Humanitarian summit aims high amid refugee rights concerns

AP News
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Posted: May 23, 2016 1:30 PM
Humanitarian summit aims high amid refugee rights concerns

ISTANBUL (AP) — An ambitious summit to revamp humanitarian aid and global responses to modern-day crises opened in Turkey on Monday with lofty goals overshadowed by concerns that key participants are violating refugee rights and humanitarian law.

The first World Humanitarian Summit was convened in Istanbul in an attempt to tackle what the United Nations has described as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. An estimated 125 million people worldwide require humanitarian assistance, among them 60 million displaced from their homes by conflict, natural disasters and climate change.

The two-day gathering was conceived four years ago by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In preparation, 23,000 people were consulted in over 150 countries, according to U.N. officials.

"We are here to shape a different future," said Ban at the opening of the summit. "Let us resolve ourselves here and now not only to keep people alive but to give people a chance at life in dignity."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed hope that the summit will prove a "turning point" and encouraged more countries to share the burden of emergency response. Turkey is home to more than 3 million refugees, making it the world's largest host of displaced people.

But Turkey has come under scrutiny at a time when the migrant crisis dominates the global agenda, a European Union-Turkey deal to address the problem faces growing controversy and the conflict in Syria, which many of the refugees have fled, grinds on.

Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the event weeks ago, saying it had "become a fig-leaf of good intentions" at a time when "shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights" are left unchecked.

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said Monday the world is witnessing the "complete collapse of humanitarian law" and criticized the EU for "looking the other way when it comes to rights violations in Turkey itself" and "abdicating its responsibilities" toward refugees.

Shetty said the 12 Syrians who have been returned from Greece to Turkey in line with the EU-Turkey deal have been held in a detention center without access to a lawyer. He also said Turkey, which lacks an asylum system and is either turning back or detaining new arrivals, cannot be considered a safe country.

Turkey, however, insists it maintains an open door policy although new arrivals are rare and faults Western nations for not doing enough to help conflict-stricken Syrians. Erdogan at the summit said: "We will never close our doors, our borders, to people and to humanity."

While the first day of the summit put emphasis on addressing the root causes of conflict and doing more to uphold international humanitarian law, the leaders of the United States and Russia, who are trying to broker a solution to the Syrian conflict, were notably absent.

Still, the dozens of government and civil society representatives who did attend tried to work toward solutions. Ban urged those gathered to commit to reducing the number of displaced people in the world by half by 2030.

The guiding principles of the summit include conflict prevention and resolution, strengthening the protection of civilians, and reducing humanitarian funding shortfalls.

"Very often pledges are being made but the money doesn't get where it is most needed," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her opening remarks.

She also called for a renewed global consensus regarding humanitarian principles, saying it is a "disaster" that leaders "need to talk about international humanitarian law being adhered to" when schools and hospitals are being bombed in Syria.

In Syria, at least 5,000 schools can no longer be used because they are destroyed, damaged or sheltering displaced families, according to UNICEF. Hundreds of schools have also closed as a result of crises in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

UNICEF and partner organizations announced at the summit they are hoping to raise $4 billion to give access to learning to 13.6 million children within five years. "Even in the direst circumstances, children want an education," UNICEF's Deputy Executive Director, Justin Forsyth, told The Associated Press.

Another focal point of the conference was making financial aid more efficient, mobilizing more funds to those in greatest need, and closing a $15 billion funding gap — three goals laid out under another UN-backed initiative dubbed the "Grand Bargain".

"We are a world that is capable to produce $73 trillion GDP," said Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for the Budget and Human Resources. "We surely can find this missing $15 billion for the most noble of purposes of humanity."