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Baltimore relief groups join call for overhaul of world's refugee system

Baltimore relief groups join call for overhaul of world's refugee system.

As the U.N. General Assembly meets to discuss the worst refugee crisis in history, humanitarian agencies based in Baltimore are joining the call to overhaul the way the world comes to the aid of people forced from their homes by wars and disasters.

Paul Miller, an adviser at Lutheran World Relief, says the current system, designed 70 years ago to address the flow of peoples across Europe after World War II, isn't able to respond effectively to the conflicts of today, which can leave people living as refugees for decades.

"Is this thing fit for purpose?" he asked, and answered himself: "No. It no longer is."

Solutions, they say, include resolving the conflicts that drive people from their homes, but also preparing to educate and employ displaced people who might never be able to return.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called the displacement of an estimated 65 million people worldwide "one of the most urgent tests of our time," and announced that 52 nations and organizations had agreed to boost their spending on refugee efforts by a total of $4.5 billion.

"Just as failing to act in the past — for example by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany — is a stain on our collective conscience, I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment," he said at a summit convened by the United States.

The 193 member states of the United Nations, meeting in New York for a first-of-its-kind conference, adopted a declaration of support for the estimated 65 million refugees and migrants now displaced worldwide.

"You hear all around the world the U.N. hasn't handled the refugee crisis," said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the world body. "The way the U.N. will handle the refugee crisis is if all of us countries within the U.N. step up and dig deep and face those political headwinds that we all face, to do more, to give more, to take on a greater share of the resettlement challenge."

Participants Tuesday included World Relief and Catholic Relief Services, both of which are headquartered in Baltimore.

Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, said she had "witnessed … an uncommon show of common purpose to address the many challenges posed by the refugee crisis among countries that don't always see eye to eye."

"It was inspiring to witness not just compassion, but a sense of moral responsibility for the refugees," she said. "It was good to hear the call for peace; I hope our leaders dignify the refugees by their follow through."

Before the conference, Catholic Relief Services said it had joined with 30 other organizations to pledge $1.2 billion for refugee relief in the next three years.

In the declaration approved Monday by the General Assembly, members pledged efforts to standardize their response to refugee crises and to provide better education and jobs to refugees. They also encouraged resettlement and planned a campaign to combat xenophobia.

That could prove a challenge. Populations in Europe and the United States have grown polarized over refugees and migrants.

Members failed to agree on specific measures to improve the conditions of the displaced people. They agreed instead to keep working on the issue for another two years.

Several countries rejected a draft of the agreement that called on nations to resettle 10 percent of the refugee population each year. Several human rights groups criticized the document as a missed opportunity.

The United States and some other countries also objected to language that said children should never be detained. The agreement now says children should seldom be detained, if ever.

The declaration paves the way for negotiations on a pair of global compacts — one to provide guidelines on the treatment of vulnerable migrants, and another to seek more equitable burden sharing in support of the world's refugees.

While the summit Tuesday led to more specific promises from some countries to aid refugees, Obama said more had to be done.

"I'm heartened by the commitments that have been made here today. They will help save lives," he said. "But we're going to have to be honest: It's still not enough, not sufficient for a crisis of this magnitude. That's why I believe this summit must be the beginning of a new global movement where everybody does more."

One of the biggest challenges, Miller said, is ending the conflicts that lead people to flee in the first place. Without a plan for doing that, he said, it's hard to move on to questions of how to help refugees return home.

"That's what really needs to be addressed," he said. "And that is the hardest thing because it involves diplomacy."

While the politics of changing the world's approach to handling refugees and ending wars are difficult, the relief organizations, which work closely with displaced people, say meaningful steps could be taken.

Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, a lobbyist with Catholic Relief Services, said the world needs to change the way it thinks of refugees. Rather than being displaced only briefly, in many cases they might not return home for years — if ever.

"Guests leave," she said. "We need to change the mentality away from one of hospitality."

That means thinking through how to educate the children of refugees and finding ways to allow them to work legally.

As part of Tuesday's summit, the White House said, 17 countries with large refugee populations had vowed to increase opportunities for schooling and 15 countries had pledged to make new economic opportunities available.

The conflict in Syria, which has driven 4.8 million people to flee for other countries and displaced another 6.6 million within the country, has drawn new attention to refugees. But large populations have also been displaced by conflict in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan, among other nations.

In some countries new refugees have arrived even as those from previous conflicts in the region remain stuck. Refugees have flooded into countries that were already struggling to provide for their own citizens.

Gerschutz-Bell said it's worth thinking through a new approach now, because the world can expect more refugees in the future.

"We will continue to see large-scale movements of persons whether it's because they're fleeing violence or climate shocks or natural disasters," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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