The Global Compact on Refugees – Reasons for Hope

Earlier this month in Geneva, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) held a high-level ‘stocktaking’ meeting on the Global Compact on Refugees. Governments, international organizations, and civil society gathered to provide input before UNHCR releases a draft Compact in late January 2018.  Many remain understandably skeptical that the Compact negotiations will ultimately lead to the kind of systemic change demanded by the global refugee crisis.  In Geneva, however, there were cautious signs that the process is headed in the right direction.

When it comes to the global refugee crisis and efforts to foster a more comprehensive, predictable, and equitable response – it is fair to be cynical. In September last year, all 193 UN-member states signed on to the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, a document that is triumphantly described as expressing “the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale.” The New York Declaration calls for a Global Compact on Refugees, which will serve as a framework for implementing that political will.

“Countries are continuing to close borders, put up fences, and force premature returns.”

Yet, since the adoption of the New York Declaration, the total number of people forcibly displaced from their homes grows ever higher (over 22 million refugees and counting). Countries are continuing to close borders, put up fences, and force premature returns (see the Balkans, Cameroon,Tanzania, and Jordan, to name a few examples). And the United States government –traditionally a leader in responding to refugee crises – has slashed resettlement numbers here at home. So the cynical question is this: “Will it even matter what states agree to as part of a Global Compact on Refugees if their actions continue to violate the very principles that underpin that Compact?”

With that in mind, there is some reason to be hopeful. Three things emerged from UNHCR’s stocktaking exercise that, if taken forward effectively, can lead to a real, positive difference in the way the world responds to refugee crises.

First, Germany has proposed the establishment of a standby Global Refugee Response Group (including key governments, agencies and NGOs) to mobilize “early action and regional cooperation” at the onset of a crisis. This type of mechanism was discussed throughout the Dialogue and it is expected to be included in UNHCR’s Global Compact draft. A new platform that only adds another layer of bureaucracy to the existing system will not be helpful. But if a Response Group can swiftly organize major donors, multilateral agencies and host countries at the onset of a crisis, it will add value.  It could also help to fill the vacuum if the U.S. continues to pull away from its traditional global leadership role on refugees.

Second, policies and practices to promote greater freedom of movement and access to livelihood opportunities for refugees appear to be gaining increasing traction.  For example, at the Dialogue, Ethiopia announced that it plans to completely end the encampment of refugees within the next ten years. UNHCR’s new partnership with the World Bank is helping to propel these policy changes. But the World Bank is not a protection organization. Therefore the Global Compact must explicitly call for the preeminence of refugee rights and protection to underpin any relationship between UNHCR and the World Bank, as well as lay out clear mechanisms for World Bank engagement with civil society – not just governments and the UN. 

Third, there is growing recognition that refugees must be included in decisions about their futures. This is not a new idea. For too long, however, decisions about refugee assistance have been made without the active, structured participation of refugees themselves. The Global Compact aims to change that. As one high-ranking UNHCR official stated at the Dialogue, “Refugees are assets and should be at the center of decision-making about their well being.” As consultations on the Global Compact move forward, governments must walk the talk by giving refugee-led organizations, such as the Network for Refugee Voices, a seat at the table.

At the end of the day, a Global Compact on Refugees is not going to fix the global displacement crisis.  Resources will remain scarce.  Many countries will continue to close their borders and violate refugee rights – and those countries must be called out. But if the consultation process can build momentum toward a more inclusive, participatory, and rights-based system, it will be an important step in the right direction.