Cheering on #TeamRefugees: Applause Without Action

Screen Shot from NBC's YouTube

As the world watched the opening ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Friday night, one team stood above the rest. Ten refugees proudly marched into the stadium during the Parade of Nations as the crowd welcomed them with a standing ovation. These four women and six men didn’t wave the flags of Syria, South Sudan, DRC, and Ethiopia, the home countries they have been forced to leave to escape war, violence, or persecution. They stood united under the Olympic flag.

In anticipation of their participation, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said, “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”

But after the medals have been awarded, and the team spends their last night in the Olympic Village, what will become of them? And beyond the lives of these ten remarkable athletes, how will this historic global moment impact the lives of other refugees? How will it affect Yusra Mardini’s fellow refugees waiting behind closed borders in Greece, or Paulo Lokoro’s mother waiting in limbo in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, or Rami Anis’ friends and family trapped in besieged Aleppo?

The Olympic platform aims to inspire viewers’ goodwill toward refugees and humanize a crisis that is affecting a staggering 21.3 million people globally. Yet #TeamRefugees also serves as a stark symbol of the failure of the international community. As Dara Lind of Vox articulated: “instead of stepping up to face the challenge, many of the world’s richest countries are resigned to inaction at best, and closing their doors at worst.”

But as the fanfare of the games continues, behind the scenes momentum is building toward a key moment for change. Now, countries are exhibiting their strength and leadership in the athletic arena. Soon world leaders will have two opportunities to demonstrate their strength and leadership in the political and humanitarian spheres. On September 19, the UN General Assembly will - for the first time - convene Heads of State for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. The stated goal is “creating a more responsible, predictable system for responding to large movements of refugees and migrants.” Building on this event, on September 20, U.S.  President Barack Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. At this summit, governments will be invited to pledge significant new commitments to increase humanitarian funding, expand resettlement programs, and increase refugees’ access to school and work. 

These moments have the potential to galvanize global responsibility-sharing and mount a long-awaited collective international response. Yet there are already indications that these ‘high-level’ meetings could result in nothing more than empty platitudes, that at best reinforce the status quo and at worst weaken existing norms. Evidence of this includes the uninspiring result of negotiations on a non-binding   UN declaration, which world leaders will adopt at the UN summit. Any plan for implementation or mechanisms for ensuring states follow through on their commitments has not yet been articulated. 

We must demand more from our global leadership. Good intentions are not sufficient, this moment requires action and accountability.

We cannot convene again in four years at the Tokyo Summer Olympics to watch another refugee team march in the Parade of Nations to “raise awareness of the magnitude of the crisis.”

We cannot be fooled into thinking that attention indicates success. The spotlight will dim on the Olympic Refugee Team's moment in Rio. But the millions of forcibly displaced persons standing alongside them cannot afford for the political spotlight to also dim without real and measurable commitments from the international community.

The world is aware. Now what will we do?