UN summit on refugees fails to offer solutions

Uncertainty remains on whether summit and pledging conference will have a lasting legacy

On Monday, one of the highest-level global summits ever convened on refugees and mass migration took place at the UN General Assembly in New York. Alongside it, President Barack Obama has also convened a separate pledging conference.

These events should have been the reform moment when the world came together to update a broken refugee system that is struggling to meet contemporary displacement challenges. But whether they will have a lasting legacy remains uncertain.

The big achievement of Monday's UN meeting is its "New York Declaration", described by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as a "miracle". In some ways it is: 193 states have agreed – by consensus – to something, at a time when governments around the world are failing. Credit for achieving an agreement at all lies significantly with the Irish Ambassador to the United Nations, David Donoghue, and his Jordanian counterpart, who chaired the precarious negotiations, as well as the conference secretariat.

But, inevitably, the content of the declaration is abstract. It contains important ideas: refugee camps should be the exception, all refugee children have a right to an education and refugees are a shared global responsibility. If states could be held accountable to these commitments, this would make a difference. In other areas – like a commitment to resettle 10 per cent of the world’s refugees – spoiler states ensured key parts of the text were removed.


The difficulty is that the mechanisms for achieving the lofty goals in the declaration are vague at best. The conference has kicked off a new two-year intergovernmental process to negotiate two Global Compacts, one on refugees and the other on migration but, again, these are at the level of abstract principle.

Involve commitments

The main route envisaged for these ideas to affect practice is that UNHCR will create “comprehensive response plans” for all refugee situations to involve commitments from governments and other actors.

But isn’t this surely what UNHCR should be doing anyway, and is there anything that should lead us to believe that a declaration will lead to increased commitments to such plans? If concrete commitments were forthcoming, why could these not have been present in the substance of the conference?

Meanwhile, Tuesday's Obama-led Leaders' Summit is about pledging. Unable to elicit additional resettlement places from Congress, the administration has focused on playing an international convening goal.

It has sought commitments in three areas: additional humanitarian assistance, more resettlement places and a focus on jobs and education. But having already been asked for commitments at several events this year, governments are unwilling to make significant new pledges. We are more likely to see repeat pledging or what we saw in the London conference for Syria in February: pledges that are simply not delivered.

The tragedy is that the focus of these meetings has become removed from challenges on the ground. Grand declarations are one thing, but when people are suffering around the world, and governments are dying, was this strategy really the best use of finite political capital? The UN summit takes a circuitous path to address the real challenges.

What will it do to confront systematic non-compliance with refugee law in Europe or Australia, or to shape a response to the millions of people who will be displaced by factors such as climate change that fall outside the existing refugee framework?

In effect, responsibility is pushed back on to governments who are already failing refugees. Why should we trust states to implement a vague declaration, when they are already not complying with existing commitments?

Urgent questions

The summits have largely bypassed the biggest and most urgent questions relating to institutional reform. There is widespread acknowledgement that the system is broken and yet no appetite to fix it.

In 1971, the international monetary system reached its crisis moment and reformed; 2016 should be that moment for refugees. Change is needed because the refugee system was created for Europe in the early Cold War. And yet, in a radically changed world, this framework is still expected to apply.

The basic idea in the 1951 Refugee Convention – that refugees should not be returned to serious harm – remains as relevant today as ever. However, its focus on refugees as people fleeing “persecution” has become antiquated.

Today, people are mainly fleeing fragile states characterised by mass violence. While courts have sometimes managed to shoehorn contemporary displacement into outdated language, the result is arbitrary exclusions and erratic responses: in 2014 recognition rates for Eritrean asylum seekers ranged from 26 per cent in France to 100 per cent in Sweden.

Organisational reform is also off the table. UNHCR does what it does very well: humanitarian aid and camp management, and legal advice to states. But these are no longer the primary things a UN refugee agency needs to be doing.

The tools needed today are political engagement, development and economics, and the ability to work in urban environments. The disjuncture between mandate and need is exemplified by the stark reality that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees receive no assistance whatsoever from UNHCR or its partners.

Updated model

A UN refugee agency remains indispensable but donor states should be asking for an updated model. The summit’s announcement of the entry of International Organisation for Migration (IOM) into the UN system may also increase pressure for reform.

Collectively, we need a bigger vision for legal, organisational and operational reform. We should be asking, “What kind of global refugee regime do we need for 2025?” but this has not featured on the agenda this week. Finding such a vision is the key to achieving sustainable solutions not only to the Syrian crisis but also inevitable future movements.

Blind faith in governments’ willingness to make good on the commitments in the declaration seems misplaced. Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope comes from two sources.

The two-year intergovernmental process that has been started in New York offers an opportunity to build the bigger longer-term vision currently missing. And, at the margins of the summits, there has been a hive of activity from a very select group of governments, business and civil society. If the week’s meetings are to have meaning, we need to move rapidly from abstract commitments to practical change.

Alexander Betts is Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. He is co-author, with Sir Paul Collier, of the forthcoming Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, due to be published by Penguin in April 2017.

Twitter: @alexander_betts