The G-20, Syrian refugees, and the chill wind from the Paris tragedy

The tragic and deadly attacks in Paris, the day before leaders were set to arrive in Antalya, Turkey, for the G-20 summit, underlined the divisions that Syria, its fleeing population, and the terrorists of ISIS have created, as fear and short-term political calculations seem to shove aside policies aimed at sustainable solutions to the unprecedented refugee challenge.

It had started on a more hopeful note. Turkey, which chairs the G-20 this year, had placed the refugee issue on the agenda, hoping for a substantive global dialogue while looking for broad-based solutions to the crisis in Syria and the terrorism challenge. No doubt the 2 million refugees in Turkey played a big role, as President Erdogan and other officials tried to rally support for this unusual situation in a variety of G-20 and other venues.

Turkey was supported by another full member of the G-20, the EU, the only non-nation state member of the group, which shrugged off its complacency when hundreds of thousands turned up on its shores in 2015. European Council President Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, echoed the Turkish President in calling for a global response: “Meeting in Turkey in the midst of a refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere, the G-20 must rise to the challenge and lead a coordinated and innovative response… recognizing its global nature and economic consequences and promote greater international solidarity in protecting refugees.”

The G-20 is an imposing group, consisting of the world’s 20 largest economies, accounting for 85 percent of its GDP, 76 percent of its trade, and two-thirds of its population. Established in 1999 and growing in reach since the 2008 financial crisis, it should be a body that carries weight beyond the economic, with effective mechanisms to have impact on the global agenda. Yet, while Syria and the refugee crisis was the first time the G-20 stepped outside its usual narrower economic mandate, the agenda was quickly overtaken.     

The tragedy in Paris highlighted deep divisions over the refugees. Poland’s new government was the first to announce that it would stop participating in the EU resettlement plan whereby it would have accepted 5,000 refugees. Politicians from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia as well as those with a nativist message from the Nordic countries, France, Germany, and others saw an opening for tighter border controls and a much less welcoming approach to the more than 800,000 refugees that have already made their way into Europe, not to mention the many more on the way. Such views linking refugees to terrorism are not restricted to Europe but can be seen on the other side of the Atlantic, as U.S. presidential candidates and some 27 State Governors declared that Syrian refugees were not welcome.

At this early date, except for a single Syria passport “holder”—a document easily acquired these days, and found near one of the suicide bombing sites in Paris—all those who died or are being sought as suspects are citizens of either France or Belgium. Clearly, there could be some who get into Europe by using the refugees as a cover but with literally thousands of Europeans fighting in Syria, the real threat emanates from the small number of home-grown extremists in Europe who have easy access to the West and a cultural and linguistic familiarity that will elude newcomers for years. This was the same scenario one saw in the Madrid, London, Copenhagen, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year. 

Fear is winning out over policy

The EU also appears in disarray on aiding the 4 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. This is significant since it is reduced funding and aid that is leading to the worsening of conditions in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and driving many to Europe. Turkey too is reaching its limits and may potentially face a million or more new refugees if Aleppo falls. Yet funds pledged to these countries remain largely unfulfilled—of the 2.3 billion euros pledged by EU governments, only 486 million are firm government offers. The discussions between the EU and Turkey for additional aid to refugees of 3 billion euros also remain less-than-certain since such aid requires that EU countries agree to receiving and distributing asylum-seekers from Turkey. It also underlines the lack of funding for Jordan and Lebanon.    

In the end, the G-20 yielded little by way of concrete actions on refugees, though additional border controls, enhanced airport security, and intelligence sharing were promised. There was a call for broader burden sharing and greater funding of humanitarian efforts, as well as a search for political solutions. The G-20 also added little to the broad outlines of a potential settlement on Syria discussed in Vienna, Austria, on November 14, 2015, a day before the start of the G-20 summit.

Unfortunately, these are the very things that separate G-20 members among and within themselves. The growing danger is that fear and political opportunism rather than well-thought-out polices will guide the global response to the greatest human displacement tragedy since World War II. It is precisely this fearful and exclusive reaction that ISIS seeks. Indeed, that legacy may live long after ISIS is gone.