In May I attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland at the invitation of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. The foundation is the sister organization to the WEF and was co-founded by Hilde Schwab and Professor Klaus Schwab. In 2018 we received an award for social entrepreneurship from the foundation, inducting us into a vibrant global community of changemakers.
I felt fortunate to be navigating the sea of Davos on the raft of the Schwab Foundation. From among 2,000 official participants, we were a cohort of 50 social entrepreneurs from around the world working on a variety of sustainable development issues, including poverty, food security, healthcare, education, racial and gender equality, climate change, governance, etc. Refugee issues, of course, cut across all of these areas and were implicitly on the agenda at Davos in its hundreds of official sessions, if explicitly the focus of relatively few. Refugee outflows are often the result of failures in these other areas so, from the vantage point of our sector, I think of development as prevention. Prevention of displacement. If our fellow social entrepreneurs and their sector colleagues succeed in their work on equitable development, peace and security, there will be less need to address the fall-out of failed states, violent conflict, and persecution of minorities – less need for our work in the refugee sector.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of work for us and, during the meeting in Davos, UNHCR issued a statement that forcible displacement has now affected over 100 million people globally, or 1 in every 78 people on the planet. Not surprisingly, the conflict in Ukraine featured prominently in nearly all plenary and breakout sessions. Its compelling humanitarian needs, geopolitical importance for international peace and security, and its critical role in the global food supply cannot be overstated. As we are already seeing in places such as South Sudan and Somalia, tens of millions of people in the global south now face critical food shortages due to skyrocketing food and fuel prices resulting from the war in Ukraine and Russia’s blockade of exports.
With over 6 million refugees from Ukraine having so recently and precipitously crossed into neighboring countries, many moving onward throughout Europe and beyond, it felt difficult to find space at Davos to consider the plight of the 27 million non-European refugees that have largely not found welcoming reception and are stranded long-term without solutions. These are refugees from places such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, Eritrea, etc., as well as nearly 5 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. Contrary to perceptions in the west, the vast majority of these refugees remain in their own regions, with 83% hosted by low and middle-income countries. And the crisis in Ukraine has caused many donor governments to divert already scarce humanitarian aid funding from some of the worst-hit areas in Africa, further exacerbating those crises and inequities.
As a representative of RefugePoint, whose origins and programmatic emphasis are in Africa, this topic hits close to home. I was invited to speak on a timely panel titled “Racial Disparities in Refugee Treatment,” intended to interrogate the disproportionate attention, resources, and even empathy that have been accorded Ukrainian refugees as compared to other populations. A portion of the discussion did just that. Diana Daiub, of both Ukrainian and Syrian origin, highlighted the disparate treatment her relatives of both wars received when they became refugees. Alejandro René Daly Rivero shared that one-fifth of Venezuelans are forcibly displaced abroad and that aid organizations have only been able to raise a tiny fraction of the funds needed to respond to the crisis. Christophe Catoir, the president of Adecco staffing agency in Switzerland, shared success stories in hiring refugees of diverse origins. He cited how illuminating it was, for instance, for employees to welcome a Congolese refugee onto their team, increasing their awareness and empathy for those fleeing under-reported conflicts and neglected crises. Fellow Schwab awardee Sakena Yacoobi reminded us that not long before the Ukraine crisis was the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, adding to the already large and protracted Afghan refugee population of 2.6 million, whose plight is now overshadowed by that of Ukrainian refugees. I highlighted the worrying global trend of policies that increasingly prevent Black and brown refugees from seeking asylum (citing examples from the US, EU, UK and Australia), while creating rapid and generous new policies and reception capacity for Ukrainian asylum-seekers. I referred to the west’s response to Ukrainian refugees as a new highwater mark of refugee response – one that we should endeavor to reach for all refugees in need, building on the innovation and empathy that has surged in recent months.
But it was perhaps inevitable, given the moment, location, and composition of the panel, that it proved difficult to move much beyond the immediate issue facing Europe – quickly absorbing large numbers of Ukrainian refugees. And in that way, I fear our discussion may have inadvertently displayed the phenomenon that we sought to interrogate.
We must soon, however, find space to truly examine what can be done to eliminate disparities in treatment and explore how the response to Ukrainians can be leveraged for the benefit of others with similar or greater need for international protection. Over 23,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 trying to make it to safety. Thousands more asylum-seekers are detained in horrific conditions in Libya after enduring unspeakable physical abuse by traffickers and smugglers upon fleeing violent persecution in their home countries, such as Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. There are countless examples from across the globe of non-white refugees being prevented from reaching a border to request asylum or being summarily expelled.
States must honor their commitments under international law to allow people to gain a fair asylum hearing rather than being blocked by externalization of borders. The EU has still not agreed on responsibility-sharing policies and mechanisms among member states. That process should be accelerated. Refugee leadership must be centered in all policy conversations. Scaling solutions for refugees will require more ‘informed choice’ and agency over their future options and less gatekeeping by international agencies.
I came to Davos to share some of these recommendations. And finally, echoing the overarching theme of WEF’s 2022 annual meeting, “History at a Turning Point,” I wanted to call on us all not to miss this rare opportunity to rethink and reshape the global refugee response system. Out of crisis comes innovation and we are witnessing just how innovative, generous and nimble our governments can be when they want to. We should ensure this trend continues and expands to benefit refugees equally, without regard to race, religion, national origin, and other protected categories.
Our panel took place on the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and shortly after the hate crime in Buffalo, NY, which took the lives of 10 Black people in a supermarket. The shooter in Buffalo espoused “replacement theory,” a white supremacist conspiracy theory that purports there is a deliberate policy agenda to replace white populations with Black and brown populations. This dangerous belief and variations on it have been manipulated by populist politicians across the globe and have eroded public support for admitting refugees and asylum-seekers of color. As I said during the panel, we need to name this what it is. Policies that seek to bar asylum-seekers from reaching our borders or to entangle them in endless bureaucracy are racist and anti-Islamic policies that emerge from a history of global white supremacy. We see exceptions made for white refugees time and again.