Q&A: Hoping for an 'ambitious, far-reaching, bold' UN refugee compact

Elizabeth Ferris, research professor at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. Photo by: Paul Morigi / Brookings Institution / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — This week the United Nations Refugee Agency unveiled the “zero draft” of the Global Compact on Refugees, aimed at improving the international community’s engagement with refugee issues at a time of unprecedented global displacement.

Many will be watching to see how UNHCR addresses “burden-sharing,” the notion that states ought to arrive at an equitable system for sharing the costs and responsibilities associated with safe and dignified travel, resettlement, and return of refugees.

The refugee agency has planned a series of consultations and negotiations over the next six months in order to present and adopt the refugee compact during the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Prior to the release of the draft, Devex spoke to Elizabeth Ferris, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, to hear what she hopes to see emerge from this first version of the global compact — and where the process goes from here.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What do you expect to see in this first draft of the global refugee compact — what do you hope to see in it?

Certainly I hope that there is an ambitious first draft of the global compact. My experience in New York with the New York Declaration [for Refugees and Migrants] is that you start with something ambitious and then watch it get whittled down. That will undoubtedly occur with the global compact on refugees. I hope we start with fairly ambitious, far-reaching, bold recommendations. That way, if and when it and it does get chipped away by governments, we still end up with something that moves us forward.

The other thing I would really like to see — even if we can’t get everything we want in the Global Compact on Refugees, and I think that’s unlikely given the current mood — at least there could be some hooks calling for further work on issues. If we can’t get a strong legal statement on responsibility sharing, maybe there could be something in the global compact that would leave the door open to making progress when the climate improves.

What are some of the specific things that would make this an ambitious first draft?

In terms of burden sharing, a strong political statement supporting it, leaving the door open to the development of a legal protocol or a concrete mechanism, even if such a thing can’t be included now. In addition I’d like something strong on asylum — the importance of fair procedures and status determination. I’d like to see something on integration of refugees and not just references to self-reliance and resilience, which seem to be kind of the fallback mechanism. I’d like to see something on the need for strong political leadership with some specificity. I had hoped for the New York declaration to get a personal commitment by world leaders that they wouldn’t scapegoat refugees and migrants. That didn’t happen, but maybe it could happen in the global compact on refugees.

I think we will get some pretty good language in terms of the need for good reception and arrival conditions. I’d like to see something more specific on private sector than just, “it’s important to include the private sector,” but perhaps some concrete guidance on how to do that.

For whom do you expect the principles and statements outlined in the global refugee compact to be most relevant and significant — national governments? international organizations? donor agencies? Who is the community that’s going to be reading these most closely with an eye toward seeing their day-to-day work and operations likely to change?

IOM inches closer to global migration compact

Formal negotiations for the new migration framework will begin in early 2018, International Organization for Migration Director-General William Swing tells Devex. The compact aims to lay out principles and commitments that individual governments would use as a guide on cross-border and migration coordination.

I think it will be governments. I think it will be both government donors hoping to see some more efficiency, good use of resources, some end to unending humanitarian aid. I think host government countries are going to be looking very closely to see if there are concrete commitments, or if it’s just general statements of the importance of what host countries are doing. I think they’ll be looking carefully.

Other international organizations will be reading it with a fine toothed comb to see how they can enter in, as will NGOs. I think there will be a lot of interest in what it says, even from those actors with very different perspectives.

What is the process from here? Now that this first draft has been released, what’s the next step?

The process on the refugee side is that there are six rounds of consultations with governments, about one a month between February and July, and that will be a chance for governments to express their opinions on the latest draft. The first one on Feb. 13 and 14 will consider this “zero draft,” UNHCR will go back and make changes and submit a revised draft. So it will be an opportunity for governments to speak. It looks like there will be an opportunity for at least some NGOs to have some input as well. There are so many good ideas that are circulating already that even if the global compact doesn’t materialize we’ve still got lots of good ideas to work on.

Is there a possibility that a global compact on refugees won’t materialize in your view?

I don’t know. You may remember that in the negotiations up to the New York declaration, there was a global compact on refugees that was ready to go, that was ready to be adopted. The migration advocates insisted that we shouldn’t go ahead with the refugee one until the migration one was ready. So they decided to postpone the refugee one so that both could be adopted in 2018. If there are problems on the migration side — which are likely since it’s a very contentious discussion that’s going on — there could be similar efforts to postpone or delay or change the global compact on refugees. I don’t expect that to happen, but I didn’t expect the global compact on refugees to be postponed in 2016 either.

Update, Feb. 1, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the release of the global compact “zero draft.”

About the author

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    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.