This week’s World Humanitarian Summit was an opportunity to discuss how to assist the suffering, yet the entire process showed much of the humanitarian sector at its most fragmented and self-indulgent.
If Europeans lose faith in the international humanitarian system, it will fail. EU governments and institutions account for half of all humanitarian spending, which adds up to $20 billion a year. Struggling with the political and financial costs of the refugee crisis, they are losing patience with United Nations agencies like the World Food Programme and UNHCR, and turning to alternatives - including unstable governments in the Arab world and Africa - to control the inflow of refugees and migrants. We may be headed for a post-humanitarian Europe, increasingly at odds with the UN.
This week’s World Humanitarian Summit, convened by the UN in Istanbul, was supposedly a “once–in-a-generation” opportunity to discuss how to assist the suffering. Yet many EU leaders were notable by their absence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned up, but Britain’s David Cameron, France’s François Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi failed to do so. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cast aside his usual caution to call such high-profile no-shows “a bit disappointing”.
The absentees had some good excuses for staying away. Humanitarian experts had been warning that the summit would be a flop for months. The UN oversaw a preparatory consultation process that, it boasts, involved 23,000 participants. This inevitably resulted in a garbled hodge-podge of fuzzy ideas rather than strong and simple goals comparable to those that came out of last year’s Paris climate meeting.
Indeed, the entire process showed much of the humanitarian sector at its most fragmented and self-indulgent. NGOs battled one another for attention, while officials from big donors tried to avoid costly commitments. Medecins Sans Frontieres refused to attend at all, grousing that the summit was no longer serious.
If the Istanbul Summit was neither triumph nor disaster, it leaves a big strategic question for Europe unanswered: How will we handle humanitarian crises on our borders in the months and years ahead?
The conference made a bit more progress on technical matters than critics predicted. But it notably failed to achieve much on big political issues, such as preventing the conflicts that are currently driving the majority of humanitarian crises, upholding international humanitarian law in warzones such as Syria, or resettling significant numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The idea that a multilateral gabfest could sort out such acute political issues was deeply naïve to begin with. Some NGO participants were reportedly galled that the conference did not address Security Council reform, which suggests that they don’t know how big power diplomacy works. But if the Istanbul Summit was neither triumph nor disaster, it leaves a big strategic question for Europe unanswered: How will we handle humanitarian crises on our borders in the months and years ahead?
The EU’s central role in supporting the humanitarian system is not a matter of altruism, and nor has it ever been. European donors have used their funds to contain and mitigate security problems on their periphery, most notably through aid programmes for Palestinians inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza. In the last five years, the EU has relied on United Nations agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP) to manage the fallout of the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
This has been a disillusioning experience for all concerned. Facing budget cuts at home, European governments did not give the humanitarians the financial assistance they needed to address the crises in the Arab world. France, Italy and Spain in particular severely curtailed their humanitarian spending. While this left humanitarian workers short on cash, they also often seemed short on ideas about how to manage the mounting chaos in the Middle East. Aid agencies know how to feed and house large numbers of refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in large camps. But the crises in the Middle East have posed very different challenges.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have joined the urban populations of cities such as Beirut and Istanbul, rather than settle in camps, creating local strains. In Syria itself, the government has persistently blocked efforts to get aid to besieged towns to gain political leverage. Regional powers have played political games with aid. One UN worker recalls having to distribute an enormous consignment of dates donated by a Gulf country for Syrian refugees – an entirely pointless vanity project.
This combination of financial, political and operational challenges has contributed to the surge of refugees from the Middle East across the Aegean and Mediterranean over the last two years. European officials, having loaded UN agencies down with responsibilities, now grumble about their limitations. UN officials, meanwhile, have been unusually critical of their European sponsors’ prejudices towards refugees. In April, Ban Ki-moon told the Austrian parliament that EU members’ “increasingly restrictive” asylum policies were hurting their commitments to international and European law.
Tensions between the Europeans and UN came to a head over the EU’s March deal on returning Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey. UNHCR declared that detaining and returning large numbers of Syrians would contravene international law. The resulting wounds are raw. European Commission Deputy President Frans Timmermans reportedly told colleagues earlier his month that UN officials have undermined the deal by urging migrants in Greece to “submit asylum requests when they quite blatantly did not meet the requirements to apply for refugee status”.
The Turkish deal may still unravel due to the current political instability in Ankara. But the EU-UN spats over the issue are notable because the EU appears to be looking to strike similar bilateral bargains with some even more questionable partners.
The sheer political imperative to limit migrant and refugee flows into Europe is, it seems, pushing EU leaders towards a post-humanitarian mindset, focusing on temporary fixes to current challenges than sustaining the humanitarian system as a whole.
In mid-May Der Spiegel reported that EU ambassadors had discussed proposals to work with the Sudanese government to manage migrant flows, including “to send cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime in addition to training their border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants.” There are obvious ethical issues involved in working with a government like Sudan’s, which has an unfortunate track record of human rights abuses and killing its own people. Khartoum has also frequently tried to make the UN’s work on its territory impossible by denying humanitarian personnel visas, while also forcing NGOs to stop operating altogether.
The sheer political imperative to limit migrant and refugee flows into Europe is, it seems, pushing EU leaders towards a post-humanitarian mindset, focusing on temporary fixes to current challenges than sustaining the humanitarian system as a whole. This is not altogether surprising: EU members invested heavily in UN agencies and other relief efforts prior to 2008 when money was available and (with exceptions such as the Palestinians) most refugee and IDP crises were in far-off places such as Darfur. This combination of circumstances made it easy enough to invest in the UN system, without worrying too much about its operational glitches.
Now money is short and European publics want to know exactly what their money is doing to stem the flow of refugees. As I argued in a paper for the Finnish foreign ministry (normally a supporter of all things UN) last year, “there is a tendency among experts on multilateral affairs to assume that all forms of international cooperation are good and should be reinforced.” By contrast, European decision-makers are liable to take an increasingly skeptical view of UN initiatives in the coming years – unless they can be credibly shown to be serving direct EU interests.
It is possible to overstate this trend. European governments and the European Commission have scraped together new money for humanitarian action in the Arab world over the last few years, although crises in other regions get short shrift. The EU cannot manage the human consequences of the crises on its periphery without help from UN officials – and UN officials cannot do their work at all without EU cash.
Arab nations, led by the Saudis, Kuwait and UAE, have upped their financial support for humanitarian work in recent years but other emerging powers such as China and India still lag behind. Brazil purposefully attempted to position itself as a rising humanitarian player a few years ago, but has lowered its ambitions as its economy has foundered. The US is still the single biggest donor of humanitarian aid – and has ramped up its spending in places where the EU has collectively fallen short in recent years – but nonetheless, Europe is still an indispensable humanitarian power.
That is a role that the EU should not give up lightly. There may be short-term benefits to deals with countries such as Turkey or Sudan, but there are dangers too.
These are hardly internally politically sound states, and they have also shown a tendency to stir up conflicts – whether involving the Kurds in Turkey or Darfur in Sudan – that may both make them more unstable and generate more refugees and IDPs. Forging deals over migrants and refugees with such powers is likely to backfire down the road. Strengthening UN agencies, by contrast, may be a frustrating business in the short term, due to their mix of moral high-mindedness and bureaucratic inertia, but bodies like UNHCR and WFP still provide the most reliable safety nets for nations in crisis that are available – it is in Europe’s interests to sustain them, even if EU leaders can justifiably miss a dull UN summit or two.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.