Stock-taking sessions begin next week on two new international "compacts"
More than a year after the United Nations embarked on an ambitious project to draw up two international "compacts" to better respond to unprecedented migration and refugee crises, the progress report is less than stellar.
Experts following the negotiations worry that, despite such a large undertaking, the compacts are still too little, too late. Among key concerns are that their non-binding nature weakens the promise of responsibility-sharing (already evidenced by underfunded pilot projects), and that they will merely reinforce the status quo rather than bring about any tangible improvements for forcibly displaced people.
Part of this is due to a dramatically transformed political climate. In September 2016, US President Barack Obama was leading the charge - following a global outpouring of concern over the humanitarian emergency in the Mediterranean Sea - for radical change in the way the world addresses these issues.
"I called this summit because this crisis is one of the most urgent tests of our time," Obama said at the UN last year. "Just as failure to act in the past - for example, by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany - is a stain on our collective conscience, I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment."
At last year's UN General Assembly, all 193 member states adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which was the starting point for discussions on two global compacts: one for refugees and another for migrants. Fourteen months later, as the US under President Donald Trump abandons its leadership role on refugees, and after German Chancellor Angela Merkel has paid a heavy price for her pro-refugee policies, the compacts risk becoming little more than talk and, without charismatic champions, rudderless in the face of strong political headwinds.
Indeed, far-right parties have made gains across Europe as the EU and its member states strike deals with Libya and Turkey to ensure desperate migrants cannot reach European shores. Australia continues to hold refugees in offshore prisons. And, in the Middle East, countries that have hosted Syrian refugees for years are starting to force them back home.
Even if the compacts do cajole UN member states into recommitting to upholding refugee and migrant rights, the anti-migrant, anti-refugee policies they pursue could still undermine the compacts' intent.
"I'm not saying there will be no positive outcomes," explained Jeff Crisp, former policy chief at the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. "But consensus at the level of agreeing to a document is not the same as actually doing practical things to make it a reality."
Amidst many still-vague ideas for the compacts, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, or CRRF, sticks out for its concrete objectives. Outlined in the annex of the New York Declaration, the framework aims to "provide for a more comprehensive, predictable and sustainable response that benefits both refugees and their hosts, rather than responding to refugee displacement through a purely, and often underfunded, humanitarian lens." Ideally, this will be the modus operandi for all refugee crises going forward.
The CRRF contains four broad, ambitious and noncontroversial objectives: to ease pressure on host countries; to build refugees' self-reliance; to expand refugee resettlement and other legal pathways to third countries; and to create conditions where refugees can voluntarily return to their home countries.
In refugee-hosting countries, this "whole-of-society" approach should draw on partners not typically involved in humanitarian responses, such as the private sector and development actors like the World Bank. Under the CRRF, refugees are not supposed to languish in camps. Rather, they should be integrated into local labour markets and schools from the get-go.
But many experts argue the framework's ideas are not new - instead, it lists existing best practices.
"Many of the positive things that have been happening predate the CRRF but they're being attributed to it," said Crisp, pointing to years-old discussions to rope in the development world and promote refugees' self-sustainability through cash vouchers. "But perhaps the CRRF can push these trends further and faster."
CRRF "pilot projects" are currently underway in Africa and Central America. Lessons drawn are to be incorporated into a "programme of action" in the refugee compact.
But emergency responses in these settings are chronically underfunded. This sends a message to host countries that they're on their own - both in terms of the immediate response and the longer-term CRRF goals.
For example, Uganda, which hosts 1.3 million refugees mainly from South Sudan, gives new arrivals a plot of land on which to live and farm, among other things, as part of its CRRF commitment. It requested $674 million to respond to the South Sudan crisis alone - but has received just 24 percent of this, according to UNHCR. And a fundraising summit in June raised just $352 million of an estimated $2 billion required to cover the South Sudan emergency response plus the longer-term, more sustainable response envisaged by the CRRF.
"If the response is underfunded, it makes it impossible to carry out the CRRF," said Mark Yarnell, senior advocate and UN liaison for Refugees International in Washington, D.C. "So if host countries are trying to implement policies that are in line with the CRRF but donor countries don't do their part, it's tough to make the CRRF successful."
While the CRRF pilot projects appear to be struggling to seriously inform the debate on the compacts, experts wonder what use the framework will be if it doesn't address the most acute real-life emergencies of our time, such as the Rohingya crisis unfolding in Myanmar and Bangladesh. More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge in Bangladesh since late August.
At consultations around the refugee compact this fall, NGOs questioned why the CRRF does not seem to apply in the Rohingya context.
"There needs to be greater clarity in the [refugee compact] as to what constitutes a large-scale movement, and most importantly, what will be the trigger point for the implementation of the CRRF," said the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a coalition of some 300 civil society groups, in a written submission to a consultation event for the refugee compact.
Part of the reason for this could be the way Bangladesh has chosen to handle the influx. Frictions between the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR are on full display as Bangladesh, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention, has chosen the IOM to lead the crisis response instead of the refugee agency. Several senior observers told IRIN this has led to a weakening of the UN's ability to effectively protect Rohingya refugees' rights.
In an interview with IRIN, UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said it is up to host countries to decide whether they will formally adhere to the framework.
"The High Commissioner has repeatedly highlighted the need for progressive adjustment in the coordination system towards a more traditional refugee leadership and coordination structure in Bangladesh," Rummery said. "This would include one in which UNHCR can exercise in full its accountability for the protection of refugees and contribute fully its capacity and expertise. This is yet to happen."
For now, she added, UNHCR can only do its best to support the Bangladesh government and other agencies "within the existing coordination structure... to best meet the needs of refugees."
But refugee advocates worry the main takeaway of the Rohingya crisis is that the effectiveness of the CRRF, good intentions notwithstanding, will always be hostage to wider political issues.
"The situation for the Rohingya in Bangladesh demonstrates that no matter what's agreed at the UN, a non-binding declaration doesn't mean anything for people on the ground if governments involved aren't abiding by it," Yarnell said. "Bangladesh deserves credit for keeping its borders open, but the whole point behind the New York Declaration is to be much better at responding to these crisis, and clearly there's a blockage in that so much of this is political."
The two compacts, which are still in the discussion stages, are proceeding on separate, parallel tracks.
Negotiations around the more straightforward refugee compact are led by UNHCR. The compact on "safe, orderly and regular migration", on the other hand, is led by Louise Arbour, UN special representative of the secretary-general for international migration, along with the IOM. Two countries, Mexico and Switzerland, serve as co-facilitators.
Over the past year, a series of regional and thematic consultations have been held around both compacts in several locations around the world. They have solicited suggestions from national and regional governments, international organisations, civil society groups, academic institutions, and the private sector.
Each compact will undergo a kind of 'stock-taking' in the coming weeks. Member-state representatives will gather in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, from Dec. 4-6 to discuss and compile input they've received throughout the consultation phase. Meanwhile, the refugee compact will be the primary focus of this year's annual UN High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges in Geneva from December 12-13.
From there, the real heavy lifting of developing the compacts will begin. After the December meeting, Arbour's office and the IOM have until February to prepare a report on the migrant compact that will be a starting point for intergovernmental negotiations throughout next year. What the final document will look like - and whether any part of it will be binding - is still unclear.
Separately, UNHCR will devise its own draft of the refugee compact by February. It will consist of two parts: the CRRF, as already agreed by member states in the New York Declaration, and the programme of action, which will lay out steps states must take to "operationalise" the CRRF. That will kick off another set of formal and informal discussions to hammer out the details.
If all goes according to the timeline, both compacts will be adopted by the end of next year.
Observers wonder whether the compacts will actually bring about an improved approach to global migration governance, with higher standards and meaningful responsibility-sharing, or simply reinforce the status quo.
Many are concerned about the large numbers of forcibly displaced who don't fall neatly into either compact. For example, internally displaced people do not seem to be covered, even though they comprise more than 40 million of UNHCR's estimated 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. And it's unclear where particularly vulnerable groups like child migrants, who have special rights under international human rights law, fit in.
The refugee compact is focused on responsibility-sharing, and the key player involved, UNHCR, has a mandate to protect refugees. But the migration compact is about management. And even though the IOM was recently folded into the UN system, it lacks a clear mandate rooted in international human rights law and has traditionally been a vehicle for the interests of wealthy, migrant-receiving countries.
"We are concerned that child migrants fall right in the middle," said Pia Oberi, the advisor on migration and human rights at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "You shouldn't have to distinguish between a migrant child and a refugee child."
Also seemingly not covered by either compact are vulnerable migrants who "flee social and economic rights deprivations, food and water insecurity and fragile states - those who may not be regarded as refugees but would be included as part of the people who are forced to flee across borders," said Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at Oxford University and immediate past head of its Refugee Studies Centre.
The discussion of forced displacement, he added, needs to move beyond just those who fit the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Geneva Convention. And because UNHCR controls the refugee compact's development, "it has excluded any discussion on reform of UNHCR itself and any types of cross-border displacement that falls outside the 1951 Convention," Betts said.
Still, he said, given the difficult political context, UNHCR "has chosen to be much more cautious, and I understand why that's the case."
Because the compacts don't actually exist yet, it's hard to debate their content. Until now, debates have been centered around what should be included and, in the absence of a binding agreement, how it will all be carried out.
"Now that we've pretty much come to a consensus that it'll be a nonbonding document, do we really need another declaration of a declaration?" Oberi said.
Many observers have called for some kind of monitoring mechanism within the compacts, both to hold member-states accountable and to measure progress. In particular, responsibility-sharing among member states - whether through donor funding, increased resettlement places or hosting refugees - needs to somehow be made concrete, they say.
The non-binding nature was meant to ensure more member states would agree to the New York Declaration and compacts themselves.
"But what impact will that have on state behaviour?" Crisp said. "We don't know yet."