Global Compact for Refugees moves forward, but without clear path for implementation

A camp for displaced people in South Sudan. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — A new international framework designed to improve the lives of refugees and host communities has boosted its commitments to formally track progress ahead of its release in September, according to the International Rescue Committee.

But while the framework now includes a plan — contested by some states — to develop indicators that will track progress, the non-legally binding agreement still lacks concrete mechanisms for governments to take on burden and responsibility sharing, say some aid, development, and human rights organizations.

UNHCR says new partnerships key to handling long-term refugee situations

Building new partnerships will help the humanitarian sector to increase international responsibility for responding to refugees and create a more development-minded approach, a senior UNHCR representative told a key development conference in Kenya.

The final draft of the Global Compact on Refugees, released by the United Nations Refugee Agency on July 20, outlines a partnership approach to address challenges such as easing pressure on host countries and facilitating refugee self-reliance. UNHCR will release this draft — the latest iteration of several — during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September.

“Overall, we think the advance draft is an acceptable compromise,” Farida Bena, director of humanitarian policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, wrote in an email to Devex. “This draft reintroduces stronger language on accountability, an incremental approach to responsibility sharing, and clearer ways forward on resettlement.”

The General Assembly is set to vote on the compact two years after member states approved the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, agreeing that sheltering refugees is a shared, international responsibility.

A record-setting 65.8 million people fled their homes in 2017, according to UNHCR, heading mostly for other developing countries that often lack the means to accommodate and help them assimilate into society.

As of the end of June, a previous draft of the compact still lacked clear indicators to measure progress and accountability on the agreement’s four objectives, prompting criticism from civil society groups such as InterAction, the International Rescue Committee, and Amnesty International.

“The bottom line is, no, it is not a strong document as it stands now. This latest draft was a significant step backward from what was a relatively low ambition document to start with,” said Sarah Charles, senior director of humanitarian policy at IRC, after the release of the draft. “There has been a real reluctance among member states to drive concrete notions of responsibility sharing and putting in real accountability mechanisms,” she added.  

The compact’s four overarching goals include: Easing pressure on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third country resettlement solutions, and supporting conditions in refugees’ countries of origin so they can return safely.

The latest version includes a paragraph — at the request of many member states and IRC — that reinstates a plan that indicators will be developed for each objective ahead of the first Global Refugee Forum, according to Bena.

And the three-year strategy — to be developed by UNHCR and member states — to increase the pool of resettlement places also now has defined dates: 2019-2021. According to Bena, that means follow-up work should start soon.

The Global Refugee Forum — developed as a result of the compact — is expected to take place every two years. There will also be “high-level official meetings,” open to all member states and other relevant stakeholders that track mid-term review of progress, to be held every two years between forums. The first meeting will take place in 2021.

“This is a positive step to maintain momentum in GCR implementation and facilitate stock-taking without overwhelming busy ministers,” Bena said.

But the head of humanitarian policy at InterAction cautions that the build up to implementation could be slowed by the challenge of gathering data, among other issues.

Concrete data on refugees and host communities is key, and might be difficult to quickly generate, according to Kate Phillips-Barrasso, director of humanitarian policy at InterAction.

“The final text simply entrenches the current unsustainable approach whereby wealthier states can pick and choose which, if any, measures they take to share responsibility. This will leave many refugees languishing in poorer countries which are unable or unwilling to support them.”

Amnesty International media release

“We have to know how responsibility is being shared and without those indicators, we are left to a cobbling together of our data sources and anecdotal information.

“I doubt they will be able to collect much data by that point [ahead of the 2019 forum]. It’s more about reporting the data to UNHCR and it being presented or collated for people to see,” Phillips-Barrasso said.  

The development of indicators to support the compact’s objectives would involve a “pretty robust process,” that is not set, but would hopefully include engaged civil society, she continued.

“Organizations on the ground responding to refugees have deep technical expertise and would have a view on what would be the most important indicators. Without that level of data to tell us true and accurate story, we will not know if we are making progress toward responsibility sharing.

“We are working with operation NGOs, looking to see how does refugee coordination look different on the ground? Are we seeing more flexible funding coming in, are we seeing more efforts to involve local actors, civil society actors, and longer planning efforts for refugees that are integrated at the state processes?” she said.

One of the biggest gaps in refugee coordination work is support for protracted refugee populations, according to Charles. An average of 5 million to 7 million refugees have been part of a protracted refugee crisis — meaning 25,000 or more refugees from the same country have been displaced for more than five years — since 1991. There have been relatively stable levels of long-term exile, despite an increase in displaced people worldwide, according to the World Bank.

An Amnesty International media release in mid-July questioned how the final text of the agreement addresses political will on responsibility sharing to address issues such as protracted displacement.

“The final text simply entrenches the current unsustainable approach whereby wealthier states can pick and choose which, if any, measures they take to share responsibility. This will leave many refugees languishing in poorer countries which are unable or unwilling to support them,” the statement said. “What is needed more than ever is a human-rights based, compassionate response to refugees’ needs, based on global responsibility sharing, not responsibility shirking.”

Bena said that while IRC also “regret[s] the lack of concrete mechanisms for burden and responsibility sharing,” the draft takes an “incremental approach, tasking Global Refugee Forums to review the ongoing efficacy of the responsibility-sharing arrangements.”

The agreement also contains language saying that the forums will provide an opportunity for states and others to exchange “good practices and experiences,” and to review “ the ongoing efficacy of the arrangements for burden- and responsibility-sharing.

“This introduces the idea that the responsibility-sharing model might be improved through the follow-up and review process, and we look forward to a discussion on how to do that in the coming weeks/months,” said Bena.

Amidst global rates of displacement not seen since World War II, the Global Compact for Migration is one of the two international, non-binding frameworks member states are working to establish.

Countries approved the migration compact in mid-July, but the United States, Hungary, and Australia have said they will not sign the deal.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.