What We Need Now: #GlobalLeadership To Address the Greatest Humanitarian Challenge of Our Time

Posted by Erin M. Barclay
September 20, 2016
A Syrian refugee woman carries her infant while washes the family clothes at Zaatari refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan.

What do you think when you see pictures of migrants and refugees washing up on beaches, sleeping in parks, or covered with dust from bombings? Does it frighten you, tear at your heart strings, or even make you want to turn the channel? Over the past year global refugee issues have dominated our news feeds, our televisions, and our conversations. Many of us work on these issues every day and have for years, but to the average citizen, the global refugee challenges just became front-page news.

Today, there are more than 21 million refugees across the globe; more than 4.8 million refugees alone have fled Syria since the beginning of that conflict. In addition, there are roughly 45 million internally displaced people today -- those who have fled their homes but remain inside their national borders. On the margins of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) two big events were meant to galvanize additional action on this crises -- the UN General Assembly Plenary Session on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants held on September 19 and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on September 20.

An aerial view from the north of United Nations Headquarters in New York City. [United Nations Photo]

The Leaders’ Summit on September 20 will bring together world leaders who are dedicated to greater global responsibility sharing, and highlighting concrete commitments their countries have made to shore up the very strained international refugee support system. For too long, the responsibility for so many has fallen on too few countries -- we expect the Leaders’ Summit to change that. The commitments made at the Summit will bring additional funding into the UN refugee and humanitarian response system. These commitments will also expand the number of resettlement slots globally so refugees can move around the world safely and help mitigate the burdens felt by those countries generously hosting refugees.

As we seek solutions, we look to the leaders of host communities to help provide greater opportunities for refugee children to attend school and adults to seek out legal livelihoods there. This is very hard -- countries across the globe are witnessing the unfortunate propagation of false narratives directed against refugees and immigrants. The political discourse around these issues is contentious, and policy changes to improve refugees’ ability to contribute to their host communities can be difficult and time-consuming. 

Children are reflected in a puddle as they play in a makeshift refugee camp of the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, on, May 14, 2016.  [AP Photo]

During a recent interactive webchat with audiences at the U.S. Embassy in Athens and others online, I had an opportunity to hear directly from refugees and U.S. partner resettlement organizations in Greece -- a country experiencing significant in-flows of men, women, and children displaced by conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. One theme resonated throughout: as the international community continues to grapple with how to solve the root causes of these global humanitarian crises, thousands of people will continue to find themselves in limbo. And while in limbo, their needs and wants do not deviate from those of typical individuals and families: they seek safety and security for themselves and their loved ones. In that interactive discussion we also talked about the importance of sustained U.S. leadership -- as the largest single humanitarian donor and the largest refugee resettlement country in the world.

This topic is the feature of the latest episode of the Department’s ‘Global Views’ audio series. I sat down with Patty McIlreavy, Vice President of the Humanitarian Policy and Practice team at InterAction, to discuss the role of the United States in galvanizing the world to aid refugees. Listen here:

The fact is, the average length of time a refugee finds him or herself displaced averages around 17 years. We know that if the right enabling environment exists, refugees can plug in and contribute -- economically, culturally, and socially -- to their host communities. Our challenge as governments, civil society, the private sector, and individuals is to reach a little further this year than we have in the past. This is why when we come together this week for the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees we will rally around one clear message -- we can and must do better.

About the Author: Erin M. Barclay serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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