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The Refugee Problem in New York

NEW YORK – Every September, many of the world’s presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers descend on New York City for a few days. They come to mark the start of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, to give speeches that tend to receive more attention at home than they do in the hall, and – in the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating – to pack as many meetings as is humanly possible into their schedules.

There is also a tradition of designating a specific issue or problem for special attention, and this year will be no exception. September 19 will be devoted to discussing the plight of refugees (as well as migrants) and what more can and should be done to help them.

It is a good choice, as there are now an estimated 21 million refugees in the world. Originally defined as those who leave their countries because of fear of persecution, refugees now also include those forced to cross borders because of conflict and violence. This number is up sharply from just five years ago, owing primarily to chaos across the Middle East, with Syria alone the source of nearly one in every four refugees in the world today.

The attention of the UN and its member states does not reflect only the increase in numbers or heightened humanitarian concern over the suffering of the men, women, and children who have been forced to leave their homes and their countries. It also stems from the impact of the flow of refugees on destination countries, where it has upended politics in one country after another.