Hopes high but doubts abound as world leaders convene to tackle refugee crisis

As world leaders gather to tackle the global refugee crisis in two historic summits at the United Nations, doubts are emerging about the impact the summits will have on the world's 21 million refugees.

Refugees and experts watching closely as 2 historic summits on refugees convene in New York

Migrants from war-torn Syria walk on the beach after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 11, 2015. Syrian refugees now number 4.8 million. They are among 21.3 million refugees from dozens of countries. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Fadila Maamo wipes away tears as she talks about the toll the journey from Aleppo, Syria, to New Jersey took on her family. Her husband, Moustafa Gareb, started the process, but never lived to see his wife and three of his children set foot on American soil.

"His main worry was his children," she said through an interpreter. "It was very hard for us emotionally."

Gareb died of cancer before the family completed the difficult journey taken by relatively few refugees from Syria to the United States.
Fadila Maamo and her husband, Moustafa Gareb. Gareb helped his family flee Syria in 2013, but he died of cancer before they reached the U.S. in 2016. (Fayza Gareb)

They left Aleppo in 2013, two years after the start of the Syrian civil war. They fled to Turkey, and arrived in Jersey City a month ago, with the help of Christian aid group Church World Service.

"Life [in America] is beautiful, but it's hard for us as refugees, because we don't know everything here, we have to learn everything from the beginning," said Fayza Gareb, 21, the eldest daughter.

They know they are the lucky ones. This year, the U.S. has welcomed just over 10,000 Syrian refugees. That surpasses a goal set by U.S. President Barack Obama, but is less than half of the 25,000 admitted to Canada, and, aid groups say, a paltry figure in light of the estimated 4.8 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Middle East and Europe.
Early next week, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce an increase of 25,000 in the number of refugees the U.S. will admit next year. (Ron Sachs/Getty Images)

With 21.3 million refugees worldwide, the pressure is on world leaders as they gather for a historic summit on refugees at the United Nations on Monday. The following day, President Obama, and his co-host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will hold a leaders summit aimed at getting specific commitments.

"We're hoping the Obama summit will put some meat on the bones from the day before from the UN summit, which is going to be a lot of lofty rhetoric but very little concrete," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch.

Summit critics

Frelick's organization and Amnesty International have been critical of the UN summit, saying a draft of the final document lacks solid proposals or any way to compel countries to do their share. 

He says countries taking part in the Obama summit will be coming prepared to make a commitment in at least one of three key areas: increased funding for humanitarian appeals, admitting more refugees through resettlement, or working to improve asylum conditions in states in the front lines of the refugee crisis.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets a family of Syrian refugees during their arrival in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2015. Canada is not expected to make a major refugee announcement in New York. Instead a top official says Trudeau is expected to announce specific measures to help refugees adjust to life in their new homes. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"The Obama summit is really an effort to have governments pay to play. They're not supposed to come to the summit unless they're prepared to make commitments," Frelick said.

Canada is not expected to make a major refugee announcement in New York; instead a top official says Trudeau is expected to announce specific measures to help refugees adjust to life in their new homes.

Frelick says Canada's promise to accept at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees, along with the role private citizens have played in sponsoring Syrian families, sends a strong message to world leaders.

"[Canadians] are saying, we understand that we're part of a global community and we want to be responsible members of that community, that's really an important message," Frelick said.

Obama is expected to announce the U.S. will raise the number of refugees it admits — from 85,000 this year to 110,000 in 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch says U.S. President Barack Obama is at the limit politically of what he can do to help refugees given the heated rhetoric from the election campaign. (Steven D'Souza)

Frelick says the timing of the summit couldn't be worse for Obama, with an election upcoming and with heated anti-refugee rhetoric from Donald Trump and others.

'Pushing the limit'

"Given the political realities in the U.S. where 31 governors have said they don't want Syrian and Iraqi refugees to come to their states, [Obama] is pushing at the limit of what he can do politically," Frelick said.

But some like Ibrahim Al Assil, co-founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, say forcing countries to accept more refugees isn't enough. He says the two major gatherings need to tackle the conflicts that force people to flee.

"We think the most important point is to tackle the root cause, to protect people in their home countries so they don't leave it and they don't become refugees," he said.

For Fayza Gareb and her family, they continue to watch the destruction of their homeland from afar, and hope something positive comes out when world leaders meet across the river from their new home.
Fayza Gareb (right) poses with her mother Fadila Maamo (left) and her sister Zandavesta. The family of refugees recently arrived in the U.S. from Syria. (Fayza Gareb)

"I have a sister in Syria and I want to bring the family together."

Gareb says concerns in the U.S. about terrorism and safety around refugees are unfounded.

"We are humans like you. We leave our country because it's dangerous and difficult for us. We came here to live in peace, not to make life difficult for you."

With files from David Cochrane and the Associated Press


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.