The brunt of the world’s refugee crisis is being borne by countries least able to cope, while the richest refuse to do their fair share. This is according to a new Amnesty International report, which shows that only nine G20 countries have refugee resettlement programs, despite a call from G20 leaders for “burden-sharing” to address the crisis.
Apart from Germany and Canada, both of whom receive honorable mentions for stepping up to their responsibilities, the report lambasts the rest of the G20 for “saying one thing in public and another behind closed doors” and singles out the EU, Russia, and China as “actively blocking global plans to share responsibility for the world’s refugees… prioritizing their narrow national interests and rejecting concrete measures (to resolve the problem)”. Meanwhile, just ten countries in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia are hosting 56% of the world’s 21 million refugees. The populations of Lebanon and Jordan have swelled by 1.5 million and 2.7 million respectively due to an influx of people fleeing the war in Syria, while Turkey has taken in 2.5 million. By contrast, Britain has accepted a paltry 8,000 Syrian refugees since fighting broke out in 2011.
And while the savageries of the Syrian civil war, the frequent terrorist attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria and IS in Iraq play out on our TV screens daily, there are many other sources of human migration that receive much less media coverage. Take Eritrea for instance, once described by the Wall Street Journal as one of the world’s fastest emptying nations. The country has seen half a million of its citizens flee the country at a an estimated rate of 5,000 people per month, putting it on a par with Iraq despite having a fifth of the population. Perhaps the reason Eritrea makes so few headlines yet accounts for so many of the refugees we see packed on board the makeshift dinghies crossing the Mediterranean is because they are not seeking asylum from terrorism or civil war but from the depredations of their own government.
Since achieving independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a three-decade-long civil war, Eritrea has been governed by the same guerrilla-army-turned-sole-political-party who rule over the impoverished East African state with a mixture of torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances. Religious minorities face brutal repression from a police force that operates as little more than stick-wielding thugs. Among Eritrean refugees the most oft-cited reason for leaving is the mandatory conscription in the national military service program, which masquerades as a project to foster national unity but in is in effect used as a source of source of cheap labor for the government. Recruits are paid subsistence wages ($30 a month) for an official period of 18 months and are put to work on infrastructure projects such as road building and are prevented from going to university or finding a formal job before finishing the program. In truth, some end up serving for more than six years, and flee abroad to escape the scheme, which includes forced labor, sexual favors and torture.
A crisis of this global magnitude shouldn’t be left either to individual governments – too weak to solve problems half a world away – or to the UN – with its perpetually gridlocked UNSC – but should be taken up by the G20. The recent Hangzhou summit was heavy on words but lackluster on actions. While world leaders did agree that greater “burden sharing” is essential, no concrete polices were proposed. When the G20 countries will finally decide to take the refugee crisis seriously, they will have to look for solutions that go beyond short to medium-term asylum for those who are fleeing war, but likely to return home once peace returns. It will also have to account for the likes of Eritreans for whom long-term integration systems will have to devised. This is especially true given the backlash in parts of the West against the influx of refugees, specifically in Eastern and Central Europe.
Luckily, civil society activists have already put several ideas forward. One came from the recent Rhodes Forum in Greece, organized by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, a German organization, which called on the G20 to establish a refugee fund to restore the cities and countries that have lost everything to war and terrorism. Creating such a special fund, fueled by a small proportion of the GDP of G20 members would serve be a sort of Marshall Fund for the MENA region and areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (such as Nigeria, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Somalia etc).
Otherwise, for those who want to get around the xenophobic policies of their government, the G20 could spearhead the adoption of a system allowing for the private sponsorship of refugees. This is already in operation in Canada and it allows private citizens, or community groups, to house and support refugees in their first year of arrival – meeting them at the airport, assisting them as they acclimatize to their new surroundings and helping them to secure housing and employment. This program has been taken up with enthusiasm by tens of thousands of charitable Canadians, and in the US, a scheme based on that model is due to be piloted next year.
Whatever its chosen course of action, the G20 needs to act – promptly, concertedly, and in good faith – words that could not be used to describe their actions to date.