UN refugee summit: Time for action, not words

On Monday, the UN General Assembly will bring together member states for the first ever Summit on Refugees and Migrants

Aurelie Ponthieu
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

On Monday, the UN General Assembly will bring together member states for the first ever Summit on Refugees and Migrants. An already-released draft declaration enshrining the outcomes promises a more coordinated, humane and responsive approach to people on the move. However, its lofty aims are contradicted by the practices of many of the states that will participate in New York.

Instead of respecting the rights of individuals and upholding pre-existing obligations, far too many governments are adopting ever-more restrictive approaches that seem designed to further harm already-vulnerable men, women and children, and to keep them as far from sight as possible.


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams see the destructive consequences of this on a daily basis, as we deliver emergency medical care in many of the countries people are fleeing, along the routes they travel, and in countries in which they seek refuge.

Take the stretch of wasteland along the Jordan-Syria border known as “the berm,” where some 75,000 Syrians - 80 percent of them women and children - languish in inhumane conditions just a few kilometers from a war zone.

MSF mobile teams that had been caring for people on the berm in the weeks before the border closed in June treated more than 200 malnourished children and 500 pregnant women, including those with high-risk pregnancies needing close management.

These people are unable to cross a closed border, unable to return home due to the catastrophic war in their country, and unable at present to access basic services to help them survive. What will become of them following the UN Summit on Refugee and Migrants?

How will they fit into this new blueprint?

Elsewhere, our teams see refugees and migrants denied any form of safe passage, moving across perilous routes and sometimes dying in the process. In the Americas, for example, some 300,000 people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala head north every year to escape poverty, rapacious criminal gangs, and violence as fierce as any war zone. They hope to gain asylum in Mexico or move onward to the US.

However, Mexico - with American backing - grants legal protection to less than 1 percent of these people, sending most of them back to danger in their home countries. MSF teams in Mexico report that 68 percent of patients have been assaulted while in transit. A third of the women had been sexually abused. Will ratifying states address this situation?


Globally, many people on the move suffer violence - in many cases, coming atop the violence that caused them to flee home in the first place. Since launching search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, where more than 3,200 people have died in 2016 alone, MSF teams have pulled more than 35,000 people - and increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors - from the sea.

Unless numerous governments plan to radically alter their responses and policies on refugees and migrants, this UN gathering will yield little more than feel-good rhetoric and empty promises

Aurelie Ponthieu

MSF medical teams on board rescue boats continue to treat and witness the consequences of physical and psychological violence inflicted on those travelling through Libya. Patients describe brutal encounters with smugglers, border guards and other predators. They have been detained, beaten with rifles, whipped with hoses, robbed, held for ransom or sexually assaulted.

We estimate that 90 percent of those we have rescued have endured some form of violence. Refugees and migrants also face violence on the Serbian border with Hungary, for instance, where a third of our patients report being assaulted, often by state authorities. Will UN leaders provide these people with better and safer alternatives? Or will they continue erecting new walls and ever-crueller forms of deterrence?

Six months on from the cynical EU-Turkey deal, all signs indicate that deterrence will continue to be the focus of most states as they attempt to manage the global displacement crisis. Signed by all 28 EU member states in order to block asylum-seekers from European shores, the deal is hailed as a success.

This despite the fact that nearly 60,000 men, women and children - most of them fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - are stuck in Greece, on prison islands that they cannot leave, or in isolated and under-resourced camps on the mainland. Faced with uncertain futures, arbitrary detention and inadequate conditions, the physical and mental health of many are deteriorating as the days go slowly by.

In May, citing the EU-Turkey deal, Kenya announced the upcoming closure of the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, where 350,000 Somalis driven from conflict, draught and privation have been living in limbo for years, even decades. A household survey conducted by MSF in Aug. 2016 indicated that despite the dreary living conditions, most people would strongly prefer to remain in Dadaab rather than return to Somalia.

While keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees in limbo in Dadaab entirely dependent on aid is hardly a solution, forcing them back to Somalia is both inhumane and against the principle of non-refoulement. Will the UN summit accept that their only options are to live in an inadequate camp or be sent back to an active conflict zone? Or will it make concrete change?

These are far from the only examples we could cite, and just some of the questions we ask of the world leaders attending the summit. Given this tumultuous state of affairs in which human life and dignity are fast trampled on, we should be encouraged by the language emerging from the summit.

However, unless numerous governments plan to radically alter their responses and policies on refugees and migrants, this UN gathering will yield little more than feel-good rhetoric and empty promises, ensuring only the continued suffering of millions.


Aurelie Ponthieu is the humanitarian advisor on displacement at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending