Will the refugee summit be “a missed opportunity”?

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

When world leaders convene at the UN General Assembly on 19 September for a high-level summit on refugees and migrants, there are high hopes they will do more than just commit new funding or resettlement places for refugees. The aim of the meeting is to come up with nothing less than “a blueprint” for a better, fairer and more predictable international response to large movements of refugees and migrants.

Central to this better response is the idea that the responsibility for hosting refugees and migrants should be shared more equitably between states. Currently, developing countries are hosting 86 percent of the world’s refugees, and countries like Kenya are increasingly unwilling to continue shouldering what they view as a burden, particularly as international funding for long-running refugee crises dries up.

Ahead of the September meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report setting out recommendations for its outcome. The report urges member states to adopt a “global compact on responsibility-sharing for refugees”, which would set out all the elements of a new response plan. Ban has called for a similar compact for “safe, regular, and orderly” migration to be initiated at the summit and realised over the next two years. 

In one sense, the timing for a meeting with such ambitious goals could not be better. The chaotic arrival of more than a million asylum seekers to Europe’s shores last year has woken up Western leaders to the need for a new approach. Previous meetings, like the Supporting Syria Conference in London and the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, have also achieved some momentum on the issue.

In another sense, the timing could not be worse. Europe is in the throes of a major backlash in response to terrorist attacks and last year’s unprecedented number of arrivals. The United States, too, is in the grip of an acrimonious presidential campaign, which has further polarised public opinion on immigration and refugees.

No roadmap

Early drafts of the declaration to be adopted at the summit, and a global compact on refugees, released at the end of June, suggest that politics may trump the willingness of states to commit to real change.

Both documents make ample use of human-rights friendly language to describe numerous commendable commitments to more equitably share responsibility for refugees and expand resettlement, among other things. But to the dismay of refugee and migrant rights groups, they come with no roadmap setting out how or when those commitments will be realised.

“The big criticism, particularly of the global compact, is that it was expected that there would be an actual mechanism that really spells out how this responsibility gets shared,” said Brooke Lauten from the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva office. “It’s a lot of lofty, ‘we will try to do this’, but it’s also more or less a list of what’s already being done. It doesn’t actually bind anyone to anything.”

Civil society has not been directly involved in the process of drafting the declaration, which is being led by Ireland and Jordan. However, 22 NGOs have formed an action committee to submit feedback on the drafts and to participate in consultations in the run up to the summit.

In their feedback on the first drafts, they warn that both documents risk becoming “empty words” unless the lack of implementation and accountability mechanisms is addressed.

“The document is long, with long lists of principles and vague commitments that don't add up to much responsibility in practice. We would like to see more concrete and clear proposals and what it would require from each state committing to it,” note the NGOs.

Rushed negotiations

Wies Maas is coordinating the work of the civil society action committee in the lead up to the Summit. Speaking to IRIN from New York, as she rushed between consultations, she said that negotiations to finalise the documents have been taking place at a break-neck pace and are due to conclude by the end of this month. Considering the short time-frame, she said it was unsurprising that the biggest challenge was shaping up to be how to include real operational mechanisms in the outcome.

“We were actually quite pleasantly surprised that the first draft of the outcome document has quite a wide scope and reaffirms existing human rights conventions and international frameworks, which wasn’t a given,” she said. “But we are anxious and working hard to see how it’s really going to achieve change on the ground for refugees and migrants. More ambition and real solutions are needed.”

James Hathaway, director of Michigan University’s refugee law programme, who has spent much of the last two decades advocating for a new model to ensure greater responsibility-sharing for refugees, is also bracing himself for a disappointing outcome to the summit.

"There is little here that has not been agreed to many times before,” he commented on the draft global compact. “Rather than seizing the opportunity to shift to a managed model of implementing the Refugee Convention, the proposal simply encourages episodic cooperation, and then only in the case of a so-called large scale movement. Despite its grand title, this is really just a proposal to tinker with the existing system.  

“In sum, the draft is pretty much 'same old, same old' — a missed opportunity to fix an ailing protection system.”

Business as usual at Leaders’ Summit?

A second draft of the declaration, released on Thursday, contains some additions that strengthen states’ commitments but more that weaken them, according to Lauten of the NRC. She noted, for example, that the new draft contains fewer references to states’ “responsibility”.

On Monday, civil society organisations will have an opportunity to put their concerns on the record at a multi-stakeholder hearing in New York. A summary of their comments will then be shared with member states as they try to finalise the two drafts.

The possible outcomes of a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, organized by President Barack Obama and taking place on the margins of the General Assembly on 20 September, are less clear. Only member states willing to make specific commitments to provide additional funding or resettlement places for refugees will be invited to attend.

Lauten said it could be “very complementary” to the high-level summit, but only if that summit produces a blueprint for responsibility-sharing that individual states can then act on. “If we don’t have that, then it’s just business as usual.”

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