Refugee crisis: States must rise to the challenge
The United Nations General Assembly hosts a high-level meeting in New York on Monday 19th September to address large movements of refugees and migrants. According to the UNHCR, more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution or armed violence. Camille Gosselin, Handicap International’s humanitarian advocacy manager, explains the issues at stake in the meeting.
© J. Bobin / Handicap International
How important is this meeting of the United Nations General Assembly?
Camille Gosselin: This is the first time the United Nations has held a high-level meeting - that is, a meeting attended by heads of state, prime ministers, etc. - addressing this crucial subject: the movement of refugees and migrants on a scale unprecedented over the last 70 years. States need to make arrangements to receive them and to ensure they benefit from the humanitarian assistance they are entitled to.
How do you become a refugee?
CG: You become a refugee if you flee war, armed violence, persecution, etc. In Syria, for example, bombing mainly kills and injures civilians, and destroys towns and villages. It has made any kind of social or economic life impossible. People flee to save their lives and those of their families. If they are displaced inside Syria, they become what is known in humanitarian jargon as “internally displaced people”, or they cross the border and become “refugees”. Handicap International provides refugees and internally displaced people with humanitarian aid in more than 20 countries worldwide. We’re very familiar with the problems they face.
What sort of problems do they encounter?
CG: The problems are very varied. You might be unable to travel because a country has closed its borders, for example. You might have problems accessing health services or humanitarian aid. It’s important to remember that humanitarian aid is not a luxury: when you flee a conflict, you have to leave everything behind - your home, your car, all of your belongings. You don’t have any money or a roof over your head. You are often alone and separated from your family. You might be injured or need medical care. In the longer term, another issue arises: the social and economic inclusion of refugees in host countries.
Do refugees have rights?
CG: Yes. The first right of anyone who fears for their life is to be able to flee, including by crossing a border without being turned back. All States are bound by the “non-refoulement” principle. The rights of refugees are guaranteed under international conventions, particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention that guarantees their basic rights, including the right to flee a conflict without hindrance, to be received under good conditions, and to access health services, etc.
What is Handicap International calling for at this meeting?
CG: We are asking governments to apply and respect international law and to provide the material means to assist refugees, including the most vulnerable individuals: people with disabilities, older people, women, children, etc.
At today’s meeting, the States will adopt a political declaration. The New York Declaration will reaffirm the right of refugees, which is good, but we don’t expect to see the emergence of a coordinated international effort to tackle this crisis or a restatement of the need for States to work together, particularly in support of States bordering on crisis zones (like Jordan, Lebanon and Kenya) which receive the most refugees. In addition to this political declaration, we would like to see an action plan with a clear timetable in order to provide practical and operational responses to the refugee crisis.
 Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2015, UNHCR, June 2016: https://s3.amazonaws.com/unhcrsharedmedia/2016/2016-06-20-global-trends/2016-06-14-Global-Trends-2015.pdf