World leaders focus on refugees as Syria truce comes under threat

Syrian refugee children ride on a donkey-drawn cart in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. A summit to address the biggest refugee crisis since World War II opens at the United Nations on Monday (Sept 19).
Syrian refugee children ride on a donkey-drawn cart in the Jordanian city of Mafraq. A summit to address the biggest refugee crisis since World War II opens at the United Nations on Monday (Sept 19).PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - A summit to address the biggest refugee crisis since World War II opens at the United Nations on Monday (Sept 19), overshadowed by the ongoing war in Syria and faltering US-Russian efforts to halt the fighting.

World leaders will adopt a political declaration at the first-ever summit on refugees and migrants that human rights groups have already dismissed as falling short of the needed international response.

Amnesty International has labelled the summit a "missed opportunity" to come up with a global plan while Human Rights Watch has called out countries like Brazil, Japan and South Korea that have taken in a only handful of refugees, or no refugees at all, in the case of Russia.

A record-breaking 65 million people are on the move worldwide, fleeing wars such as the carnage in Syria, repression and poverty, including 21 million refugees competing for too few resettlement opportunities.

Now in its sixth year, the war in Syria has driven nearly nine million people from their homes while an additional four million have fled to neighbouring countries or are making the perilous journey to Europe.

The summit kicks off a week of high-level diplomacy as world leaders are set to address the annual General Assembly meeting, which this year will be dominated by the conflict in Syria.

A ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and the United States was under threat after rebel-held Aleppo came under renewed attack while the US-led coalition killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in a strike that Washington says was unintentional.

During negotiations leading up to the summit, a proposal by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to resettle 10 per cent of the global refugee population was dropped from the non-binding draft declaration.

"We really don't feel that there is a strong political will," Ms Francoise Sivignon, president of the aid group Medecins du Monde, told AFP.

She said she was particularly concerned with the failure to offer protection to child refugees who are "extraordinarily vulnerable" when they are separated from their families.

Rejecting the criticism, Mr Ban's representative Karen Abuzayd said the summit could lead to a significant increase in the number of safe havens for refugees worldwide.

The 193 UN member states will agree to meet the targets set by the UN refugee agency, which is advocating for the resettlement of five percent of the global refugee population, she said.

That would amount to 1.1 million resettlements in 2017, compared to 100,000 in 2015, Ms Abuzayd told AFP.

"It's 10 times as many," she said. "Things will change gradually."

Mr Ban is to launch a global campaign against xenophobia at a time when welcoming migrants and refugees has become a divisive issue in Europe and the United States.

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama will host a second summit at which some 40 countries will make new offers of aid, either by taking in more refugees or supporting access to education and jobs.

Only eight countries currently host more than half the world's refugees: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda.

Six of the world's richest countries - the United States, China, Japan, Britain, Germany and France - hosted only 1.8 million refugees last year, just seven per cent of the world total, according to research by the British charity Oxfam.