U.N. Official: Refugee Compact Will Meet Fear and Ignorance With Facts

The first draft of the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees prompted some critical responses. The U.N. official leading the process, Volker Turk, talks to Refugees Deeply about what the evolving drafts are trying to achieve at a challenging time for refugee protection.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Turk in Bangkok, May 2015. Wasawat Lukharang/NurPhoto

The effort to reach a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018 stepped up a gear in recent weeks when the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) released its first, or zero, draft and started formal consultations.

The compact aims to establish fairer sharing of the global responsibility for refugees, currently shouldered by the global South, and institute a more effective model of refugee assistance, called the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The draft will undergo further revisions throughout the year ahead of its scheduled adoption at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Several refugee experts told Refugees Deeply they felt the zero draft “lacks teeth” or criticized the scarcity of references to human rights or nonrefoulement – the prohibition on sending refugees back into danger.

We spoke to UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Turk, who is leading the compact process for the agency, about reactions to the first draft and the wider issues at stake in the months ahead.

Refugees Deeply: How do you view the concerns about language and lack of references to human rights in the zero draft?

Volker Turk: First of all, we are at the start of a process of engagement with all member states of the U.N., as well as with other stakeholders. The zero draft was meant to start the discussion. It was important to ensure that we get the reactions from everyone, which gives us a chance to revise the draft. So these reactions are very helpful.

At the same time, it is also important for us to ensure that the global compact is not seen as covering each and every aspect of refugee protection. Let’s not forget we have a very solid international legal regime in place for refugees. It is important to bear in mind what you put up for discussion at the intergovernmental level with 193 U.N. member states, because at the end of the day we will need to present a consensus document. It’s a question of strategy – to go into the areas that require further strengthening, such as responsibility-sharing, which is the main theme of the global compact. For us, it was a conscious decision not to put up for discussion what is already international law and policy, which is why you see a fairly cautious approach on that.

This being said, we have listened very carefully, and the next iteration of the draft will say very clearly what the international refugee protection regime is all about, which I think will satisfy some of the concerns we have heard.

Refugees Deeply: The current state of international responsibility sharing over refugees is quite dire. What new ideas does the zero draft offer?

Turk: It was very clear from members states and NGOs that there is an expectation to strengthen the mechanics of responsibility-sharing. In the next iteration of the draft, you will see stronger language precisely on these mechanisms, for instance the idea of a pledging process towards the global compact and trying to broaden the base of support.

One mechanism in the zero draft is a “global platform.” Once a country is faced with a large-scale influx of refugees or a protected refugee situation, this will make financial mechanisms and the emergency response more predictable. Another is the idea of solidarity conferences, which are not just about funding but also about material assistance, resettlement places or other complementary pathways.

I know that the current state of affairs is such that we wish there would be more resettlement, better family reunification, and more funding. The global compact is an aspiration that will yield better results over time. Yes, there will be some temporary setbacks, but overall we hope that within the next couple of years that we will see incremental progress on funding, on resettlement, on other initiatives like private sponsorships and building on achievements like World Bank engagement.

Refugees Deeply: What did UNHCR learn from the “solidarity conference” in Uganda last year, considering the shortfall in pledges and controversy over aid spending?

Turk: The idea of a solidarity conference was actually more borne out of the Syria situation, including the three conferences in Kuwait, then in London, then Brussels, and now another in Brussels this year. They were essentially around funding but also, in London, about inclusivity. A solidarity conference as we envisage in the global compact is even broader: for the international community to come together around one event that comprehensively encompasses all the support measures to a host country – not just funding, but also contributions of the World Bank or regional development banks, and concrete pledges for resettlement, private sponsorship mechanisms and better family reunification. We use this as a tool that galvanizes international attention. The idea is based on various experiences, including in Central America and for Indo-Chinese refugees. Uganda is one example, but it wasn’t really the one that we thought about so much.

Refugees Deeply: Are there things UNHCR learned from the solidarity conference in Uganda that you would do differently in future?

Turk: It has to be a process that involves the host country, the U.N., and civil society. There needs to be an engine behind it. It helps that, in the Syria situation, a couple of donor countries took the lead like Kuwait, the U.K. and now the European Union. In the Uganda context, maybe there wasn’t enough broadening of that. In a way, a lesson learned is that you need a platform, which is why we have this idea of a global platform that would be a vehicle of crafting the comprehensive response with the host country, and then planning for the mobilization of support.

Refugees Deeply: A cynic might say that donors had more political incentives to push Syrian solidarity conferences after Syrians arrived in Europe in 2015, whereas South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda just don’t loom as large among big donors’ political priorities.

Turk: The beauty of the global compact is precisely to ensure that some of those forgotten crises come to the center of attention. The Global Compact on Refugees makes a strong case for universal concern for refugees and for host countries, and for sustained political attention to these issues, not just now, but also in the future. We hope the lessons that Europe took away from the 2015 situation is that you need to be consistent in your engagement everywhere, not just in relation to the crisis that is in front of your doorstep.

Refugees Deeply: The implementation of the CRRF looks to depend on host countries feeling adequately supported by the international community, seeing economic benefits from inclusion of refugees and openness to alternative ways of funding refugee response, including international loans. With Tanzania dropping out of the CRRF in recent weeks, does this signal problems on any of those fronts?

Turk: It is unfortunate what has happened with Tanzania, but we are hoping to very much continue the approach. It is true that some national policies are difficult to overcome, such as the encampment policy. Sometimes it is a challenge for governments to change these policies. It is clear that as a result of the CRRF more resources have come in. We hope that with a lot of explaining and further engagement with Tanzania that the CRRF approach, even if it’s not formally applied anymore, will still inform the response.

Refugees Deeply: Will there be future CRRF rollouts in Europe? Otherwise the CRRF could be seen as another way of funneling aid to the global South.

Turk: It is obviously a model that countries in the global north would need to look at. But most countries in the industrialized world are not faced with large influxes nor with protracted refugee situations. You could say that Greece is, which is why some of the solidarity mechanisms in the compact could be an inspiration for solidarity mechanisms within the European Union. It was interesting that Germany last year undertook an internal exercise on the CRRF and what this meant for Germany. I know a couple of other countries have at least considered doing the same. If we have a global compact adopted, I’m sure many more countries would look at it. But let’s not forget that the movements towards the industrialized world are not comparable with what’s happening within the global south.

Refugees Deeply: You’ve said the compact will be a “signal of the international community’s intention to give substance to the concept of responsibility sharing.” Come September, what will be the indications that the compact really does have political buy-in?

I think one should look at measures of success over a mid- to long-term perspective. One is an improved system of responsibility-sharing among member states. The second is a stronger protection system for refugees. The third is better socioeconomic conditions for refugees in host communities, particularly women and girls. Then fourth, better ways to resolve protracted refugee situations, which means more resettlement, more solutions such as voluntary repatriation because conflict has ended, or local solutions like integration.

Refugees Deeply: What do you see as the biggest threats to refugee protection and how will the compact help address them?

Turk: The biggest threats to refugee protection are fear, ignorance and populism. These can be quite a toxic mix when it comes to influencing policies, laws, attitudes. What the global compact does is bring things back to facts, to evidence, to a human predicament and the concrete actions to do something about it. This can only be done collectively, not through negative discourse or isolationist tendencies. We hope that through the compact process there is also an education process, a process of coming together and regaining the necessary space to act, with a sense of compassion, but in a dispassionate way in terms of facts and evidence and protection principles. I hope that we can regain that humanitarian nonpolitical space, that these issues really require in order to be resolved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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