[Episcopal News Service] World leaders came together at the United Nations Sept. 19 to adopt the New York Declaration, a document that commits countries around the world to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and to share the responsibility for the record number of people on the move.
“Today’s summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, following the declaration’s adoption.
Countries’ adoption of the declaration will mean, he said, that “more children can attend school, more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home.”
The U.N. General Assembly summit was the first-ever meeting of heads of state and government to address the large movements of refugees and migrants, aimed at unifying countries behind a more humane and coordinated approach.
All 193 U.N. member states reached consensus on the declaration to develop by 2018 a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration; ensure a more equitable sharing of responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees; to commit to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants regardless of their status; and to commit to launching a global campaign to counter xenophobia.
The real work, however, begins when countries follow through and implement the terms of the declaration.
“The U.N. has invited civil society into this process and as a faith-based organization, we must continue to engage with the global community to ensure the standards included in the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants are actually upheld,” said Lacy Broemel, the Episcopal Church’s refugee and immigration policy analyst, following the declaration’s adoption. Broemel attended the summit as an observer on behalf of Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
“Refugees and migrants are experiencing human rights abuses, being forced from their homes, and are facing xenophobic and racist attacks around the world. We cannot ignore people who need and deserve our attention,” she said. “The Episcopal Church must use the New York Declaration to engage in advocacy with our local governments, with other Episcopalians, and with refugees and migrants themselves.”
The Episcopal Church has joined with a network of nongovernmental organizations calling on member states to implement the declaration.
Of the 21.3 million refugees in the world today, 1 percent might be resettled. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1.19 million refugees will need to be resettled in 2017.
On Tuesday, Sept. 20, President Barack Obama will co-host a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, alongside Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden. The leaders’ summit will appeal to governments to pledge increased commitments to resettle refugees.
The observer delegation representing Curry attended the Sept. 19 summit, advocating the following points:
• Encourage campaigns and strategies to counter xenophobia and discrimination that prioritize building relationships between refugees and migrants and host communities.
• Support resettlement as a critical component of responsibility-sharing and urge member states to increase size of existing resettlement programs or establish resettlement programs if they do not have one. Affirm target to resettle at least 10 percent of the global refugee population annually.
• Support the right to asylum and due process for all people.
• Affirm a whole of society approach that includes civil society and faith-based organizations.
• Affirm the principle of “Leave No One Behind” and preferential treatment for the most vulnerable.
Episcopal Migration Ministries is one of nine agencies – more than half of them faith-based – that work in partnership with the State Department to welcome and resettle refugees; this year 85,000 refugees, or new Americans, are expected to arrive in the United States. In 2017, the number is expected to reach 110,000 refugees, a 57 percent increase in arrivals since 2015.
“Faith communities participate in resettlement because they recognize that, ultimately, the stories that have given life to their faith are stories of their very identity, said Allison Duvall, Episcopal Migration Ministries manager for church relations and engagement, who was also a part of the delegation. “We are all always characters in the stories of our faith, and the stories demand that we make moral choices.
“Confronted with the Holy Family fleeing King Herod, are we bystanders, are we culpable and complicit? Or do we welcome? Faith communities that take scripture seriously know that the truth of scripture is not only true in the past. It’s true now. And it demands that we make the moral choice about which role we play.”
In early August, Episcopal Migration Ministries joined other nongovernmental organizations that work on refugee, migration and human rights issues, in releasing a statement urging leaders gathering for the summit to affirm a few basic principles to ensure that: every refugee can access asylum from persecution; every refugee will be given the opportunity for a durable solution to his or her plight, to be and feel safe, welcome, and at home, without having to wait years for that solution; and, every refugee, displaced person, and migrant is entitled to the same human rights as everyone else.
Worldwide, war and persecution have forced a total of 65.3 million people from their homes, four times more than a decade ago and the largest number of people displaced since World War II.
Ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, East Africa and elsewhere have led to an increased number of migrants seeking asylum in Europe, Canada and the United States. The majority of refugees live in refugee camps and cities in the Middle East and Africa.
“The news reports often highlight the movement of refugees into Europe and North America, which obscures the fact that 86 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries. In fact, just eight countries host half of the world’s refugees. “And this isn’t fair,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a U.N. special advisor to the secretary general, during a Sept. 14 event at the Episcopal Church Center sponsored by Episcopal Migration Ministries.
On average, half of all refugees spend a quarter century in a refugee camp before resettlement; UNHCR is responsible for 16.1 million refugees, the majority of them are living in Africa and the Middle East. (The other 5.1 million are Palestinian refugees registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency).
The summit comes not only at a time of record numbers of refugees, but also at a time of increased discrimination and violence against immigrants and migrants. The refugee crisis has fueled nationalist movements across Europe, where fear of terrorism and xenophobia have gripped societies and have led governments to take restrictive measures. The same is true, in part, of the United States where states have introduced legislation either to ban refugees from their states or to weaken the U.S. government’s resettlement program.
“In the U.S., the Episcopal Church has long been committed to the work of advocacy. The New York Declaration provides us with another tool to urge our elected officials to develop humane and compassionate migration and refugee policies. Our work continues because we are committed to making our world more like the one God envisions for us,” said Broemel.
— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.