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Finding answers to today’s mass movements of refugees and migrants

Submitted by on 13 Nov 2017 – 14:23

As a growing number of people are on the move, searching for safety from persecution and conflict, hoping to reunite with their families, or seeking economic security in the face of poverty or the adverse impacts of climate change, Volker Turk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, UNHCR presents his plan to solve the migration crisis

Displacement and migration have been central features of human history.  Migration has spurred development – at times underpinning whole economies.  It has contributed to diversity and facilitated cultural exchange. Yet today, some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in the world are moving on an unprecedented scale, as inequality, conflict, and human rights abuses exact a high toll.  More than 65.6 million people are displaced either within their countries or across borders.  Most are in the global south, where four-fifths of the world’s refugees reside.  And many millions more have migrated from their countries to escape destitution. Refugees and migrants often move side by side.  Refugees uniquely require international protection because they cannot return home due to serious threats in their country of origin, as recognized by international law.  Both refugees and migrants, however, require protection from risks when moving along irregular routes, as we are witnessing in the Central Mediterranean.  They may be tortured, exploited, or abused by smugglers.  They may risk death in harsh deserts or unseaworthy vessels.  They may be kidnapped for ransom, detained in deplorable conditions, or sold to criminal networks.  Or they could be unaccompanied children or have serious medical conditions. With the growing numbers, responding to such risks in a meaningful way is a daunting proposition, but it is possible.  And without doubt it’s high time that more attention was paid to finding solutions.  UNHCR has already made proposals to the EU for how this might be accomplished.  We also need a shift in mind set.  We can start by acknowledging the realities of both displacement and migration today.  We must move from perceiving these movements as crises to be contained, to understanding that they are phenomena that we can manage responsibly and with humanity. How do we make this shift? First, we need to keep things in perspective.  Today’s figures are significant, but we also saw high numbers in the 1990s, with displacement from Afghanistan, the Great Lakes, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia.  What is different today is that we have more tools at hand.  This places us at an advantage.  Most notably, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the UN General Assembly last September, presents a framework for States, international organizations, and civil society to work smarter together. Second, we need to protect people all along the routes in countries of origin, transit, and destination.  UNHCR’s 10-Point Plan in Action provides a repository of good practices for doing so.  When people are in distress at sea, we can ensure that saving lives, timely rescue, and disembarkation to places of safety guide our actions.  We can alleviate reliance on smugglers by evacuating or resettling refugees from countries of origin and transit, and allowing migrants to travel through legal channels for family reunion, work, and education. Third, we need to use the life-saving principle of protection to ensure protection for all who need it. This principle is at the heart of the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees and regional refugee instruments.  It has been used to protect people who flee conflict and violence or who fear persecution because of their gender or sexual orientation, serious public disorder, gang violence, and trafficking.  It can also help guide our response in situations of natural hazards, humanitarian crises, and famine linked to conflict. Fourth, we need to draw upon expertise from the fields of both refugee protection and migration management.  UNHCR’s protection expertise can help women at risk of violence and children who are unaccompanied along the routes.  Temporary stay arrangements could be provided for individuals who are not refugees, but are unable to return immediately to their countries.  Measures to regulate migration, such as labour mobility, could also provide solutions for refugees.  Access to such channels can also regularize movements, fill labour shortages, and reinvigorate economies. Finally, we need to focus on the drivers behind these movements.  Demographic changes, climate change and environmental degradation, and labour market shifts contribute to migration.  When linked to conflict, violence, and poor governance, they can contribute to flight.  We need to address their impacts at their source.  And we need to do so in a way that can benefit refugees, migrants, and host communities alike, for example through not only humanitarian, but also development support. Ultimately, human mobility is a fact of life, and for many a necessity.  We need to recognize this reality – to move from a place of fear to one of equanimity and compassion.   And to recognise that this is a situation that is entirely manageable with the right systems in place and sufficient political will.  The lives of millions, for whom flight is the only means of survival, depend on it