The United Nations Summit on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, planned for today in New York, is an opportunity for the global community to address a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented breadth. More than 65 million displaced persons—the most since World War II—and over 21 million refugees are in need of support and protection.

As the world’s nations discuss this crisis and how to respond, many developed states will be implementing enforcement arrangements which seek to stem movements of refugees and migrants, without sufficient protections, safeguards or process.  These tactics, which feature the extension and closure of borders, the use of detention, and interdiction and return, are being deployed in all parts of the world. 


They are marked by open (and not so open) agreements among nations to return asylum-seekers back to their countries of origin or to other countries, often without assessing if they fear violence, torture or persecution.  And they are paid or bartered for by the nation or nations attempting to keep asylum-seekers from reaching their territory.

In Asia, Australia has partnered with other nations to keep refugees from their shores, particularly Rohingya refugees from Burma and Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees from the Middle East.  Australia has interdicted vessels coming from Indonesia and forced them to return or sent asylum-seekers to substandard offshore detention centers or camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where many languish indefinitely.

In Europe, the European Union struck a deal in March to send back Syrian refugees to Turkey, with Greece and other countries closing their borders. It did the trick, at least for a while, as refugee arrivals to Greece dropped significantly. As a result, desperate Syrians and other refugees have been forced to take more dangerous journeys to Europe, with deadly results: the number of deaths in the Mediterranean in 2016 will far exceed the numbers in 2015.

In the Americas, thousands of unaccompanied children and families have fled the northern triangle of Central America seeking refuge in such places as Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua to the south, and the United States and Mexico to the north. Since 2014, the United States has pursued a deterrence policy against these refugees and migrants, marked by U.S.-backed interdiction and return by the Mexican government, the arbitrary detention of families who reach the U.S. border, and U.S. enforcement actions against families and children.

The political declaration to be adopted, formally known as the New York declaration for refugees and migrants, in paragraph 2.3 affirms the right of nations to continue these enforcement arrangements: “We will strengthen border management cooperation, including in relation to training and best practices. We will intensify support in this area and help build capacity, as appropriate.”

In other words, nations essentially have agreed that these arrangements are valid and should be intensified. While these joint efforts must conform to international law, the evidence shows that protection concerns usually take a backseat to enforcement under these arrangements.

Nations must make stronger commitments to asylum screening and refugee resettlement for large movements of refugees and migrants, not less.  

In fact, greater responsibility sharing is what the New York declaration was initially conceived to attain. While there are many nations and leaders committed to sharing the responsibility of refugee protection, the agreement fails to require any binding or concrete commitments on its signatories.

Of course, such commitments would require further financial outlays and real political will, factors which are often lacking in refugee protection but usually not a problem when it involves enforcement and deterrence. If enforcement is externalized, protection should be externalized, as well.

And, as well, political leaders worldwide should stop fanning the flames of xenophobia by painting all refugees and migrants as security threats, accusations that give these arrangements their false justification. The vast majority are fleeing terror, not spreading it, and pose no threat to their new communities.  

The U.N. Summit and its New York declaration should help shift, at least for a brief moment, the world’s focus from the deterrence of refugee flows to their protection. The moment would be wasted if nations, especially the wealthiest, go home and conduct business as usual. In the end, the truth will lie in what is done, not in what is said or written. Although this reality likely will not be discussed at the summit, it will be present, as the proverbial elephant in the room.

The writer is the Senior Director for International Migration Policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York and the Scalabrini International Migration Network.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.