The UN’s Urgent Plan to Help Refugees—Two Years From Now

World leaders measure time in months and years. Refugees do so in minutes and hours.

An Afghan refugee in Pakistan (Fayaz Aziz / Reuters)

“It’s time to recognize that we cannot go on as before,” the head of the UN’s refugee agency declared on Monday, at the UN General Assembly’s first-ever Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York. “This summit could not be more urgent,” Filippo Grandi added.

What he didn’t mention is that “time” and “urgency” have starkly different meanings in the stately halls of the United Nations than in the refugee camps of Greece and Turkey and Lebanon and Kenya.

Crisis had brought Grandi to the microphone: One in every 113 people in the world today has been driven from home by violence, persecution, or human-rights violations. Last year, on average, 24 people fled these conditions each minute. More than 65 million people (roughly the equivalent of the United Kingdom’s population) have been uprooted within their country or forced to seek refuge outside their country. This corresponds to the highest share of the global population that has been forcibly displaced since the United Nations started tracking such statistics in 1951. Chronic conflicts in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia have swelled the ranks of the dispossessed, the vast majority of whom now live in limbo—displaced but not yet permanently resettled—in Africa and the Middle East.

UN officials have characterized the one-day summit of world leaders as a “breakthrough” and a “game-changer.” But the document that emerged from the meeting—the fancy-sounding New York Declaration—suggests the game is much the same, and dragging on.

Grandi says “it’s time” to take “urgent” action, but the New York Declaration calls for reaching a “global pact” on refugees in 2018. In other words, countries won’t specify how they’ll share the responsibility of resettling refugees for another two years—a timeline that indicates neither urgency nor much action.

“UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is nearing the end of his term, had sought to push for a deal to be negotiated this year, but that plan had to be pushed back ... amid coming elections—including in the U.S., France and Germany,” The Wall Street Journal reports, particularly given rising concerns about terrorism and immigration in Europe and the United States.

Grandi says the Declaration “marks a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance,” but the document contains no specific commitments or legally binding provisions. In August, a pledge to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees per year was removed from the draft text, owing to opposition from several UN member states, including the United States and Russia. Instead, the Declaration reminds us that “Since earliest times, humanity has been on the move,” before reaffirming various international principles for handling refugees and migrants.

A smaller refugee summit on Tuesday in New York, organized by U.S. President Barack Obama, will produce more concrete commitments from several countries to resettle more refugees and/or provide them with greater humanitarian aid and access to education and employment. But here too “time” and “urgency” have been watered down. U.S. organizers have secured substantive pledges to help refugees, but it took them nine months to organize the conference. And, as Josephine Liebl of the NGO Oxfam has pointed out, “It’s a one-off event with no follow-up mechanism.”

In New York this week, time is being measured in months and years. But in refugee camps, it’s measured in agonizing seconds and minutes and hours. Here’s how Habib, an Afghan refugee living in a repurposed baseball stadium in Greece, described the nature of time to Miki Meek of the radio show This American Life, through an interpreter.

[Y]ou wake up in the morning. We look at each other. There’s nothing. Then we go and have breakfast. Then we come back and sit and look at each other. There’s nothing else. We used to have some playing cards, and then somebody stole it. So we try to listen to music on the cell phones. And then we look at each other again. And then it’s afternoon. Then we go and have some lunch. And then we come back and sit here and then look at each other again.

And then we just fall asleep. We take a long nap until 6:00 PM. And then at 6:00 PM, we go and play some soccer. And then we come back here, have dinner. And then we look at each other again, and then we fall asleep. ...

[O]n normal days, regular days, one hour to us passes like one whole year of boredom.

If an hour passes like a year, what will two years of UN negotiations feel like for refugees like Habib?

Two years isn’t just the timeline for a global compact on refugees. It’s also the length of time that passed between a rocket falling on Youness Aselom’s house in Syria and the folks at This American Life meeting him at a camp in Greece. He lost his mother and one of his twin daughters in the strike, and his home was destroyed. His other daughter, who was five when the show aired in July, has spent the past two years reeling from the trauma. “[S]he became afraid of the sounds of airplanes,” Aselom explains. “And now they have us in an air base. And now when a military jet passes over us, you know what? She starts to cry. … [S]he never leaves the tent.”

The episode of This American Life, in fact, is full of references to time. A mother recalls how she persuaded her young, fearful son to board a raft headed for Greece. (“Just two hours, and then you can go to school, and we’re going to have a nice house.”) Meek explains how, several times per week at a local relief organization, Afghans are given one hour and Syrians two hours to call the Greek asylum office and schedule appointments. (“I live my life based on these time slots,” a Syrian named Rajab, who’s been trying to reach the overloaded asylum office for three straight months, tells Meek.) The one—yes, one—Greek official fielding these calls describes a typical day. (“I take one call after another without leaving even half a minute gap in between. … We can’t waste any time, because as we know, there are tens of thousands of refugees.”)

Habib, the Afghan refugee, notes how rumors spread within minutes in the camp. Meek lists some of those rumors: “Angela Merkel, the German chancellor is personally coming to the stadium to rescue them. John Kerry is bringing a plane. The Canadians are sending a ship. And the most common—Macedonia is going to reopen its borders again to Afghans.”

But, of course, none of that is happening. Angela Merkel is expressing regret for her generous policies toward refugees after a series of defeats for her party. John Kerry is speaking at the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The Canadians, who have been more welcoming to refugees than most other countries, are increasing humanitarian aid and, as the prime minister put it on Monday, “looking at our options.” The Macedonian border remains closed.

In times of crisis, time is not experienced evenly. Emergencies tend to unfold in minutes. Solutions often take years.