SDG 16 aims to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’, writes Sarah Ansari.
When the United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 in the shadow of the Second World War, 51 countries initially signed up to its commitment to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights. There was a widely recognised consensus about the need to build a better, more peaceful, inclusive, and just world. But today this goal remains a long way from being achieved: according to the UN’s Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2020 report, by the end of that year, the number of people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order had grown to over 80 million (around 1 per cent of the world’s population), the highest ever number on record, according to available data.
Rights and protection weakened by the pandemic
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is indisputably the biggest collective crisis since the global conflict of the 1940s. With major disruptions in government functioning, it has tested, weakened and sometimes even shattered countries’ systems of rights and protection. And it is the most vulnerable worldwide who are at greatest risk. The exploitation of millions of children, for instance, has been linked directly to the combined effects of pandemic-related school closures and economic distress, with an additional 8.9 million children set to be pushed out to work by the end of 2022. Another negative development that attracted international attention was the pandemic lockdown’s impact on Indian migrant workers, who, having lost their already unstable livelihoods virtually overnight, trekked for hundreds of miles back from major cities to their home villages, often taking the virus with them.
UNICEF reported in March 2021 that schools for more than 168 million children globally had been closed due to the pandemic. Photo of empty class seats from UNICEF.
As well as accentuating inequalities both within and between states, the pandemic has intensified the problems faced by displaced people. In 2019, figures based on 111 countries with available data suggested that only 54 per cent of them had comprehensive policy and institutional measures in place to facilitate the safe mobility of people. Between 2010 and 2020, when the pandemic first struck, the proportion of the global population who ended up refugees more than doubled. By mid-2020, as the pandemic gathered momentum, UN estimates placed refugee numbers at the highest absolute figure on record, equating to 307 out of every 100,000 people. In addition, there are now around 50 million internally displaced people (IDPs), forced to move within their home countries by armed conflict, generalised violence, and/or human rights violations.
The impact on asylum-seekers and displaced people
What has intensified the negative impact of the pandemic from the point of view of the movement of people has been the tightening of border restrictions – at the peak of its first wave in April 2020, 168 countries had fully or partially closed their borders, with many making no exceptions even for asylum-seekers. While the full impact of COVID-19 on global cross-border migration and displacement is not yet clear, UNHCR data shows that arrivals of new refugees and asylum-seekers were sharply down in most regions – about 1.5 million fewer people than would have been expected in non-pandemic circumstances and reflecting how many of those seeking international protection in 2020 became stranded. But mobility restrictions notwithstanding, tens of thousands of people have still embarked on dangerous journeys to places where they faced an uncertain reception, though difficulties in collecting data make it impossible to know how many have died along the way. As the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) argued in 2020, effective COVID-19 responses needed to consider the specific vulnerabilities and protection needs of migrants (including refugees).
Consideration of refugees and migrants missing from SDGs
The aim of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, was ensure that all nations and all people everywhere would be included in achieving its SDGs. The pledge that no one would be ‘left behind’ extended to refugees and other displaced people: migrants, for instance, were held up as making a positive contribution to inclusive growth and sustainable development. Only through international cooperation could their humane treatment be secured. But despite the input from the UNHCR, as well as other humanitarian agencies, refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants more generally, were barely mentioned in the actual SDGs themselves. Moreover, when in July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted a framework of indicators to measure progress towards meeting the SDGs, none specifically or explicitly mentioned refugees. Critics quickly highlighted that the fate of displaced people and the achievement of the SDGs were closely intertwined, a connection that was reiterated in the International Rescue Committee’s 2019 Missing Persons: Refugees Left Out and Left Behind in the Sustainable Development Goals, which reported that ‘refugees are all but invisible. Of 42 countries that submitted 2019 Voluntary National Reviews—an optional self-assessment of national progress toward the goals—just 13 mentioned refugees as meriting specific attention’.
Following concerted lobbying, a successful case was made at Addis Ababa in October 2019 for including indicator targets for refugees in the SDGs. This undoubtedly represented a major gain, overturning earlier thinking that issues connected with displaced persons were too focused on humanitarian concerns to figure in a development context: ‘For the work on improving data and statistics on refugees, this is a game-changer; for other displaced groups, this progress will also open doors’. And, hopefully, this may lead to more joined-up thinking on where displaced people – be they migrants, refugees or IDPs – fit into the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.
As recent events in Afghanistan have underlined so dramatically, conflict continues to generate human traffic, with people pushed and pulled by political crisis into searching for safer places to live and thrive. Moving forward, however, as the 2021 SDG report highlights, achieving progress on SDG 16 requires that humanitarian concerns remain ‘front and centre’ in development initiatives – the two really cannot be separated or disentangled from each other.
Professor Sarah Ansari is a historian of South Asia. Much of her recent research has focused on the largest population displacement of the twentieth century, namely the 1947 Partition that took place alongside independence from British rule in South Asia, and particularly Partition’s long-term impact on the lives of the millions of people displaced by it.