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Opinion Canada should take the diplomatic lead on the global refugee crisis

Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee Council, sponsored by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Paul Heinbecker is its deputy chair.

Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s visit in early May to Bangladesh to observe first-hand the Rohingya refugee situation, and the invitation of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to the G7 meeting in Canada, are welcome signs that the Canadian government is bringing to the global refugee crisis a much-needed and widely neglected asset: diplomacy.

Rohingya refugees holding placards at a camp in Bangladesh.

A.M. Ahad/AP

It is understandable that the plight of the refugees is seen by many through the immediate humanitarian imperative of finding enough resources to support the basics of life. And let’s hope that there will soon be a surge of international aid to meet the desperate plight of the Rohingya as monsoon season looms and a cholera epidemic threatens.

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But let’s also remember that the tragic situation unfolding on the borders of Bangladesh is only the latest such human catastrophe. Consider the million refugees from South Sudan streaming into Uganda; the many hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania; the continuing agony of the Yemenis; the strife and stress faced by millions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons as the patience and tolerance of the border states housing them wear thin; the thousands of Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia threatening the fragile peace of that country as it tries to transition from a civil war of 30 years standing; and indeed the prospect of 60,000 asylum seekers crossing the Canadian border fleeing increasingly draconian American policy measures – all beg for reform of the global refugee system.

The agents of conflict and violence act with impunity; the funds for the care and sustenance of refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, come up immorally short; rich countries shift the burden of responsibility for hosting refugees to the poorer countries; walls sprout up where pathways are needed; and some well-endowed northern hemisphere governments retreat to the politics of xenophobia and nationalism.

The point is that, while the Rohingya are in desperate need in appalling conditions, their plight is part of a larger global challenge – the breakdown of the global refugee framework. Unless that system is fixed through skillful and committed diplomatic measures, we will see further refugee tragedies and the potential collapse of existing support systems. Stability even in rich countries will be jeopardized as a consequence, as Britain’s Brexit experience shows.

This past year, the United Nations has been engaged in a process of negotiation among member states to address some of these issues. This engagement, while vital, is likely not to be sufficient. So far states do not appear to be willing to tackle the fundamental structural defects of global refugee policy and operations. China and Russia’s reluctance at the UN to condemn the Myanmar perpetrators for the atrocities they committed against the Rohingya, the evidence of which visiting Security Council members saw with their own eyes, is further evidence of the urgency of systemic change.

There is a great need for a renewed and broad-based diplomatic effort to fix the existing refugee system’s failings. Political crises have to be prevented. Accountability has to be established. Funding has to be reset. Burdens have to be shared. Fuller use of the International Criminal Court has to be made, as Ms. Freeland has stated; the International Court of Justice should be asked for a legal opinion on the rights and responsibilities of states and refugees. A new protocol could be added to the existing treaty; the UN Human Rights Council should be seized of the issue of protecting refugees and asylum seekers.

The elaboration of such a renovated international framework of laws and policies would provide some assurance to people that their governments were capable of both protecting refugees and controlling their borders.

Ideas are not lacking; urgency is, in the mistaken belief or cynical calculation in many capitals that the cost of ignoring the refugee challenge is tolerable. There is too much rhetoric and not enough collaborative action. The fractious political games of big powers need to be offset by the steady advancement of a form of mini-multilateralism where ideas, agreements and partnerships by a cohesive group of more co-operative and progressive-minded governments, civil society groups, private-sector leaders and international finance agencies are the key to reforming the refugee system and enabling global, regional and local initiatives.

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What’s required is to frame the specific Rohingya situation in an adequately resourced and clearly articulated global diplomatic refugee strategy, designed to build an international network capable of meeting one of the most significant moral, economic and strategic issues of our time. This is leadership that the rest of the world would welcome, and that in its own interests, Canada can supply.

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