While the first-ever refugee team was greeted by a standing ovation at the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Vox’s Dara Lind writes that nations must do more to fix their crisis.
“The Refugee Olympic Team is also a symbol of the failure of the international community,” Lind writes. “In 2012, the year of the last Summer Olympics in London, there were only 11 million global refugees. Four years later, that number has increased by nearly three-quarters — both because of new and worsening crises and because, more than ever, longtime refugees are unable to go home.”
The ten athletes were selected from a pool of 1,000, meant to represent some 19 million refugees and asylum seekers displaced around the world. IOC President Thomas Bach opened the ceremony by saying that “these refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” but that the games would “offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the word.”
But what happens to them after the games are over?
It won’t be enough for people to feel better about refugees — or to be more aware of them. Those things won’t help refugees not be refugees anymore. What’s going to need to happen is for governments to step in and do more to help — and, in particular, to resettle people.
Resettlement is the most direct thing rich countries can do for refugees. It’s also, as UNHCR points out in its 2015 Global Trends report, a “tangible expression of responsibility sharing” — a way for rich countries to prove they aren’t just walling themselves off from instability in the rest of the world.
It works both ways. It’s a feeling of shared responsibility that turns sympathy into action.
Last fall, newspapers all over the world printed the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on the shore after drowning as he and his family tried to get into Turkey. Newland describes the initial reaction in countries like Australia and England as “a sort of denial: ‘Oh, this is terrible, but nothing to do with us.’” But as the public outcry continued, she said, politicians in both countries changed their positions — and each agreed to accept thousands more refugees in coming years.
In America, too, willingness to accept refugees is linked to what Elizabeth McIlvain of the Brookings Institution calls “a sense of liability” — last fall, 54 percent of Americans said the US bore some responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis. But after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, that communal responsibility was swamped by a desire for protection through isolation.
That’s the attitude that’s prevailed — even up to the eve of the Olympic Games.
A few days before the opening ceremony in Rio, the UN General Assembly agreed to a “political declaration” about the refugee crisis — which will be formally adopted during a UN refugee summit on September 19, a month after the closing ceremony.
It’s a declaration of best intentions, Newland says: “It’s a very aspirational statement, I can put it that way.”
But it doesn’t include what the UN most wanted: a commitment to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees (which would be about 2 million people, given current numbers). Western Europe and Russia weren’t willing to agree to a discrete goal.
(The US, for its part, was squeamish about a proposed provision that would prevent governments from detaining children seeking asylum — something the US is still doing to hundreds of Central American families who’ve crossed the border in recent years.)
The UN kicked the can down the road to 2018, when it will ratify an official refugee compact.
That doesn’t mean that the pressure isn’t on individual countries to act now. “Sometimes countries will do a lot more than they will formally agree to do,” Newland says. When the UN hosts its refugee summit on September 19, President Obama will host a “leaders’ meeting” alongside it — with the express purpose of getting countries to individually commit to taking in more refugees.
No one will say outright that they think the Refugee Olympic Team will generate enough goodwill (or political pressure) to get leaders to sign up for more resettlement. But it would certainly be a good indication of whether it was able to inspire feelings of not just global community but global responsibility.