The Reality Behind The Talk | By Anushka Mehta

In the aftermath of the UN Summit on Refugees on September 19th, it is difficult not to question exactly where the new pledged ‘commitments’ by different member countries will take us. While people have been debating back and fourth on US President Obama’s speech at the summit, as outlined by Lauren in her post last week, others still are debating the efficacy of the summit altogether.

The UNHCR referred to the summit as a potential “game-changer” for refugee and migrant protection, whereby member states will have the opportunity to sign the ‘New York Declaration.’ Additionally, the UN News Centre outlines the list of commitments made by member states, referring to Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon’s congratulatory message saying: “Today’s Summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility…more children can attend school; more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home.”


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s opening address at the start of the summit on refugees in New York. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

However, it has long been argued that UN summits perpetuate the myth that ‘committing’ to an issue is enough. As The Irish Times points out, “the mechanisms for achieving the lofty goals in the declaration are vague at best…We are more likely to see repeat pledging or what we saw in the London conference for Syria in February: pledges that are simply not delivered.” In this article, Alexander Betts argues that while it is a huge achievement to reach consensus among 193 different nations, the UN refugee agency model needs to be overhauled and updated. Betts highlights a “disjuncture between mandate and need” that is exemplified by “the stark reality that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees receive no assistance whatsoever from UNHCR or its partners.”

When considering the two wildly different takeaways from the UN summit, it’s hard not to think about the hundreds of global officials arriving in New York, suited and booted, ready to discuss the lives of people unrepresented, and with their own political agendas in mind. As global leaders continue to talk about the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe (and elsewhere), we are continually forgetting that the war in Syria is so much more than a ‘refugee crisis.’ It is easy to forget that the Syrians without the opportunity to leave Syria, who died in Syria, or died while attempting to leave Syria. Opening European, American, (or other) borders is hardly the issue when contextualized against the war taking place in Syria, killing and displacing millions.

Instead of thinking about this as a European issue affecting European borders, is it time to switch lenses, and actually consider this from the perspective of a Syrian war, affecting Syrian people?

A short video published by the Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado juxtaposes the conversation that we are having in the media regarding European borders with the plight of Syrians today. It is a shocking video that speaks for itself:

As we continue to debate how many countries should “commit” to different numbers of refugees (Syrian, and otherwise), there are refugees stuck in a limbo, or worse, dying. Yes, this video is certainly shocking, and one could argue that it rests on its shock-value to send its message, similar to the different photos of drowned Syrian toddlers that float around on social media.

But at the same time, it is essential to remember that the refugee crisis is not a numbers game.

We can commit to more refugee children in school; but this means little until we actually welcome them into our countries.


Betts, A. (2016, September 20). UN summit on refugees fails to offer solutions. The Irish Times. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from

Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado. (2015, September 22). Is there a worse offer? Refugee Auction. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from

UNHCR. (2016, September 6). UN Summit seen as “game changer” for refugee and migrant protection. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from

United Nations News Centre. (2016, September 19). World leaders at UN summit adopt ‘bold’ plan to enhance protections for refugees and migrants. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from


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