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The plight faced by refugees must be high up the CHOGM agenda

3 min read

Co-operation across the Commonwealth marks a huge opportunity to improve how we treat refugees across the world, writes Thangam Debbonaire

According to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) website, world leaders from across the organisation will “address the shared global challenges” when they convene in London later this month. 

Refugees must feature on this agenda.

A total of 65 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2016, 22.5 million by war or disaster. Most moved within home countries as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) or to neighbouring countries.

Many of our Commonwealth partners such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Canada and Uganda take far more refugees than we do. However, when refugees get stuck in limbo for years they will often consider moving on to another country. Refugees and leading host countries need us to think beyond providing aid and towards updating how we respond to them worldwide.

There is an unusually impressive roster attending the CHOGM event in London, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, India’s Narendra Modi, Bangladesh’s Sheik Hasina and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull. This gives scope for renewing the Commonwealth’s potential.

On 27 March in the House of Commons, I asked Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, whether refugees would feature on the agenda. He said yes. So, will this result in progress?

Former Canadian Conservative politician Hugh Segal once described the Commonwealth as “an organisation that, if properly led, motivated and resourced, can make a huge difference in almost every part of the world”.

Some consider the grouping an anachronism. However, it has shown its unique strengths, such as advocating for debt relief and action on climate change. I would like that focus to extend to refugees.

The Commonwealth stands out precisely because members do not have obvious shared interests such as economic size (like the G7), or proximity (such as ASEAN). 

Nevertheless, the Commonwealth’s unique nature gives it a special resonance in global affairs – shared positions must be discussed and resolved to meet the needs of poor and rich countries alike. In times of trade wars, sanctions, and isolationism, the Commonwealth stands out as having a higher purpose. 

As Chair of the APPG on Refugees, it’s been challenging to remain optimistic recently, with a depressing retreat by Europe and US from responsibilities to protect people fleeing war. The Global Compact for Refugees – the UN process to re-invigorate cooperation – so far lacks the accountability and urgency for it to be the step-change needed. This when 80% of refugees are accommodated in over-stretched developing countries. Some, such as Uganda, offer the right to work and help to start businesses so refugees can contribute and support themselves. We could learn from them.

Some argue that a better response to refugees would create a ‘pull factor.’ This misses the point that these people are, by definition, fleeing danger. If they are prevented from moving on in their lives, they will consider making dangerous journeys, even if they do not know what lies at the end. We should not make their journeys more dangerous.

We are still low on the list of Western countries offering our fair share of refugee resettlement places. But recent Parliamentary debates and votes in the House of Commons on the Refugee Family Reunion Bill show a shift in cross-party thinking about our responsibility towards refugees.

High ambitions are vital. In Bangladesh, the cyclone season is approaching and over-crowded conditions in makeshift camps threaten the safety of almost 1 million Rohingya refugees.

If the London summit is to mark a new significance for the Commonwealth, let it be for radically improving how we help people across the world displaced by war, persecution and torture. That would be the Commonwealth truly living out its values.


Thangam Debbonaire is Labour MP for Bristol West and chair of the APPG for Refugees

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