The UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants takes place in New York next Monday. We already have the draft declaration – agreed upon by 193 member states in early August – that will be formally adopted at the UN Summit on Monday the 19th. Several figures from civil society have been carefully selected to speak at the opening plenary session and subsequent roundtables on various themes that will take place during the course of the day. But seven groups – six based in Africa – have been blocked from participating on the basis of member states’ objections.
Some are looking to the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees that President Barack Obama will convene on the margins of the General Assembly the following day to deliver more tangible outcomes. But while there are relatively few unknowns associated with the UN summit, the leaders’ gathering on Tuesday, 20 September is one big unknown. The stated aims of the leaders’ summit are: to double the number of refugees who are resettled or admitted through other legal channels to third countries; to increase funding for humanitarian responses by 30 percent; and to increase the number of refugees in school and who are granted the legal right to work by one million each. Only states willing to make “new and significant” commitments have been invited to attend. The list of attendees has not been made public but it’s expected that between 30 and 35 countries will participate, including the co-facilitators, which are Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan. US State Department officials have also been tight-lipped about what the new commitments will consist of.
“The indications we’ve had is that it’s been a struggle to get commitments,” said Julien Schopp, director of humanitarian action at Interaction, a US-based alliance of international NGOs that has been leading the call for the leaders’ summit to be more inclusive of civil society – a call that has largely gone unanswered. “We’ve seen it in the past three years from the World Humanitarian Summit to the London pledging conference on Syria – everyone arrives with something that looks good and sounds good, but when you look at delivery six months later, there’s not much,” said Schopp. If countries do make substantial new pledges, one major concern is: whose role will it be to ensure they are actually delivered on, particularly given that the event is being hosted by an outgoing US administration?
It is a long list of vague commitments to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants: to respect their rights; combat xenophobia and exploitation; strengthen search-and-rescue efforts; address funding gaps etc. etc. It does all this while recognising the often antithetical rights of individual nations to manage and control their own borders and “to take measures to prevent irregular border crossings”.
Observers to the drafting negotiations note that the original text was watered down over successive meetings. “Mostly, it’s ‘we’ll consider doing this’,” Josephine Liebl, a humanitarian policy adviser with Oxfam who sat through many of the July negotiations in New York, told IRIN. “The original text was more decisive.”
At the last minute, the US and several other member states balked at a commitment to end child detention, agreeing only to refer to it as “a measure of last resort” and to “work towards the ending of this practice”. There are other, more glaring, omissions: in particular a commitment to resettle 10 percent of the global refugee population annually (equivalent to about 2.1 million people in 2015). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called for this in his recommendations for the summit’s outcomes, but the declaration states only an intention to “expand the number and range of legal pathways” for refugees to be admitted to third countries.
Also missing is a Global Compact on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees that was supposed to be one of the summit’s key outcomes. The “global compact” was expected to set out a roadmap for implementing some of the key commitments made in the declaration, but early drafts were disappointingly lacking in concrete detail on the mechanisms that would compel states to act. Rather than address these weaknesses, the compact was dropped and replaced with a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework – to be used as the basis for responses to large movements of refugees. The “framework” is to form the starting point for developing a global compact for adoption in 2018. Member states, particularly from Africa and Latin America, justified postponing the compact for two years by arguing that it should conform to the same timeframe as a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, also slated for adoption in 2018. Civil society groups, who were unhappy with the draft version of the compact, have had to settle for the hope that the two-year process will deliver something stronger.