Refugees International Statement on the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants

In light of the current global displacement crisis, the largest witnessed since World War II, Refugees International welcomes the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, a high-level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly. This gathering of world leaders, taking place in New York on September 19, presents a unique and critical opportunity for the international community to stand together and commit to global cooperation for securing the safety and welfare of the world’s 65 million displaced persons. Further, the member states should use this moment to commit to verifiable implementation mechanisms, solidifying each state’s obligations contained in the foundational 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol. Under customary international law, these obligations apply to all states, whether convention signatories or not. In addition, the Summit’s outcome document, referred to as the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, which also includes the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, will be a critical tool going forward and the basis for developing a global compact by 2018.

Refugees International remains concerned, however, that the UN General Assembly’s refugees and migrants meeting may only serve to reinforce the status quo without strengthening accountability and enforcement mechanisms.

Refugees International remains concerned, however, that the UN General Assembly’s refugees and migrants meeting may only serve to reinforce the status quo without strengthening accountability and enforcement mechanisms. Instead, Refugees International urges the Summit participants to truly tackle the weaknesses in a system that has broken down in the face of the current unprecedented displacement crisis combined with government policies that favor shifting responsibility and restricting movement over providing protection, assistance, and long-term solutions.

The outcome document, expected to be adopted during next week’s plenary meeting, contains a reaffirmation of fundamental rights and principles for displaced people, but which likely will not break any new ground. These basic rights and principles include the “respect for the institution of asylum and the right to seek asylum” and “adherence to the fundamental principle of non-refoulement in accordance with international refugee law,” as well as the importance “to find long term and sustainable solutions” for displaced persons. The draft document also recognizes climate change induced displacement and the need to improve systems for the protection and assistance of people displaced by climate change and natural disasters. And last but not least, member states will pledge to “work towards” the adoption of a Global Compact on comprehensive refugee response by 2018.

In the form it is expected to be adopted, the Summit’s outcome document lacks the teeth to hold member states accountable to their commitments to those re-stated principles or to improve harmful behavior. 

In the form it is expected to be adopted, the Summit’s outcome document lacks the teeth to hold member states accountable to their commitments to those re-stated principles or to improve harmful behavior. For example, on the day of the Summit, the Kenyan government maintains its threat to close the Dadaab refugee camps, the largest in the world, with premature returns to Somalia as the only offered solution. Refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean also continue to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations between the European Union and Turkey, as Turkey’s border with Syria remains officially closed. European Union countries also committed to relocating 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but have only reached three percent of that target. Millions of people displaced within their own countries’ borders fall through the cracks of a system that often fails to meet basic needs. The commitments in the outcome document stand in stark contrast to the reality that many displaced people face on the ground and to the actual behavior that a number of member states and other international actors have taken in response to the global refugee crisis.

As is the usually the case with international summits, the ultimate value of this meeting will also depend on the work that happens in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. Refugees International will continue to investigate and evaluate each member state’s actions and compliance with its international protection obligations and will continue to give voice to those not in attendance at today’s summit: the tens of millions of refugees and internally displaced people around the world.