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U.N. Refugee Summit’s Numbers Do Not Add Up to Reality

As part of our ongoing “This Age of Migration” series, humanitarian expert Paul Currion argues that the humanitarian systems in place, which are based on 20th-century realities, cannot tackle current global migration influxes.

Written by Paul Currion Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Photos and currency that belonged to migrants, most of whom were rescued from the waters while some perished. AP Images

Thousands of words have been spilled in writing about the refugee crisis, and often those stories focus on statistics because they make us feel as if we’re on solid ground. As of 2015, the five countries that host the most refugees were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia; the sixth wealthiest nations host less than 9 percent of the world’s refugees; and so on.

Statistics can be used to tell a story, but they often do not relay the whole story. Beneath them are a whole host of devils contained in a whole host of details. These details are exactly what the Summit for Refugees and Migrants this September is intended to address – but the story the summit seeks to tell doesn’t exactly fit with the realities beneath those statistics.

The draft declaration issued by the states represented at the summit starts with the line, “Since earliest times, humanity has been on the move.” It paints the current situation as a continuation of what has gone before; and then tells a story that says that the system is strained but is still suitable to deal with that situation.

While it’s true that the history of humanity is a history of migration, it’s also true that the type of migration has changed over time. Several historical trends, including industrialization and imperialism, combined to make migration in the 20th century larger in both scale and impact than previous centuries.

To some extent the refugee legislation we produced brought 19th-century assumptions – about the critical role of the nation state in managing populations – to 20th-century circumstances. The danger with the forthcoming summit is that it will bring 20th-century assumptions to 21st-century circumstances, and therefore be doomed to failure.

There’s nothing wrong with the commitments laid out by member states in the declaration, but they don’t match up with the rhetoric now used by those states, which has turned firmly against migration. That rhetoric itself is unrealistic, but it is clearly defining the stories that are being told in the media – which means that the declaration is doubly unrealistic.

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom was an explicit call to close off migration, couched in the language of better management, but without the first idea of what that better management would look like. Similar discussions are starting to happen in other European Union countries, and regardless of whether those countries stay in the E.U., free movement of labor is in doubt for the first time.

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s speeches, freely available online – if one has the stamina – reflect a widely held (albeit delusional) view of migration. In Australia, the One Nation party continues to rise on the back of similar rhetoric, including withdrawing entirely from the refugee convention, while Japan accepted only 27 asylum seekers in 2015.

These are not marginal voices, and they create the space for other countries, including the leading host countries, to take similar steps. Having hosted large numbers of refugees for extended periods with relatively little support, Jordan, Pakistan, Kenya and others are becoming increasingly cautious about their previously generous positions.

The summit declaration calls for a “comprehensive refugee response based on the principle of international cooperation and on burden and responsibility-sharing” – but if the E.U., with its already-existing frameworks for cooperation, can’t muster such a response, it seems unlikely that the rest of the world will be able to do so.

The summit is not just a set of statistics, but a series of stories. Member states will tell stories about their compassion in the face of refugee flows and their commitment to refugee law. Organizations working with refugees will press the case that the boats crossing the Mediterranean are only inflatable dinghies, not Trojan horses.

Selected refugees will try to prop up support for the cause – possibly in the now-ubiquitous virtual reality films. But no matter how many refugees are wheeled out to talk about their experiences, their individual accounts also do not paint the full picture. They are soloists plucked from a chorus of 65 million of the forcibly displaced, picked by those who have the power.

It has been a little over a year since the death of Alan Kurdi, and a year since the picture of that death spread across the media, changing the discourse around the refugee crisis. The picture has lost none of its power, but Alan Kurdi’s voice has been deliberately drowned out by other voices, including those who question his entire story.

To such tone-deaf but influential policymakers and commentators, everything is a lie except their own voices, endlessly reflected back from the echo chambers of the internet. While such voices dominate, the change in discourse will not have a substantial impact on policy and practice.

More people died while crossing the Mediterranean this year than last. More stories have been drowned by the statistics.

In an ideal world we would be able to weave these voices together into a single, cohesive narrative that tells the truth about this Age of Migration. As long as our collective story doesn’t reflect the current reasons and realities of migration, we’ll be unable to build the institutions and policies that can manage it effectively.

Meanwhile migrants will continue to pack their bags and pay their way to what they hope is a better life. In the end, that’s the story that will win – whether we like it or not.

Related stories in “The Road to UNGA” series:

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