UN faces the constraints of nationalism in quest to aid refugees

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International organisations have long expressed concern for the life of refugees but in recent years have found themselves struggling to adapt to new challenges this crisis presents.

Hundreds of migrants and refugees were recently stranded on board three vessels in the Central Mediterranean sea as states avoided sending help or allowing these boats to disembark.

The UN intervened last week stating, “the human imperative of saving lives should not be penalised or stigmatised especially in the absence of dedicated state-led efforts” and claimed that these boats must be allowed to come to shore.

Some 200 refugees and migrants were in urgent need of transfer and disembarkation from the Louise Michel, which is a search and rescue vessel funded by artist Banksy. With another 200 on a non-governmental vessel called the Sea Watch 4.

Currently, the UN cannot act to help these refugees and migrants stranded at sea due to a lack of a regional agreement meaning no mechanism exists to allow these people to disembark. Despite the UN calling for stalled talks to be resumed and for other EU states to step up to support Mediterranean countries at the forefront of this issue, they cannot force European states to help.

The UN is no stranger to intervening in a refugee crisis.

The UN is no stranger to intervening in a refugee crisis. Since the UNHCR’s establishment in1950 they have intervened in the refugee crisis that followed the decolonisation of Africa and then in Asia and Latin America in the following decades.

 They also intervened to help new waves of refugees in Europe following a series of wars in the Balkans. The UNHCR has a budget of US$8.6 Billion (2019) with 17,324 personnel working in a total of 135 countries around the world.

The UN has further stated that “in a world where nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every 2 seconds as a result of conflict or persecution, the work of the UNHCR is more important than ever before.”

However, in a rapidly changing contemporary world the UN and other International Organisations find themselves less able to effectively respond to crisis.

The world is a different place compared to when the UN and the UNHCR was first created.

The world is a different place compared to when the UN and the UNHCR was first created. It has seen a move to an increasingly multi-polar, multi-actor world with the rise of new state and non-state actors. Gone are the days of the bipolar nature of the cold-war or the unipolar US led order in the decade following.

The world is far more complex, with more actors being able to wield their influence to ensure their interests are met. The UN and other international organisations constantly find themselves gridlocked and unable to effectively respond to crisis due to the inability to reach agreement.

Dealing with refugee crises was once seen as convergent with state security interests, now states view helping refugees as detrimental to their own national interest.

Dealing with refugee crises was once seen as convergent with state security interests, now states view helping refugees as detrimental to their own national interest. The rise of nationalism across the globe has meant states have become “less and less willing to be active and benevolent partners in forced migration governance,” according to the authors of recent book Beyond Gridlock.

The US was already on a downward trend of assistance and protection provision for refugees, which has only been exacerbated under a Trump presidency. Germany, who was once a champion of refugee protection has looked to restrict the number permitted for resettlement. At a time where humanitarian organisations want to broaden the definition of refugees, every host country government wants to narrow it.

According to the UN, “this anti-global backlash can be seen as part of a negative cycle that compounds gridlock,” further eroding the UN’s ability to foster cooperation and agreement. States now devise strategies in isolation and according to short-term self-interest.

The challenges the UN faces are symbolic of broader systemic challenges that all International organisations face when attempting to respond to crisis. Responding to new issues such as these refugees and migrants stranded at sea has never been more difficult and looks set to get ever more challenging.

Climate Change looks set to create a new wave of “environmental refugees” with some  predicting there could be 50 million by 2060 in Africa alone.

 At a time where we need international cooperation more than ever, we find our international institutions gridlocked and unable to respond effectively. If things do not change and cooperation does not increase it will impact all our lives in the future.

Image: United Nations Headquarters via Creative Commons

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