Global refugee crisis: A warning to the leaders of the rich world

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

A generation from now, schoolchildren will be shown the image of a drowned three-year-old lying face down on a beach.

They will look on in stunned silence, transfixed by this boy who could easily have been their little brother or a younger version of themselves. And their teacher will tell them how this tragic photo of lifeless Alan Kurdi sums up the historic global shame in 2015 as the international community failed to help millions of vulnerable people amid the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

It is up to world leaders – especially those in the largest and richest economies – to decide how this history lesson will end.

What will their legacy be for generations to come? Will they continue to shed crocodile tears while investing in fortifying their borders and ignoring the plight of millions of refugees? Or will they find their moral backbone and live up to their responsibility to assist those with a right to protection?

Alan was only one of thousands around the world who died this year fleeing conflict and persecution. In tragedy after heart-breaking tragedy, their corpses washed ashore, were found crammed into doomed vessels or disappeared into the depths of the Mediterranean, Aegean and Andaman seas, never to be seen again.

The numbers have swelled in recent years as countless people make the crushing decision to leave all they hold dear in their home countries.

They are motivated not by selfish desires, but safety for themselves and their loved ones. War, atrocities and terror have driven them out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the multiple conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa. Persecution has forced many more to flee countries like Eritrea, where opposition is met with an iron fist, and Myanmar, where members of the Muslim Rohingya minority have faced decades of state-sponsored discrimination.

It is precisely for situations like these that the global refugee protection regime was created after the horrors of the Second World War.

But we have a short memory. This scheme will be left in tatters unless world leaders heed the lessons of history and change course now.

While the increase in the number of refugees reaching the European Union has dominated headlines in recent months, poorer countries bear the brunt of coping with the world’s multiple refugee crises. Turkey and developing countries mainly in the Middle East, Africa and Asia host 86% of the world’s 20 million refugees.

Wealthier countries are not doing nearly enough to share the burden.

Humanitarian appeals for refugee crises are consistently – and often severely – underfunded. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned in September that global humanitarian appeals were “financially broke”. This has a devastating impact on refugees’ access to food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance.

Instead of responding to this challenge, leaders in the rich world have devised ways to keep people outside their borders or away from their shores while thousands die at sea or endure squalid conditions in the shadow of razor-wire fences. This is moral bankruptcy.

Ultimately, refugee crises end when their root causes are addressed. States should seek to end conflicts and widespread human rights abuses – but these are difficult goals which take time to achieve.

However, there are things the world’s richest countries can do now to lessen the devastating impact of the world’s refugee crises.

Amnesty International is calling for concerted action in eight priority areas. These include fully funding humanitarian appeals and finding resettlement places for a million of the most vulnerable refugees – less than a tenth of this number were resettled last year. Safe and legal routes to seek asylum are also needed so refugees are no longer forced to embark on perilous journeys.

While the crisis is too immense for individual states to solve, the international community can and should work collectively to share the responsibility of resettling and welcoming refugees.

Next month the leaders of the G20 will meet in Turkey, the country where young Alan Kurdi washed ashore, and which currently hosts more than two million refugees – more than any other state.

They should not leave the room until they have a concrete plan with clear timelines to guarantee full and sustainable humanitarian funding for the world’s multiple refugee crises, and a system in place to share the responsibility of resettling the most vulnerable refugees globally. Anything less would be another failure of leadership.

It’s too late to help Alan Kurdi or the thousands of others who already lost their lives. But there’s still time to change course on this moral failure, and begin to help the millions of refugees still desperate for a humanitarian lifeline.

If world leaders care about their legacy, they must do that, starting today.

This op-ed also appeared in GlobalPost.

The global refugee crisis by the numbers.

Learn more and take action: The Syrian Refugee Crisis