Speaking at special summit on the margins of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, United States President Barack Obama urged nations to turn their collective attention to the world’s refugee crisis, calling the task “one of the most urgent tests of our time.”
The crisis is staggering in its size: 65 million people are displaced globally, 21.3 million of which are refugees, according to the UN Human Rights Commission. About half of the refugees are children, and approximately three million are in legal limbo, waiting for asylum decisions.
By convening the High-Level Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, Obama explained that he hoped to increase funding for humanitarian appeals, commit countries to admit more refugees through resettlement programs or alternative legal pathways and increase refugees’ inclusion and self-reliance through greater education and work opportunities.
“This crisis is a test of our common humanity. Whether we give into suspicion and fear and build walls, or whether we see ourselves in another,” Obama said.
Obama also evoked the wall imagery earlier yesterday, when he gave his last major address as President of United States in front of the General Assembly. In his speech, Obama painted a stark divide between those who promote global integration and inclusiveness and those who retreat into isolationism and prioritize ethnic, racial or religious divisions. He urged Member States to embrace inclusiveness.
“Today, a nation ringed by walls will only imprison itself,” Obama said. Although the president did not name him, his comments called to mind Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has been vocal in his anti-immigrant sentiment, pledging, among other policies, to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America.
Some human rights groups criticized world leaders for their failure at properly addressing the problem.
“Faced with the worst refugee crisis in 70 years, world leaders have shown a shocking disregard for the human rights of people who have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict or persecution,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “We already know the UN summit is doomed to abject failure, while the Obama summit looks unlikely to pick up the pieces.”
Obama, too, chided the “many nations, particularly those blessed with wealth and geography” for not doing more to aid refugees. At the Summit, he called the humanitarian crisis in Syria “unacceptable.” According to UN figures, there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees, and 11 million people displaced within the country.
The US has been slow to accept Syrian asylum seekers. This year, the US has admitted 11,503 Syrian refugees. However, earlier this month Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers the administration is aiming to accept 110,000 international refugees in 2017. Kerry failed to specify how many would be Syrian.
In comparison, Canada has offered asylum to over 48,000 Syrians. Last year, countries in the European Union offered asylum to 292,540 refugees, with Germany approving the most asylum claims at 14,910.
Obama also sidestepped criticisms of his policies in dealing with asylum seekers coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, called Central America’s “Northern Triangle”.
“Mexico,” Obama said, “is absorbing a great number of refugees from Central America.”
Starting in 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, many under the age of 12, surged across the US-Mexico border fleeing gang violence. The US sought to staunch the flow of migrants through aggressive deportation strategies; only recently has this started to shift. In July, the Obama administration announced its decision to expand its in-country refugee processing for families coming from the Northern Triangle.
This year, 54,000 children have crossed the US-Mexico border seeking refuge.
Obama has also deported more people from America than any other US president. According to a Pew Research Study, from 2009 to 2014, 2.4 million people were deported from the US. If 2015 and 2016 keep pace with previous years, by the time Obama leaves office approximately 3.2 million people will have been deported.
Some progressive reforms have been blocked. Obama’s decision to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and implement Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents initiative (DAPA)—which would have shielded millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation—was met with a lawsuit brought about by 26 states. A federal court ruled in favor of the states and the Supreme Court upheld the decision in June.
“We cannot avert our eyes or turn our backs. To slam the door in the face of these families would betray our deepest values. It would deny our own heritage as nations, including the United States of America, that have been built by immigrants and refugees,” Obama said. “I believe refugees can make us stronger.”
Globally, nations have so far pledged to accept 360,000 refugees this year, double the amount as last year, and more than 50 private American businesses have pledged $650 million in financial aid.
Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Sweden and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon co-hosted the event, releasing a statement calling the crisis “truly global in nature” while supporting new contributions to the cause.
“We sought a $3 billion increase in global humanitarian financing and commitments to maintain funding in future years. Through our mutual efforts, over the course of 2016, the 32 donors participating today have contributed this year roughly 4.5 billion additional dollars to UN appeals and international humanitarian organizations than in 2015,” they said.