UN Agrees to Historic Global Compact on Refugees

Refugees International applauds today’s broad endorsement of the Global Compact on Refugees by the UN General Assembly. This represents a critical step toward improving the lives of some 25 million refugees around the world who have fled their home countries in search of safety. Over 180 countries voted in favor of an annual resolution on the work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that “affirms” the Compact. The United States and Hungary were the only two countries to vote against the resolution.

The Compact was developed over the course of two years of consultations among governments, UN agencies, civil society organizations, the private sector, and refugees themselves. At present, around 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, contributions from wealthy donor governments fall well-short of overall need, and opportunities for refugees to resettle to third countries have actually decreased. The overall goal of the Compact was to establish a more equitable, predictable, and inclusive refugee response framework based on international cooperation.

The Compact is by no means perfect. The entire Compact is non-binding and dependent on voluntary contributions from states and other stakeholders, so it is too soon to know if its objectives will become reality. However, the Compact does send the refugee response system down a path toward improvement in three important ways.  

First, the Compact establishes mechanisms to broaden the base of countries that support refugees and the communities that host them. For example, in late 2019, UNHCR will host a Global Refugee Forum to garner pledges and contributions – including financial assistance, resettlement allocations, and inclusive national policies that provide refugees access to local services, such as education and health care, as well as the right to work. The Forum is to be convened every four years.  

Second, the Compact includes a commitment to incorporate development-oriented approaches to both new and protracted refugee crises. Specifically, the Compact calls for increased engagement of development and financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the UN Development Program. The average length of protracted refugee situations is now 26 years. Therefore, supporting host countries to provide access to national education systems and labor markets is essential to supporting the long-term well-being, self-reliance, and dignity of refugees, let alone hope for a better future.

Third, the Compact affirms that refugees and host communities themselves should participate in designing accessible and inclusive responses. The Compact calls for governments and other stakeholders to develop consultative processes that enable refugees and host communities to participate in shaping responses. Additionally, the Compact calls for the “meaningful participation” of refugees in the Global Refugee Forum.        

Political leadership will be essential for effective implementation of the Compact. Therefore, it is deeply disappointing that the United States today voted against the UN resolution endorsing the Global Compact on Refugees. This comes after the United States participated in two years of consultations on the document. While the vote does not represent a formal withdrawal from the Compact, it does send a signal that the wealthiest country the world intends to abdicate global leadership in working towards the Compact’s objectives.

Nonetheless, with overwhelming solidarity among nearly every UN member state that voted ‘yes’ today, the Compact is moving forward, and Refugees International is committed to supporting its success.