October 12, 2016

On October 5, SIPA’s Migration Working Group hosted a symposium to discuss the lessons learned from two recent landmark summits for refugees and migrants and to consider visions for the road ahead. The event focused on addressing the dominant narrative around forced migration and how it can be influenced.

The first panel, moderated by Professor Michael Doyle, University Professor and director of Columbia’s Global Policy Initiative, featured distinguished speakers including Masud Bin Momen, ambassador and permanent representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations; Noel Calhoun of the Office of the Special Adviser for the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants; Andrew Painter of UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees; and Christopher Richter of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.

The panelists shared their institutions’ perspectives on the recent summits and highlighted misinformation surrounding refugee issues.

“Since 9/11, only three refugees resettled in the United States have been arrested on terrorism charges, but 28 percent of Americans believe that 100 were charged,” Doyle said in his opening remarks.

The year 2016 has proven to be the deadliest year to date for migrants in the Mediterranean, and panelists cited several root causes for the tragedy. Bangladesh’s Bin Momen spoke of the failures of states to manage safe and orderly migration, which invites exploitation from traffickers. These issues extend beyond the Mediterranean theatre, he said, to refugee and displaced persons crises around the world.

Panelists called for concrete pledges from states in resettlement and humanitarian aid, and for the international community to account for the development needs of countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Citing the need for a responsibility-sharing mechanism that states can get behind, Ms. Calhoun noted that 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, and there are only eight countries hosting half of the world’s refugees. There was consensus across the symposium that all states must share responsibility, and that scaling up  responsibility-sharing should be a thoughtful process, finding a space between an ideal plan and a realistic one to get governments on board.

Bin Momen, Calhoun, and Richter agreed that there was regrettably little movement on issues of migrant rights, stalled by concerns from states over national sovereignty.

Painter and Richter said there were positive gains from the summits even if there was little progress toward responsibility-sharing. They discussed, for example, the summit’s production of a declaration that strongly affirmed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and upheld the principle of non-refoulement—the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are likely to be persecuted. The unanimous reaffirmation of these protections should not be taken for granted, they said.

“Migration has become one of the most divisive and politically sensitive issues of our time,” said Richter, citing the need to bring the voices of refugees and migrants into the process.

Other ideas emerging from the panel were alternative pathways beyond resettlement, such as opening up labor mobility schemes for refugees.

A second panel addressed those alternatives. Led by Professor Daniel Naujoks, an adjunct at SIPA and the New School and an advisor to several multilateral organizations such as the UNDP and World Bank, the panel featured distinguished guests such as Mais Balkhi of Syria Relief and Development; Sarah Krause of Church World Service; Sayre Nyce of Talent Beyond Boundaries; Charlotte Alfred, managing editor of Refugees Deeply; and Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program.

Naujoks opened the panel by emphasizing the importance of how we frame forced migration issues. Words matter, he said, and the refugee narrative has been increasingly securitized.

With the rise of populism in the United States and Europe, negative narratives of “cultures under attack” and “threats on sovereignty” are exploited. As a result, Krause noted, the states of Kansas, New Jersey, and Texas have all withdrawn from the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Refugees have been painted as security risks, burdens, drains on resources, and competition for resources like jobs.

To this issue, Nyce outlined her organization’s vision for matching the diverse skill sets of asylum seekers to the needs of destination communities through a “talent catalogue.” This allows for a new, economically positive and more welcoming narrative to emerge. Resettling through work visa also gives agency and dignity to refugees and asylum seekers. Arriving  on work visas helps refugees integrate, she said, and reminds them they have valuable skills and talents needed by their host community.

Considering a media perspective, Alfred spoke to the importance of not shying away from complexity, to not define refugees only by the worst thing that happened to them, but to tell the stories that traditional outlets may overlook, including protracted refugee situations beyond the European context.

Frelick also looks deeper, at migrants who may not fit the terms of the 1951 Convention, yet are still under threat and in need of protection and dignity. He noted the lack of an analysis of key drivers of contemporary migration such as climate change at the UN summit, and  hoped to see an expansion of rights for those not included in the 1951 definition.

Balkhi, a refugee herself, spoke to root causes of displacement and how these must be better understood in order to change the narrative.

“There is always an assumption that this is a temporary crisis,” said Balkhi. If we do not address root causes, “it will swallow us whole.”

— Lucia Savchick MIA ’17