Refugees are the focal point of this week’s United Nations summit


Last year, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was found facedown along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as he and his family fled towards the European Union, away from the Syrian civil war. Photos of his lifeless body jolted a global response, motivating people to question the treatment that refugees undergo. This year, similar outrage was expressed after 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh was pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, photographed bloodied and in shock.

Neither Aylan nor Omran necessarily represent unique stories of Syrian life during a time of civil war. But they do represent grim reminders that the global refugee crisis is something that world leaders cannot ignore.

In fact, about 34,000 people are driven from their homes every day because of conflict and persecution, a statistic that averages about 24 people per minute. There are so many displaced people right now escaping conflict and persecution — 65.3 million globally, to be exact — that the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the resilience and talent of ten extraordinary athletes who made the cut as part of Team Refugees during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil.

Now for the first time ever, the U.N. General Assembly will gather in New York City on Monday for a high-level summit urging government leaders to tackle the global migration crisis. The following day, President Barack Obama will host an additional Leaders’ Summit with select government leaders to ask them to expand their commitments to refugees.

What is the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants?

This is a high-level meeting of 193 Member States of the United Nations who will work together on a global response to the largest migration of displaced people since World War II. During the summit, global leaders will discuss an “outcome document” that was initially drafted in August.


Some of the outcome document’s finer points were already negotiated in August. For example, Eritrea called multiple references to human rights “redundant,” following alleged ties to human rights atrocities. And in a move to the consternation of activists, the United States “suggested a phrase asserting that detention is ‘seldom’ good for children,” the New York Times reported, pertaining to the practice of holding Latin American children in family detention centers after they cross the southern U.S. border. U.S. activists say the practice is actually “never” in the best interest of children.

How is President Obama involved?

In addition to meeting during the U.N. Summit, Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis on Tuesday for major players to divide up responsibilities for the refugee situation. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Sweden and the UN Secretary General will serve as co-hosts.

The discussion on Tuesday will focus on global commitments to: “1) increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations, 2) admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and 3) increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

During the Leaders’ Summit, Obama is widely expected to announce a commitment to taking in 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, with a strong focus on getting leaders to increase work authorization by one million refugees and to help ensure education access for more than one million refugees worldwide.

What outcome can we expect from the Summit?

On the face of it, nothing yet. In fact, any specific commitments for what individual countries should do will be put off until 2018, two years after the summit.


The event has already been criticized for lacking specific proposals to resettle refugees in various countries. International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian advocacy group, argued that the Summit would be a “failure unless world leaders commit to concrete actions.” The group has called for 10 percent of refugees worldwide to be resettled over the next three years. Amnesty International, another humanitarian advocacy group, echoed those sentiments, saying that world leaders have “shirked, not shared” the burden of the refugee crisis.

But the promises for refugee protection could set up broader commitments, or compacts, that could serve as the basis for what countries could take on in the future. The Summit could also kick off a useful conversation for U.N. member states to acknowledge and humanize refugees and migrants. Already, many advocacy groups are seizing on the opportunity of the Summit to showcase some of the various stakeholders affected including unaccompanied children, women, and Syrians.

How bad has the global refugee crisis gotten?

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a record 40.8 million people are internally displaced within their countries. And there are 21.3 million refugees around the world, with Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia producing half the world’s refugees.

Conflicts have afflicted the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for one-quarter of the period since the end of World War II, long displacing refugees and forcing MENA host countries like Lebanon and Jordan to shoulder much of the burden.

Not everyone wants to help with distribution efforts. Countries like Hungary and Austria have tightened borders. Within the United States, there have been threats by state governors to withhold federal funds from agencies that help resettle refugees. But that hasn’t stopped people from fleeing conflict zones. The latest death count on the Mediterranean Sea reached 3,212 as of mid-September.


This displacement could have a long-lasting impact, particularly on children. The average time that people spend living in refugee camps in developing countries is 17 years, according to the UNHCR, a span that lasts an entire childhood. During this time, education becomes a casualty of war for 1.5 million Syrian children who do not have formal education in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. At least 3.5 million children worldwide are out of school, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and early marriage, according to the humanitarian group Save the Children.

Okay, but how does this all relate to the United States?

Refugee resettlement has become a polarizing political topic in the United States over the past year — especially as politicians attempt to fearmonger about refugees’ tenuous links to national security concerns.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, more than two dozen mostly-Republican governors refused to allow Syrian refugee resettlement in their states on fears of terrorism. In that case, states attempted to apply discriminatory laws explicitly prohibiting Syrian refugee resettlement, though many of those lawsuits are in the process of being thrown out in federal courts.

In fact, Syrian refugees undergo stringent background checks before they can enter the United States, a process that can take upwards of two years. About 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived through the resettlement process this year. These numbers seem large and scary to some politicians, but the fact remains that no refugees have committed domestic terrorism since the terror attack on September 11, 2001.

What’s more, the United States has welcomed 3 million refugees since 1975, who have helped to contribute to local U.S. cities.

One last question. What’s the difference between refugees and migrants?

The Summit will likely focus a lot on refugees, so it’s important to know that there are distinct differences and legal ramifications for the two groups of people.

Refugees are people fleeing armed violence or persecution. By the end of 2015, there were 21.3 million of them worldwide, according the UNHCR. These are people who are unable to return home due to fears of death or other terrible consequences. International law ensures that refugees are given basic legal protections so that they will not be forced to return if their life or freedom would be under threat.

Migrants leave their home countries not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but “in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons,” the UNHCR reported. They don’t necessarily face the same kind of threats if they return home.

The distinction between these two categories is playing out here in the United States, where large numbers of Central American moms and kids have been showing up on the southern border since late 2013. Many of these people say they are fleeing certain death and persecution by gang members. But the Obama administration has been slow to acknowledge that these people may qualify as refugees. This past July, the Obama administration did announce that it would expand a program to allow Central American immigrants to apply for refugee status to come to the United States. But immigration raids to detain and deport recent arrivals, including moms and kids, have continued.