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The Real Opportunity at the U.N. Refugee Summit

In the concluding part of his preview of the U.N. Refugee Summit, Alexander Betts looks beyond “vague” outcome documents and lays out five potential catalysts to change the global refugee system.

Written by Alexander Betts Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Greece migrants10
Children play at the top of a tent at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens. Greece has been used as a holding pen for nearly 70,000 refugees as part of a deal between the E.U. and Turkey. AP/Petros Giannakouris

The success of the September 19 U.N. summit on refugees and migration remains uncertain. It is the result of a series of political compromises rather the outcome of a clear vision for reform. Its key documents have been produced hastily, contain conceptual ambiguities and leave a significant amount to governments. The two envisaged “global compacts” are still subject to being contested, and the final declaration is likely to be vague.

Given that a U.N. General Assembly summit needs to reach consensus among all member states, it is understandable that the summit will focus on agreement on carefully crafted abstract principles. Despite the limitations, there are also opportunities.

They arise from the fact that this is one of the highest-level political meetings ever to focus on refugees and migration. For the first time, there is widespread recognition that change is needed to the multilateral system created to address the large-scale movement of refugees and migrants.

That change will not be delivered by the documents that have been produced for the summit.

There are two main pathways to change:

1. The global compacts need to be conceived in a way that connects them directly to operational practice;
2. The summit can be a means to stimulate and catalyze a range of new initiatives and partnerships.

The U.N. secretary-general’s report that preceded the summit calls for two global compacts: one on responsibility-sharing around refugees; the other on safe, regular migration.

One of the most fundamental obstacles to refugees’ access to protection is the absence of a clearly defined and widely accepted obligation to engage in burden-sharing or responsibility-sharing.

The proposal for a global compact on responsibility-sharing tries to develop a set of principles to enhance cooperation and deliver “a more predictable way of responding to large movements of refugees.”

Various forms of responsibility-sharing have been highlighted: hosting; humanitarian funding; resettlement and other admissions pathways. It sets out one target: A goal of 10 percent resettlement – in comparison to a status quo of less than 1 percent.

The “zero draft” of the negotiated outcome document elaborates on some of the proposed elements. In particular, it proposes a “comprehensive response … for all situations involving large movements of refugees,” including contributions from states, civil society actors, NGOs and business.

This appears to be a reference to the historical precedent of comprehensive plans of action (CPAs) used so effectively in the past on refugees. But it begs the question why the international community was unable to agree such a comprehensive response for Syria and the Mediterranean?

History teaches us that abstract commitments to burden-sharing simply do not work. We already have commitments such as the Preamble to the 1951 Convention and the 1998 UNHCR Executive Committee Resolution on Burden-Sharing. All of them fit the bill.

Yet governments continue to regard responsibility-sharing as largely discretionary. Conversely, the most effective way of inducing responsibility-sharing has been to focus on situations-specific crises. Past successes like the International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA) relied upon UNHCR leadership and the recognition of, and appeal, to states’ political interests in specific contexts.

The key to achieving sustainable responsibility-sharing cannot be an abstract global compact alone. It has to be the creation of specific mechanisms for political engagement.

Options for this might include:

  • UNHCR special envoys on responsibility-sharing
  • A U.N.-wide global commission on responsibility-sharing
  • Enhancing UNHCR’s internal capacity for political analysis and engagement
  • The development of a “model” comprehensive plan of action with clear mechanisms to trigger the development and implementation of a CPA-like response.

There is an imbalance between the refugee and migration components of both the UNSG’s report and the outcome document. The compact on refugees has undergone a significant degree of conceptual development; the global compact on migration has not. The second compact emerged mainly because the International Organization for Migration requested it.

While “responsibility-sharing” has offered a clear focus for the refugee compact, “safe, regular, and orderly migration” amounts to a far vaguer set of parameters within which to develop one.

Indeed, different actors have pulled in different directions. A more focused push has been to use the compact to address the needs of vulnerable migrants who fall outside the refugee framework. But this, too, has led to contestation. In the absence of a clear definition of “vulnerable migrants” in the UNSG’s report, different actors have used different conceptual framings. In the absence of clarity on the scope and focus of the compact, much of the substantive development has been deferred beyond September 19.

The most significant transformation in global migration governance likely to emerge from September 19 will be progress towards the IOM becoming a U.N. member organization. While it remains unclear exactly what status it will have, there is a growing consensus among states that the U.N. system needs a migration agency.

While the detail of these global compacts will consume much of the summit, they should not obscure its greater responsibility. It is an opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of forced migration and to set in motion a process of reform to update multilateral institutions designed for a different era.

A range of parallel ideas and initiatives will be announced and launched, not only by governments but also private actors. Initiatives relating to the protection of vulnerable migrants, the promotion of self-reliance for refugees, the creation of jobs and education for refugees and pledges of funding for business engagement are all being deliberated at the margins of the summit.

It is the innovative ideas – such as special economic zones for refugees in Jordan, the pilot Kalobeyei refugee camp in Kenya, OHCHR’s embryonic principles on the protection of vulnerable migrants, the new Platform on Disaster Displacement and the business initiatives that will be discussed at the related Concordia Summit – that will ultimately transform refugee and migration governance.

The key will be to ensure September 19 evolves into a process that can embrace these initiatives, generating clear and meaningful connections between abstract principles and practical initiatives. All of this is realistic and achievable.

But the elephant in the room remains the question of institutional reform. The summit process has managed to bypass arguably the most fundamental question: what kind of global governance model do we need to address large-scale refugee and migratory movements in the 21st century? This avoidance is understandable and reflects a combination of inertia and a lack of a vision. But it is a question that can only be deferred for so long.

Five catalysts for change:

1. The summit must be conceived as a starting point for new multi-stakeholder initiatives
2. Clear pathways need to be established that connect generic agreements directly to mechanisms that ensure implementation
3. Follow-up mechanisms need to be established that ensure outcomes are revisited and assessed rather than forgotten
4. International organizations working on refugees and migration need to commit to a process of reflection on their own business models and mandates
5. The summit must also openly recognize that the main challenges for addressing the large-scale movement of refugees and migrants are not about norms and principles but about the politics of implementation and compliance, and ensure free-riding states with disingenuous practices are held to account.

September 19 is a starting point, and for success to follow, it must ensure the talk connects to real operational challenges and does not shirk the big questions of institutional reform.

Further reading:

Part 1: U.N Refugee Summit: Abstract Discussions in the Face of a Deadly Crisis

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