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Report Stresses Importance of US Leadership in Addressing Forced Displacement Crisis

April 25, 202432:19

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we highlight the Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative (RAFDI) Working Group Report, “US Leadership Matters in Addressing Forced Displacement Crisis,” with co-authors, John Thon Majok, James Hollifield, and Susan F Martin. The report “seeks to provide guidance and actionable recommendations for the US government and other actors on ways to protect, assist, and find sustainable solutions for refugees and other displaced people.” The report identifies six major policy and programming issues that require effective US leadership, consistent global response, and multilateral collaboration.


  • This is an unedited transcript

    Hello, and welcome to Wilson Center. Now a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I'm John Milewski. Today, we're going to be focusing on a brand new report from the Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative at the Wilson Center.

    It's titled U.S. Leadership Matters in Addressing Forced Displacement Crisis. And we have a fantastic panel to sort through the report with. They are the three coauthors. Joining us is John Thon Majok, who is director of the Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative. Also the two co-chairs of the initiative's working group and coauthors of the report, Susan Martin, the Herzberg professor emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, and James Hollifield

    The Ora Nixon Arnold, Professor of International Political Economy and Director of the Tower Center at Southern Methodist University. Thrilled to see all three of you. Congratulations on the report and thanks for joining us. So, Jonathan, if we could begin with you and just give us the background on the report, how it came about and what it sought to describe.

    The early Working Group report is a culmination of the working group team meeting over several months, designing topics of focus. Because for the displacement is almost cross-cutting everywhere. And so the report narrows down key areas that the that that the radi and and the practitioners policymakers should focus on. And the report starts with the executive summary, obviously. Then it goes down to a historical overview and then the six areas before we then bring down to the actionable recommendations.

    So the message, the key message of the report is that leadership, murders, forced displacement, is a persistent global time, and it requires global cooperation and consistent leadership to address it. The six areas include prevention and protection of forced displacement, protection of displaced people and the root causes addressing the root causes that for them to flee and then finding sustainable solutions to protected situations.

    And then in for refugees and have them participate in decisions that affect them. Then the fourth, the first one is global cooperation to address all of this. And then finally talking about the global Compact and the limitations that are there. And so that's the key. The areas are the key take away from the report. But the key message is you as a leadership, modest others leadership matters in this issue.

    Okay. Thank you. And we'll dig in to those six points that you just described as we proceed in the discussion. But I just realized perhaps an oversight. And Jim, if I could ask you perhaps to provide us with an overview of the problem. I know the three of you are so immersed in this and and in talking to you, maybe I was taking it for granted, too.

    But for the benefit of our viewers and listeners, one of the pieces of data in the report is that the problem has tripled since 1997. The number of people who qualify for these categories of refugee or displaced individual, which is a stunning number. Could you give us a sense of how the what the arc of the challenge is?

    Sure. I'm happy to do that. And we'll get Susan Martin to weigh in as well. But you're right, the numbers have been going up very consistently for the past 30 years or so. We're up to about 110, almost 110 million people now of concern to UNHCR. These are people who are in a situation where their life very often depends on getting help from the international community and individual states.

    And one category of people in particular that has really exploded are internally displaced people. So there are actually a lot of people, I think, Suzanne, the numbers about 65 million or something like that now. So over half of these people have actually been displaced inside the borders of the country where they live. So that is due to often to conflict war.

    But also, we know that climate change is playing a role in forcing people to move from one place to another. And then, of course, you have the refugees themselves. These are people who have been recognized legally as refugees. So I think they're in the 25 million category somewhere about that level. And then you've got asylum seekers as well.

    And other people of concern. So so this is a major humanitarian emergency really for for the world. And without clear leadership from the U.S. and other powerful countries, you know, the crisis will get even worse. Susan, I want to follow up on the last thing Jim said about the urgency and if you could give us some sense of how urgent the crisis is.

    When you read the report, a word that shows up more than once is unsustainable. Talking about current efforts, current resources, the current scenario. Yeah, well, we have that combination that Jim talked about of rising numbers of people who were displaced internally, but also the numbers who were crossing borders at the same time that government seemed to be increasingly unable to do anything to ensure that these individuals who need protection are protected, but that the systems for doing protection sorts certainly are asylum system is functioning effectively and is not being abused by people who don't have a need for protection.

    And so it's that combination that the numbers are going up, but the capacity of governments to respond to it and the capacity, frankly, of the international organizations that work with refugees and displaced persons is in keeping pace with the need. Do you have a thought on on why that's the case, why it's not keeping pace? Is it fatigue because of all the crises that the world has been dealing with of late?

    Is it sort of applying old thinking to a new problem? Why? Why are we failing to keep pace? Well, I think it's a little bit of each of the things that you mentioned. I think they're certainly contributors to the chaos that we're seeing. But the other thing that's happened is that we've seldom had situations since they have had occurred before in which we've got very large numbers of people who were in protracted situations, unable to return home or find another place that will give them citizenship or even work authorization, things of that sort.

    And so that's on the one hand, those populations keep growing and growing and growing. But the second part is that we have, you know, pretty much an unusual confluence of crisis. Do crises that are creating very, very large bubbles to displace. SMET Whether it's Ukraine or Afghanistan or or Gaza. Right now, Venezuela, we've got these situations in which we have millions of people who were internally displaced and a smaller number of but extremely significant number of refugees who have crossed an international border but who don't really fit the framework that was set out in in 1951 to in the International Refugee Convention was designed to deal with this problem.

    But the problem has just expanded not only in numbers but complexity. And adding one more element to this. We have behind us this multiple set of reasons that people are moving that range from the traditional persecution and conflict to the effects of climate change and to the inability to the failure of governments to be able to serve their own population.

    I want to tell our viewers and listeners that in addition to our discussion today, you should read the entire report. It's a fantastic piece of work and it's available that Wilson Center dot org. If you look at the top of the screen you'll see a programs tab. And if you follow that to the Refugee and Forced Displacement initiative, which we we affectionately refer to as Rafiki in House RFD, you'll be able to find the entire report.

    So what I'd like to do now, and maybe the three of you could help me play traffic cop here on this is I want to go through the six areas, the six issue areas and policy areas that you identify in the report and maybe have each of you give us a quick overview. And since we don't want to have, you know, redundancy, maybe you can help me decide who's best to talk about each area and how you maybe split up the work when you're authoring the piece.

    Beginning with the first one, Prevention and Preparedness. John thought, I'm going to lean on you to be our our editor for this and direct me to who would be the best person to address that area. I would have Susan address that. Great. Thank you. Yeah. Okay. Prevention is the elephant in the in the room, because we do see these as humanitarian emergencies.

    And there's been a tendency to refrain from trying to address the causes of the displacement rather than the effects of it. So we tend to work after the fact on it. But what we're recommending is that we do much more forward thinking and understand the security, the economic, the demographic, the environmental reasons that people are on the move and figure out ways to help them stay at home.

    If that's possible, move in a safe and orderly way, if that's not and get the protection of the states in which they're living. And if that's not forthcoming to have the international community come in. So we need much more in the way of early warning, in emergency response preparation, and then at the ability for the humanitarian sector to work with the security sector to deal with the underlying reasons people are in the situation.

    Jim or Jonathan, anything you want to add before we move to the next topic area? I think that, you know, I think preparing for it is a reality now that forced displacement, displacement is not going away anytime soon. And so prevention of the root causes, but also preparing for the consequences of forced displacement is imperative. And it's something that is not going to be a sidebar.

    It has to be a factor in our programing and policy. And the next area? Protection of displaced people.

    Okay. Protection is an area where we're basically saying this report that the U.S. has to lead by example and that gets to our own asylum and refugee policy.

    And so we have gone through to really think think about what it is that has led the U.S., that has to have a very constructive participation worldwide in and leadership in addressing these complex flows of people. And we find that when what we get, we get good protection, when we have political leadership that wants to protect people, but at the same time is realistic enough to understand that if there are abuses in the system, we have to address that and make sure that people who don't have bona fide claims to refugee status or some form, other form of protection aren't able to game the system.

    Right now they are able to game the system because there are backlogs that are years in the making before people who apply for asylum actually have their interview and are able to present their case. So some of our recommendations are ways that the U.S. can take leadership by reforming its own system in which we make decisions on protection, and that can be a model for other countries, and it's one that has to have this balance.

    We want to protect people who need to be protected, but we want to do it in an efficient way so that they won't. People who don't need protection aren't clogging up the system and making it sustainable. And we've done it in the past. In the 1990s we had such reforms and they were quite successful for a long period of time.

    But over time, of course, people start to forget why it is certain policies were put in place and now we're back into having millions of people in a waiting list that we won't easily get through. You know, back to that word, unsustainable. That exactly times. Jim, did you want to add anything? Yes. I want to just drill down for your viewers out there on the importance of U.S. leadership, because of all of these things that we're looking at.

    You can imagine how complex these are, politically speaking and how costly they are. But it's really the U.S., you know, as a as a leading world power that has the resources and the ability to address, you know, these issues of displacement and also protracted refugees. So in this field, we often talk about the need for burden sharing. That's a term of art.

    It has been changed more recently to talk about responsibility sharing. So we have to in the U.S., I think everyone out there can understand that if you've got a problem like this that affects all the different regions of the globe, it you've got to have leadership because you can't get others organized and focused on this unless you have a leader or leaders that are willing to underwrite the costs of this.

    And this is fundamentally we can come back to this. This is fundamentally in the national security interests of the United States to do this, because if we don't address these issues, then you've got bigger problems of regional instability in the Middle East, even in this hemisphere, South Asia. And you've also then got a bigger problem of international stability, you know, potentially more conflict, more war, not to mention more human suffering.

    The complexity of what we're talking about is daunting. Yes. And the next topic, area solutions for protracted refugees. It may be one of the most complex because when the event happens, when people are on the move and when they end up in camps and what is hoped to be a temporary situation, sometimes they're never going home. Right. And so, yeah, who can speak to this area initially?

    And then, of course, everyone else have a chance to join in. I would start on that. So in 2023, by the end of the 2022, there were more than 23 million refugees in 57 protracted situation across 37 countries. That is a I would describe as a crisis within a catastrophe. People that have been subjected to lived in limbo for years.

    A generation of children have been born in those countries, in the host countries, with no solution. And so what is needed in framing the reframing the so called durable solutions that they are not working effectively. We need to go beyond the concept of return resettlement and integration. The thing are ways to address this human waste in camps or urban settlements in the thinking is we still think of the 20th century where it was assumed that the displacement would be temporary and people would go home tomorrow.

    That is no longer the case. And so we need to reframe and our funding also need to reflect that new thinking, new reality of the 21st century, that more and more people are staying longer and longer in those countries, a responsibility sharing and meaning that those countries mostly in the global so that are hosting the large numbers of refugees for decades with few resources need to be provided with resources by countries in other part of the world.

    Because this, again, is an issue that requires collective efforts and more leadership to do to address these issues. Jim or Susan, you want to add anything to this before we move to the next topic area? Still to it, the refugee resettlement in the U.S. and other wealthier countries is one of the solutions that we look for. And part of the problem is that our levels of resettlement have been quite low over the last five, six years.

    And there's a bit more than that. And they're now rebounding. Looks as if we'll have, you know, probably more than a hundred thousand refugees resettled this year into the U.S. and but that we still need to be spending a lot of time rebuilding our resettlement program and one of the bright spots is that the U.S. has opened a private sponsorship system that is very similar to what the Canadian government has had for many years.

    And that means that, you know, people within our communities that have ties to refugees worldwide have an ability now to sponsor them and bring them into the country. And that should be able to really help a lot. And again, will be a model for other countries to follow. Yeah. John, I would just add a couple of things to this.

    One is before the crisis in Europe and Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of 86% of people of concern were located in the southern hemisphere. So in very unstable regions of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia. So this is a problem that is very difficult in regions of the world where states often don't have the ability, the capacity to to deal with, you know, large numbers of forced migrants.

    The other thing I wanted to add to this is what Jonathan said earlier, what what a waste of human capital, you know, and people's lives, you know, to be trapped for many years, sometimes ten years, 15, 20 years or more, you know, in a camp where you're unable to leave. And of course, this it's bad for the families.

    It's especially bad for young people. And often these these camps can be a breeding ground for desperation. And and violence. So not dealing with it makes the situation far, far worse. You know, we often think of refugees as people who something has happened to. And then we talk about them as what we can do about them for them.

    But this next area, refugee participation, speaks to a much more holistic you man approach. And Jonathan, you're not just the theoretician here. You yourself have been a refugee. Speak to us about this whole idea of refugee participation. And I think many people participate as refugees is one of the encouraging trends as we speak. There has been a recognition it has been made since the 1980s or so, but now there is a practical practicality to it.

    In 2019, the Global Refugee Forum had to participate, you know, 75 refugees and in the recent one, the 2023, there were more than 300 refugees participating in the global revenue Forum. And so what I would like to put across here is refugee participation does not mean they are going to be just a storytellers. They need to be part of the agenda, the agenda setting the the decision making because they provide context through their live experience.

    And I think that's part of shifting the mindset that we need to bring a new thinking to these issues in order to address the solution. And we talked about them without including them, then we are we are being passive in what we are doing. And so I think the content they provide. But the leadership has been recognized and should continue to be sustained and increased because we are thinking of new ways of addressing issues and the mindset that needed shape also that they are not just passive victims.

    They are human with agency. The only difference is that they have crossed the border in the in the refugee itself to other countries because their own government is not protecting them. That is the only difference. And once they lose countries, we need to make sure that they are also fellow human being and they contribute to global tragedy if given the opportunity to apply safety and security.

    The next two areas. All three of you in one way or another, more than once have made clear that you feel U.S. leadership is imperative. The whole report is framed in that manner. So I want to roll these next two together. International cooperation and Implementation of global Compacts. You talked to us about this. You know, it's easy for individuals and nations to sometimes talk the talk, but then when it comes to implementation and walking the walk, that's where we often find ourselves coming up short.

    Talk to us about some of the things that are possible and some of the recommendations that you're making in the report in these two areas. Susan, let's begin with you will go reverse order. I think the the importance of international cooperation is beyond what one can can even talk about, because this is fundamentally an issue in which you have people crossing borders if they're refugees and or displaced in into other countries.

    But also there are people who are living in their own countries but are not being protected by their own government. So this is a major challenge for the international community and has been for forever. You know, going back to the Greek and Roman period, we saw the same sort of problems of governments, not really able to deal with these movements individually, but being fearful of collaborating.

    So I think one of the reasons that there has been such a push for a global compact on refugees has been that there is nothing in the legal framework governing the refugee system worldwide that requires cooperation among states. It's implicit, but it's never spelled out in a way that is binding. And many of the governments who host refugees are not signatories to any of the international conventions on refugees who are displaced persons.

    And so what we have is a situation where we can't solve any of these problems without international cooperation. But states are still too concerned about their own sovereignty to willingly make take steps to be able to cooperate with others. Now, things are changing, but they're changing at us of a snail's pace. It's certainly better than it was when I started working on refugee issues in the late 1970s and where there was no real collaboration.

    But any time we've had collaboration, it has been because of U.S. leadership. And sadly, every time the U.S. ceases to be a leader, we've had tragedy. And this thinking is the period in the 1930s where the U.S. called on states to do something about the refugees from Nazi Germany but started that meeting that was called by saying, but we don't expect anybody to change their immigration policies and we won't either.

    Hitler took that as a green light for the heart, but became the Holocaust. And that's documented. So, you know, when the U.S. fails in its leadership, the world fails in its ability to deal in a humane but strong way with the refugee problem. Jim HAVERFIELD Yes, I would just drive home the point again of this report and what Susan just said, that U.S. leadership is key.

    Yes, we failed miserably in the 1920s and especially the thirties, too, to step up and and take care of people who were displaced, like the millions of Jews and others who were victims of what happened in the 1940s. But don't forget, the U.S. was a leader in drafting and pushing for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So we were there at the table.

    Then we, of course, were one of the architects of the whole U.N. system. We were very much instrumental in creating the UN High Commission for Refugees. So the U.S. has been there. We have helped to change the world to make it a better place to be a promoter of human rights. You know, this is a key part of our of U.S. power, especially our soft power.

    And if we don't do that, the things that we have done after World War Two, you know, helping to set up this situation where human rights would come to the fore, then then this the displacement of people is going to continue to be a vicious, a very vicious cycle with lots of suffering. We need to get into a position now where we can turn this into a virtuous cycle, you know, where the people who are of concern, people who have been displaced, you know, can can play a positive role.

    As Jonathan said, you know, they can have agency. And of course, many of our aging societies desperately need people. So, you know, there's an economic benefit that comes from this, too, both in terms of human capital and the manpower that these people can bring to to our own society. Jonathan Majok is taking up leadership. You played that critical role by leading by example.

    And one of the areas that led by example is the inclusion of refugees in former conversation. Yes, like the PRM, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration had done recently in key global forums. Other leaders, in terms of countries, are the host countries. They provide leadership in terms of busing refugees. A country like Kenya, for example, where I live for a decade.

    Countries like Chad, which are now hosting the largest displacement crisis, the Sudan displacement, is now topping others. So those countries need to be recognized in the way they lead and the U.S. lead. Others will follow. I think I to end this by that, we are launching a report on April 21st. This report publicly and one of the opening remarks will be provided by Ambassador Mark Green, the president and CEO of the Wilson Center, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population.

    My data for years. The U.S. will also give key opening remarks. So this report is across the board. It focuses on U.S. government, but also on other countries that can take the lead in this area that were identified. And so leadership matters. And it matters because when we preach, when we do what we preach, we change lives. And here it is about changing lives and about improving our global system.

    And the UN system was based on global cooperation. So collective efforts, practical leadership. Well, speaking of leadership, thanks to the three of you for providing such leadership on this most important topic, And again, I can't recommend to our viewers and listeners enough that you should come to the website, see the report. It's chock full of so much more than we even talk about today.

    And also the the launch that Johnson talked about. You can find that on the website as well. And more resources from crafty gentlemen. And Susan, thank you for joining us today. Hey, John. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John MALESKY, thanking you for your time and interest.

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Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative

The Refugee and Forced Displacement Initiative (RAFDI) provides evidence-based analyses that translate research findings into practice and policy impact. Established in 2022 as a response to an ever-increasing number of people forcibly displaced from their homes by protracted conflicts and persecution, RAFDI aims to expand the space for new perspectives, constructive dialogue and sustainable solu­tions to inform policies that will improve the future for the displaced people.  Read more