Merkel’s absence felt at UN talks on refugees


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In New York City, police sirens and cranky horns were at full volume, thanks to traffic log-jams caused by phalanxes of black SUVs conveying diplomats and political leaders to the UN General Assembly where a summit on refugees was convening.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/09/2016 (2193 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In New York City, police sirens and cranky horns were at full volume, thanks to traffic log-jams caused by phalanxes of black SUVs conveying diplomats and political leaders to the UN General Assembly where a summit on refugees was convening.

The street confusion and frustration was not too great a price to pay, given the importance of this UN convocation, an effort to address a set of issues that have become a worldwide cause of deep suffering for the many thousands of refugees and migrants who have been cut adrift from the barest minimum of security and normalcy. As if to highlight the point, word was spreading of the breakdown of the ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria and the savage attack by the Syrian army on a convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid.

Some progress was made. Thirty governments and private groups responded to the need to substantially up the ante on humanitarian support. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged an additional $64 million of humanitarian assistance. In a roundtable I attended, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, made a strong pitch for increased help on education for all the young refugees deprived of opportunities for learning. Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum announced a program jointly with George Soros to help other countries set up the much admired Canadian program of private refugee sponsorship. The UN building was a source of hope that finally there is a beginning effort to work positively and together on the growing global issue of refugees and migration.

RICHARD DREW / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum addresses the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants, at the United Nations earlier in September.

But there is a long way to go before substantial reform or action on filling critical structural gaps will emerge. There is still not a system to share collective responsibility for the growing incidence of displaced people around the world by establishing definitive norms of responsibility for broad sharing of settlement. There also needs to be a system for redirecting development assistance to mitigate environmental and economic disasters that force people to leave. There must be a system of accountability to expose the increasing disregard of many governments to commitments made in signing international treaties to treat refugees as prime victims of human rights transgressions.

The increase in direct assistance was encouraging. Still missing is a clear commitment to reform the system.

One reason there wasn’t a more cutting edge at the UN was the absence from the New York meetings of Germany’s Angela Merkel, a key world leader who, by her brave actions last fall in opening borders to close to a million refugees, displayed a rare political courage.

She was in Berlin, trying to manage a growing political crisis. For the second time this month, voters delivered a stunning setback to chancellor Merkel and her governing party. Once again, the Alternative for Germany party, a right-wing, anti-immigration group, won close to 15 per cent of the votes, pushing the other parties to their lowest level in years. This was an ominous portent a political upset in the German federal elections may be in the making next year, and Merkel’s leadership would be seriously compromised.

Little attention was paid in Germany to the international efforts underway at the UN to change the paradigm, and media coverage there was minimal. Instead, the media were playing to the sense of insecurity by many, heightened by the arrest of three Syrians suspected of terrorism. The tide of xenophobic politics is growing stronger in Germany. This weakens Merkel’s ability to help build a more effective system of handling the large-scale migrations underway around the world. She publicly expressed she would like to roll back the clock a year and do it a different way.

So the vibes from Berlin ran counter to those from New York, and that is a sad reality. A competition is underway, centred on the refugee issue, between those who believe collective international action to provide human security is possible and the right way forward, countered by those who play the politics of fear and want us to retreat behind national borders, even as the forces of globalization sweep across them.

Remember the old saying that for want of a horse the kingdom was lost. Well, in our contemporary scene, it is for lack of a compelling idea that can give a new narrative to people who are insecure and fearful in the global arena that the competition may be lost. That is what the leaders of good will who gathered in New York last week must now start to work on.


Lloyd Axworthy is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and is currently chairman of the CUSO board as well as fundraising to raise funds for inner-city kids at the University of Winnipeg Rec-Plex.

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