As world leaders gather this week in New York for their annual conclave, they will attempt a historic push to do more for the tens of millions of people displaced by war and conflict.
At the heart of the effort is a question that has stymied countries since the outbreak of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War – how to share responsibility for those in need of protection.
The latest endeavour will take the form of twin summits. On Monday, the United Nations is convening a major conference on refugees and migration, the first time the international organization has ever held such a meeting.
The following day, a second summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama – with Canada and several other nations as co-hosts – aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to assist asylum seekers.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said Friday that she expects dozens of countries to announce specific steps, from pledging more slots to resettle refugees to making it easier for them to access jobs and schools.
The U.S. is trying to leverage its leadership "to get countries to do things they would not otherwise have done," Ms. Power said.
The scope of is challenge is enormous. The number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide hit 25 million last year, according to the UN refugee agency. A further 41 million people were forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries. Together it means that 1 out of every 113 people on earth have left their homes due to conflict. Civil war in Syria, long-running armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia and warfare in South Sudan, Yemen and Ukraine are among the factors compelling people to flee.
The weight of refugee populations has often fallen on the countries least capable of carrying it. A recent analysis by Oxfam found that the six wealthiest countries in the world, which together account for more than half of the global economy, host less than 9 per cent of the world's refugees. By contrast, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda host more than half of global refugees, according to the UN.
When the UN began the planning for this summit, it started with an ambitious goal in mind: a commitment to resettle 10 per cent of the world's refugees each year. But many countries – including the U.S. – balked at the idea. So Monday's gathering has morphed into an event that will kick off another round of negotiations, with the hopes of reaching an actual agreement in 2018.
Finding a way to share responsibility for the world's refugees has proven exceedingly difficult. Faced with a huge influx of asylum seekers, the European Union reached a deal in 2015 to redistribute 160,000 refugees within its own borders through a system of mandatory quotas – over the fierce resistance of some of its member nations. Nearly a year later, the agreement has proven unworkable: just 3,000 people have been resettled under the scheme.
Alexander Betts, an expert on refugees and forced migration at Oxford University, called Monday's UN summit "a milestone with limitations." He said he was pleased to see so much attention focused on the issue but disappointed by the weaknesses inherent in the formal negotiations. He described the discussions leading up to the summit as "a disaster" in which "nothing meaningful has been agreed."
Meanwhile, the summit has helped to galvanize players well beyond government. Also this week, executives from the private sector are meeting in New York to discuss ways that companies can do more to assist refugees. Some expect significant announcements to be made by corporate and philanthropic donors in connection with the UN event.