Explainer: The Global Compact on Refugees

The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), endorsed by the UN General Assembly on December 17, 2018, is designed to promote responsibility-sharing among host countries and communities to better support refugees. The GCR’s four objectives are to ease pressures on host countries, strengthen refugee self-reliance, make third-country solutions more accessible, and support conditions in countries of origin that allow refugees to return safely.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has written that the purpose of the GCR is to address root causes of displacement while centralizing protection for refugees, relying on the “cardinal principle of non-refoulement (or non-return of those who fear persecution). The GCR seeks to facilitate cooperation among, inter alia, states, national and local authorities, organizations, and refugees and their host communities.

This comprehensive structure was developed to prevent responsibility-sharing from being “ad hoc” and “unreliable.” The vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in countries of the global south, and more than 39 percent of refugees are in just five countries (Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany). In seeking to ensure that a small proportion of countries do not take on the “lion’s share of responsibility,” the GCR promotes collaborative, stable solutions for refugees so they can become more self-reliant.

In many respects, the GCR reflects what had been an evolving consensus among many governments, international organizations, and advocates over many years about the importance of 1) greater donor financial support for countries in the global south hosting refugees; 2) additional host country efforts to promote refugee self-reliance and livelihoods if not complete integration; 3) increased third-country resettlement by donor countries; and 4) reaffirmation of the principle of non-refoulement. Although the GCR brings enhanced international recognition and attention to refugees, some have criticized the failure of the document to move much beyond this “liberal consensus” and make the rights of refugees more of a focal point.

Framework for Review

The main source of review for the GCR is the quadrennial Global Refugee Forum (GRF), at which states and other actors meet to discuss best practices to realize the goals of the GCR. The first Forum, held in December 2019, had 3,000 attendees.

To encourage accountability, there will also be high-level officials’ meetings every two years between Forums—the first will occur in December 2021—and annual reporting to the UN General Assembly by UNHCR. The GCR includes a section describing a “Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework” (CRRF), which is essentially a guide for implementation of the broad range of protection measures referenced in the GCR and applicable to particular situations “involving large movements of refugees.” The CRRF section of the GCR envisions that these frameworks “should involve a multi-stakeholder approach, including national and local authorities, international organizations, international financial institutions, regional organizations, regional coordination and partnership mechanisms, civil society partners, including faith-based organizations, the private sector, employers’ and workers’ organizations and other stakeholders.”

Additionally, UNHCR has developed an indicator framework to collect data for monitoring progress of the GCR’s four objectives. Enhanced data collection is critical to effective decision-making. And a comprehensive report on the various indicators will be presented at the inaugural high-level officials’ meetings later this year. 


Process: UNHCR envisions national ownership and leadership as essential to the GCR’s success. The GRF and high-level officials’ meetings are intended to serve as ongoing, cooperative efforts to construct a long-term strategy to engage states and other actors.

The GCR envisioned support platforms to enable partnerships among host countries and communities across regions. The 2019 GRF established three support platforms: the MIRPS (Marco Integral Regional para la Protección y Soluciones) in Central America and Mexico, the Nairobi Process in east Africa, and the Support Platform for Afghan refugees.

As conceived in the GCR, UNHCR developed a Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and complementary pathways to increase the number of countries offering admission to those in need to international protection. (As characterized by UNHCR, complementary pathways are “safe and regulated avenues that complement refugee resettlement and by which refugees may be admitted in a country and have their international protection needs met while they are able to support themselves to potentially reach a sustainable and lasting solution.”) The Strategy also provides “an ambitious blueprint” for achieving the GCR’s goals long-term, including resettling 1 million refugees and increasing the number of countries receiving resettlement submissions from the current 29 to 50 by 2028.

Efforts in specific countries: To be sure, many of the GCR “innovations” reflect practices that governments have already sought to undertake. Nonetheless, since adoption of the GCR, there have been a range of activities that appear to have been directly informed by it. In particular, countries have launched steering groups (Uganda), held symposia (Chad), or adopted general efforts to facilitate implementation of the GCR. Uganda’s steering group contains a Refugee Engagement Forum to represent refugee voices. In Rwanda, the African Entrepreneur Collective is working with more than 14,000 refugee entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, to loan money to help them launch businesses. In Colombia, UNHCR has collaborated with other actors to fight statelessness by promoting access to nationality to children born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents. Finally, the Poverty Alleviation Coalition, made up of UNHCR, the World Bank Partnership for Economic Inclusion, and 13 NGOs, seeks to alleviate poverty for 160,000 refugee and host community households in 26 countries by the second GRF in 2023. More generally, efforts around the GCR have coincided with a range of international efforts to promote better outcomes for refugees, such as World Bank and donor efforts to promote labor market access in host countries.

Assessment of Implementation and Recommendations

It will be some time before considered judgments about the impact of the GCR can be made. And even if its ambitious objectives of greater responsibility-sharing and refugee self-reliance are realized, the GCR is less a refugee rights declaration than a limited intergovernmental measure promoted by UNHCR to encourage greater attention, resources, and responsibility-sharing to enhance refugee well-being and reaffirm existing refugee rights. For example, it does not include fundamental advances relating to the right of regularization of status or international mobility for refugees. Nevertheless, if implemented robustly, it could represent real progress toward improvement of refugee well-being and refugee rights, and it has played a powerful role in calling attention to key issues.

The United States, which voted against adoption of the GCR, should renounce its prior vote, and the Biden administration should endorse the GCR. The United States is the foremost provider of refugee assistance and should play an active role in the GCR’s implementation. In addition, the December 2021 High-Level Officials Meeting should be a turning point in the implementation process: attendees should set concrete, time-bound goals with proportions-based indicators and a central database for tracking these figures. Finally, and most importantly, the December meetings present an opportunity to act on the maxim, “nothing about us without us,” and to strengthen efforts to ensure refugee participation not only in the GCR process internationally, but also in country-level implementation efforts.


Abby Cahn-Gambino was an intern with Refugees International in the Spring of 2021.  

PHOTO CAPTION: Migrants walk along a railway line after they have crossed the border from Serbia into Hungary close to the village of Roszke on August 29, 2015 near Szeged, Hungary. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images