Syrian refugees in Europe, September 2015. CREDIT: <a href="" target="_blank">Freedom House</a> (<a href="" target="_blank">CC</a>)
Syrian refugees in Europe, September 2015. CREDIT: Freedom House (CC)

Refugee Mass Exodus: Need for a UN-led World Conference

Sep 15, 2015

The current flow of migrants and refugees to Europe has become front-page news. Many come from areas caught up in armed conflict: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia. The leaders of the European Union have been divided and unsure in their responses. Local solidarity networks that offer food, shelter, and medical care are overwhelmed. Political debates over how to deal with the refugees have become heated, usually with more heat than light. The immediacy of the refugee exodus requires our attention, our compassion, and our sense of organization.

It is estimated that nearly half of the refugees come from Syria. If one adds those coming from Iraq, the percentage would be well over half. Accurate figures are difficult to establish, and it seems that criminal gangs are now selling false Syrian passports with refugees thinking that Syrians will be accepted before others. Most Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan starting in 2012 believed that the war in Syria would soon be over and that they could return home. Today, the length of the war, the destruction of much of Syria's economy, and the difficulties of a negotiated settlement have led many to estimate that their exile will be long and, for some, permanent.

EU officials have been meeting to discuss how to deal with the refugees, but a common policy has so far been impossible to establish. In Europe, debate on the refugee flow has also been colored by the discussion on climate change migration—what some call "ecological refugees." This is an aspect of the climate conference COP 21, to be held in Paris in December 2015 and around which there is a good deal of preparatory activity on the part of both governments and non-governmental organizations.

Given the scale of the refugee flow and the resulting logistic aspects, most of the discussions among government officials have had a short-term focus. The European Union members of the UN Human Rights Council requested an "Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on the human rights of migrants" which was held a month ago. However, the dialogue had not been "enhanced" by research or a longer-range perspective. Moreover, the scale of the crisis in Europe largely overshadowed other refugee flows such as those from Myanmar (Burma), which are also critical and may have long-range consequences

Thus, the Association of World Citizens, which is in consultative status with the UN (and which the author represents at the UN), is calling for a UN-led world conference on migration and refugee issues, following earlier UN world conferences on the environment, food, housing, women, population, youth, human rights, and other world issues. The pattern of such UN-led world conferences usually follows a common pattern: encouragement of research and data collection by UN agencies, national governments, NGOs, and academic institutions; regional meetings to study the regional dimensions of the issue; a world conference of government representatives with the participation of NGO delegates in consultative status; and a parallel NGO conference with a wider range of NGOs present, especially those active at the local or national level.

The most successful UN-led world conferences have been the two that built on widespread popular activities on the issue: the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment, which benefited from the growing ecological concerns, and the 1975 Mexico City conference on women, which came at a time of a good deal of "women's lib" activity.

There is not the same NGO network on migration issues as there was on the environment and on women, but there is strong media attention and a realization that migration issues are here to stay.

So far, discussions on migration and refugees within the UN system have not attracted the "high profile" needed to provoke real government action. The UN sponsored World Refugee Year, June 1959-June 1960, but the Year was mostly devoted to clearing up the refugees left over from World War II who had not been adequately resettled. During the Year, some governments printed postal stamps to build awareness and to raise some money for refugee resettlement. But World Refugee Year left little lasting impact.

Within the human rights bodies of the UN, an International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families was drawn up, but ratifications have been slow, with a good number of governments making reservations that generally weaken the impact of the Convention. In 2004, a commission of independent experts was set up to study the reports of governments on the application of the Convention—a commission that is known as the Human Rights Treaty Body System. Reports from each government are to be filed once every four years. However, the discussions within the Treaty Body and its subsequent report attract the attention of only a small number of people. Moreover, the discussion deals with the report of only one government at a time while migration is always a multi-state regional issue and can have worldwide implications.

Thus, only a UN-led world conference with adequate research and prior broad discussion can meet the challenges of worldwide migration and continuing refugee flows. This year's UN General Assembly and its special summit to set the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals and marking the 70th anniversary of the UN Charter would be a most appropriate time to pass a resolution to organize such a UN-led world conference.

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