and the international donor community will resume negotiations in September at a high-level meeting following the UN General Assembly in New York. In his report from the summit, Secretary-General Ban argued that at the World Humanitarian Summit, “we have taken steps to awaken the global conscience.” Whether that awakening will lead to a long-term agreement to provide more money for aid—or to permanently resettle more refugees in Europe or North America—remains to be seen.