SDGs are also about tackling the global refugee crisis


Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

World leaders gather this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to adopt the much-anticipated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to steer global economic, social and environmental policies over the next 15 years.

The SDGs are ambitious, wide-ranging and important. They will have a critical impact on what the world will look like in 2030. Their implementation will require more money than is currently available from official aid budgets, the mobilisation of domestic revenues in developing countries and more public-private partnerships.

The outlook is fairly positive. After all, while not all of the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were successfully translated into reality, the MDGs have contributed, among other things, to reducing extreme poverty and halving the number of annual deaths of children under five.

However, promises in New York on creating a better future will not be credible unless they are backed up by urgent global action to tackle a raging refugee crisis which is affecting not just Europe but hundreds of countries, including many in the developing world.

The focus in New York must be on preventing, managing and resolving the many conflicts – and the many inter-connected challenges of poverty, inequality and climate change – which are forcing millions of people out of their homes.

Since almost all of the 17 SDGs deal in one way or another with the deep structural problems that lie behind the world’s growing refugee problem, the UN does not need to add another – eighteenth – SDG which focuses specifically on refugees.

Promises in New York on creating a better future will not be credible unless they are backed up by urgent global action to tackle a raging refugee crisis 

Instead, the meeting in New York should quite simply and forcefully put its full weight behind an over-arching “mother of all SDGs” which highlights the strong link between development policy and the refugee crisis.

The focus should be on two targets: immediate measures to ensure a decent, dignified life for the millions of refugees on the move today and strong, targeted medium-term action to deal with the wars, conflict and persecution which cause people to flee their homes.

Such a blueprint should be about the current plight of the refugees – mostly from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan – who are desperately seeking shelter in Europe but also in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and many African countries.

But it should be about much more as well. It should focus on the deficiencies in current global development policies which have helped to provoke the current disastrous situation.

Certainly, there will need to be a sharper focus on fragile states. As Gideon Rabinowitz from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has pointed out in a recent blog, “although certainly not its primary cause, the international community’s inadequate support for countries facing humanitarian and conflict-related challenges has contributed to this (refugee) crisis”.

Rabinowitz underlines that funding for food vouchers for Syrian refugees has been slashed. Aid to fragile states is down.

At a Friends of Europe discussion on SDGs on September 15 (read more), there was agreement that the refugee crisis should lead to greater emphasis on peace and conflict resolution.

“The crisis is actually a test for many of the SDGs – some of the social ones and education, health, things like that,” said James Mackie, Senior Adviser on EU Development Policy at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). “But the one I would really focus on would be SDG 16 on conflict, peace, justice and inclusive institutions. I think that’s where the real solution to this crisis is, and we should learn that lesson looking forward.”

Certainly, attention at the moment is on Europe – and European governments’ messy and discordant responses. But the problem is a global one.

Europe is undoubtedly over-whelmed by the number of people seeking entry, the breakdown of the “Schengen” border-free system and the need to rapidly craft a new and more intelligent asylum and immigration policy.

But what about others? Where is the compassionate global response that could be expected, especially from Muslim Middle Eastern nations which have taken only a few escapees from the brutal conflict in Syria. Saudi Arabia has offered Germany funds to build 200 mosques. Hopefully, Berlin will say no.

Japan took in eleven asylum seekers last year although Tokyo faces labour shortages and the huge problem of an ageing population. The US has been slow and lumbering in its decision to take in more Syrians, although Washington has now said it will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017. Many, though not all, of the additional refugees would be Syrian, with others coming from strife-torn areas of Africa. The White House had previously announced it intended to take in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees over the next year.

Little can be expected meanwhile from Southeast Asian countries which were at loggerheads only a few months ago over their reluctance to house the Rohingya fleeing ethnic strife in Myanmar.

The problem won’t go away, however. The UNHCR has warned that worldwide displacement is at the highest level ever recorded, with the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 rising to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. Moreover, the report said the situation was likely to worsen still further. Since early 2011, the main reason for the acceleration has been the war in Syria, now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.

The refugee crisis presents the UN and the SDGs with an important test.  Leaders should know that their speeches and all references to a better world will be meaningless unless the new set of global development priorities also help tackle the reasons behind the global refugee crisis.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo