U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the High-level Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, which he hosted on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly general debate. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

After two days of summits on migrants and refugees around the U.N. General Assembly, advocacy groups see some positive signs that political momentum is moving to better assist the world’s 65 million displaced. Unfortunately, for now, signs are all they see; concrete actions and real policy shifts are still promises, and some are already being broken.

The United Nations Summit on Migrants and Refugees’ “New York Declaration,” adopted by the General Assembly on Monday, contains mostly pre-agreed language. Many countries are already failing to uphold many of the principles it lists, such as respect for international humanitarian law.

“Unfortunately a lot of what’s in there was already agreed upon, and it’s just not happening in practice,” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, director of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee.

The Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted the next day by U.S. President Barack Obama and attended by dozens of heads of state, pivoted to tangible financial and political commitments and offered an encouraging signal about U.S. leadership, aid groups said.

“This is the president’s last U.N. General Assembly, and the fact that he used his convening authority and U.S. diplomatic heft to push for these kinds of commitments is … incredibly encouraging to us,” Phillips-Barrasso said.

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But the commitments that emerged Tuesday still lack transparency, and some worry they could reinforce the idea that rich countries can donate their way out of obligations to offer asylum to refugees and safe pathways for people to migrate.

“This cannot be the only thing that rich countries do,” said Josephine Liebl, humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam GB. “They can’t pay off their responsibility to welcome more refugees by providing large sums of money.”

Shared responsibility

In some ways, this week’s limited results are still encouraging. The term “shared responsibility” — an unofficial theme of both summits — is now common humanitarian vernacular. And both summits carry more political weight than similar discussions earlier this year, such as the World Humanitarian Summit in May, according to Phillips-Barrasso.

“At the end of the day this is much more of a political moment, where people are recognizing we have an obligation to come together as a global community to address this crisis head on, to recognize that some of us are shouldering this weight more than others, and that this is a global public good,” she said. “Hosting refugees is something that countries and communities do on behalf of the whole world.”

Monday’s U.N. summit sought to develop principles around shared responsibility, while Tuesday’s Leaders’ Summit sought firm commitments on humanitarian finance, resettlement, and refugee support and integration.

Humanitarian groups say the fact that the United Nations Summit on Migrants and Refugees on Monday happened at all was a “minor miracle,” as Phillips-Barrasso put it, given the toxic political rhetoric circling over those issues in many countries.

Still, many felt the effort to draft principles — through the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees — fell short. Not legally binding, the declaration is a pledge by world leaders to coordinate efforts to support the more than 65.3 million people currently displaced globally.

The document was intentionally watered-down, Liebl said, containing too many of what she called “cop-out clauses,” such as “may consider.” The document calls for a two-year process to negotiate two new “Global Compacts,” one on migration and the other on refugees.

“We will have to see whether governments will raise the bar and make these commitments more concrete or whether they will continue with something that is not really changing the status quo,” Liebl said.

The Leaders’ Summit saw commitments that fell broadly into three categories — humanitarian finance, resettlement, and refugee integration. The Leaders’ Summit commitments contributed to an uptick in overall humanitarian finance, which now stands at $4.5 billion higher compared to 2015 levels, according to the White House. Obama also announced that 51 U.S. companies have committed to investing, donating or raising more than $650 million for helping refugees.

Other countries, such as Argentina, announced increases to the number of refugees they will admit, and policy commitments to ease the asylum process. Refugee hosting countries also stepped up with commitments to help refugees integrate into society and access important services. Ethiopia, for example, committed to provide primary, secondary, and tertiary education to all qualifying refugees — and to set aside 10,000 hectares of arable land for their use.

Leaders also submitted commitments to multilateral instruments. The United States committed $50 million to the World Bank's new Global Crisis Response Platform, a lending facility designed to support refugee-hosting low and middle income countries with concessional loans.

"Probably one of the biggest, most positive developments of this year is the leadership the World Bank has taken stepping into that space. [World Bank President] Jim Kim has been a huge advocate for this," said Phillips-Barrasso.

Into practice

Assembling pledges is only 10 percent of the work, while the other 90 percent is follow up, Phillips-Barrasso pointed out. Civil society groups are already thinking about how they can hold governments accountable to the pledges they made this week. For now, these groups told Devex, they have not been included in follow up discussions.

Translating high-level commitments into local programming will be vital to ensuring the promises of this week hold, said Jennifer Poidatz, director of the humanitarian response at Catholic Relief Services. She added that not all funding should necessarily go through the U.N. “You need funding to go more directly to those who are actually implementing the programming,” she told Devex.

Her call for localization in relief efforts echoes May’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The “Grand Bargain” participants agreed to emphasized locally led efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance and support vulnerable refugee populations.

Organizations such as CRS, with “huge networks of front-line responders,” can play a critical bridging role between donors and local actors in the pursuit of “solutions that are adapted and contextualized,” Poidatz said.

Donors often “don’t push for engagement with civil society, who are often the ones providing the critical services to vulnerable populations. At many levels we’re not seeing that engagement,” she said.

Treating the symptoms

Both of this week’s summits focused on dealing with consequences, not root causes, of global movement. Aid advocates at the United Nations got a sharp reality check when air strikes obliterated a humanitarian supply convoy into Aleppo, Syria, on Monday, killing 20 and ending a fragile cease-fire.

“This is just the international community dealing with the end effects of a bigger problem, which is rampant conflict and the fact that we’re seeing massive violations of [international humanitarian law],” Phillips-Barrasso said.

“To be in an environment like the United Nations … and not have that front and center somehow — to a lot of people — feels wrong.”

To be sure, negotiations about international humanitarian law, aid access to Syria, and prospects for reviving the ceasefire there are happening behind closed doors in New York and elsewhere this week.

But some observers still felt a disconnect between the kinds of commitments heads of state made for refugees this week and the forces driving millions of men, women, and children from their homes in the first place.

Check back on our coverage of New York Global Dev Week here, follow @Devex and join the conversation using #GlobalGoals.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.