By the Lowy Institute's G20 Fellow Tristram Sainsbury and Research Associate Casper Wuite.

Chatham House's Paola Subacchi recently asked why the G20 has not addressed the Syrian refugee crisis. She acknowledges that refugee issues have not historically been within the G20's bailiwick. However, she argues that if the G20 cannot 'connect the dots between politics and economics' or take a lead in the crisis, then what is its purpose?

Individually, G20 countries are already playing a pivotal role in responding to the crisis. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Turkey is hosting an unprecedented 1.8 million refugees from Syria. Italy received 35.8% cent of all sea arrivals – 115,500 refugees – between January and July of this year. Germany received the most asylum applications, at 188,486, while the EU is planning to disperse 160,000 refugees throughout Europe. Other G20 members such as the US and the UK have been the highest financial contributors to the UN's Syria response at US$1.1 billion and US$475 million respectively. 

Yet despite these efforts, more needs to be done globally. The burden-sharing among G20 members remains uneven, with countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Korea and Japan so far unwilling to accommodate resettlers.

François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, urged the West earlier this year to adopt a global humanitarian plan that both resettles refugees and regulates migrant mobility. Part of this approach involves significant additional commitments from Europeans, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. This would be a highly challenging course of action politically, given how isolated Germany became when it attempted to rally Europe to agree to a coordinated humanitarian response. Yet the UN agencies on the front line face the prospect of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crisis.

Global governance arrangements are failing both migrants and states. If the G20 does not respond to the crisis, then the response will have to come from elsewhere. The G20 needs to play a role if it wishes the stay relevant as a major global political forum.

That does not, however, automatically predispose the G20 to taking the lead in solving the crisis. The G20 is not a 'doing' agency in responding to crises. Rather, its value comes from raising the political momentum for the relevant UN agencies, other bodies and countries to provide a meaningful response to crises. This was seen last year when the world came together in the face of the failures in health governance that led to the Ebola epidemic. The G20 played a passive role, but its political support provided valuable momentum to the international response.

The G20's approach to Ebola can be a blueprint for the refugee crisis. The first step should be for finance ministers, when they meet in Lima in two weeks' time, to do what they failed to achieve at their 4-5 September meeting and recognise the severity of the humanitarian crisis and need for a coordinated policy response. Then, when G20 leaders meet in Antalya on 15-16 November, they will need to decide how best to recognise the refugee crisis and how the world is responding.

They will also need to consider the politically vexing question of whether to increase the G20's collective intake of refugees, as well as which countries should bear the burden.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFID.