Op-Ed

On 70th anniversary, UN must focus on migrant, refugee crisis

Four Afghan men hardly able to stand up arrive by small dinghy and find an approaching army as they accidentally landed on a Greek army base.
Four Afghan men hardly able to stand up arrive by small dinghy and find an approaching army as they accidentally landed on a Greek army base. The Washington Post

On June 26, 1945, as the Second World War was winding down, officials from 50 countries met in San Francisco to sign the Charter of the United Nations. The document rested upon the principles of “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” All lives matter.

The U.N. charter grew out of the recognition that the world’s governments must confront international problems early. Now, on the charter’s 70th anniversary, the world faces unprecedented challenges, including environmental degradation and public-health concerns. But the challenge that most tests our commitment to the charter’s principles is the mushrooming number of refugees and migrants worldwide.

Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of forcibly displaced humans would top 60 million this year, a new record. This figure includes only those fleeing war, violence and persecution. It leaves out the millions more classified as migrants, seeking to escape poverty or discrimination or simply to find better lives for themselves and their families – an estimated 231.5 million in 2013 alone, one-third of those migrating within the global South.

Two contradictory developments have contributed to this rising tide of human movement. Countries have increasingly entered into bilateral or multilateral trade agreements that liberalize the movement of goods, services and capital across international borders, but do not allow the same freedom of movement to people. As a recent U.N. study noted, compared with various “Aid for Trade” programs used to promote trade liberalization, there is no coordinated, comprehensive policy for integrating migration into development programs.

While economists and policymakers can argue all day (and recently have) about whether these trade agreements create a rising tide that lifts all boats or one that just lifts the tankers and swamps the skiffs, what is clear is they don’t stem the flow of human migration. Immigration from Mexico to the United States spiked in the years following the North American Free Trade Agreement, declining only as economic contraction in the United States meant fewer opportunities for prospective migrants.

Simultaneously, nations have erected more barriers to keep people out. As the political scientist Elisabeth Vallet notes, the number of border walls has tripled since the end of the Cold War. Hungary recently announced plans to build a 13-foot-high fence along its border with Serbia. U.S. policymakers remain fixated on fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border. These barriers – and those between Zimbabwe and Botswana, Bangladesh and India, Bulgaria and Turkey – feed the appetite for the appearance of greater security, but countless studies, including by the Congressional Research Service, question their efficacy for either deterring migration or improving security.

In short, the international movement of people has reached a crisis point, and the conventional tools used to address this crisis seem only to foster greater desperation, leading people to take more dangerous and more costly routes.

The U.N. remains the only institution able to coordinate a systematic response to the current emergency, yet it is hardly nimble. With the addition of South Sudan in 2011, the U.N. has grown to nearly four times the size of its founding membership. Every policy travels through a vast bureaucracy and is subject to political grandstanding that makes the U.S. Congress seem statesmanlike. Also, recent reports that U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti traded food and medicine for sexual favors serve as a stark reminder that the U.N. is only as high-minded as those who populate it.

Ongoing tragedies – on the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere – remind us that current international policies and practices have become untenable. We must stop seeing refugees and migrants as a problem to be warehoused in shelters or sent back where they came from. Instead, we need to live up the commitment of the U.N. Charter: All lives matter.

With the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, which did not address issues of migrants and refugees, the U.N. will convene a conference in September to determine new priorities. These goals should concentrate on guaranteeing migrants and refugees the human and economic rights that all people deserve. New migration and refugee policies should rest upon a system that facilitates the movement of people – just as it aids the movement of goods and capital – to seek the best opportunities.

Jocelyn Olcott is an associate professor of history and international and comparative studies at Duke University.

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