A UNHCR staff member at the Jordan border hands out juice and biscuits to newly arrived Syrian refugees. Aid workers often work in dangerous areas to help the needy.
UNHCR / J. Kohler / January 2014

Negotiations Over a New “Global Compact on Refugees” Are Reaching a Critical Stage

Ed note. This is a special guest post by Mark Yarnell, senior advocate with Refugees International

Assessing the scale of the global refugee crisis can be overwhelming. There are currently over 22 million refugees world-wide and counting. Rohingya refugees from Mynamar continue to flee into Bangladesh, Uganda continues to receive thousands of refugees from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and refugees still regularly risk their lives to reach Europe’s shores by boat. 

The situation is, indeed, staggering. But the challenge is not insurmountable. Adequately addressing the current global refugee crisis requires new methods of international cooperation. Enter: the Global Compact on Refugees. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2016, in the face of this crisis, UN member states agreed adopt a compact within two years that would establish an improved system for assisting refugees and supporting the countries that host them.

We are now at a critical moment in the development of that compact.   

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released the most recent draft of the Global Compact on Refugees this week. Next week in Geneva, UN member states will enter their fourth of six rounds of formal consultations on the Compact with a goal of finalizing the text in advance of the UN General Assembly in September 2018.

The overall objective of the Compact is to establish more predictable and equitable responses to large-scale refugee situations, all within a system that is non-binding. The current working draft, known as Draft 2, acknowledges that while the Compact is and will remain voluntary, “it represents a strong aspiration on the part of the international community towards strengthened solidarity with refugees and affected host countries.” (In this spirit, Refugees International recently published an issue brief recommending stronger governance mechanisms to better mobilize member state leadership and support, while also ensuring a strong facilitation role for UNHCR.)

One improvement in Draft 2 stands out: The Global Refugee Forums that are to be held periodically at the ministerial level now explicitly include one or more member states as co-hosts, alongside UNHCR. This is significant because countries themselves, as opposed to the UNHCR, ought to lead this process. Government leadership is essential for garnering political engagement and commitment from states to improve refugee response efforts. The language in the next draft of the Compact, however, could be improved further by being more specific in calling for significant donor and host states to convene the Forums – since both have critical roles to play in harnessing engagement from a broad range of stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the Forums, which were to take place every three years, are now, in Draft 2, planned for every four years. This is of concern. Given the scale of the global refugee crisis and the severity of need, it is not unreasonable for member states to convene at the ministerial level at least every three years. The change cuts against the grain of the Compact’s ambition to strengthen solidarity with refugees and host countries in concrete ways. Next week, member states could make clear that they are prepared (and eager) to meet more frequently than every four years to take action on what is truly a global crisis.

In a second improvement, the new draft more clearly calls for the participation of refugees in the Global Refugee Forums. However, there are few details on how this is to happen in practice. In June 2018 in Geneva, a coalition of refugee-led organizations is convening a Global Summit of Refugee Networks to propose solutions for a more effective and sustainable global refugee policy. The first of its kind in scale and scope, the conference is an important moment to amplify refugee voices. Going forward, one option could be for the Compact to institutionalize regular refugee-led summits to take place in the lead up to the Forums with a clear process for the outcomes of the summits to impact the agenda and objectives of the Forums.

Finally, the previous draft of the Compact called for a Global Support Platform (GSP) to mobilize robust responses to large-scale refugee situations. In our issue brief, RI called for the GSP to exist as a standing group of core states with rotating leadership so that political engagement could be sustained over time. In Draft 2, the (no longer “Global”) Support Platform is to be “activated” on an ad-hoc basis in response to a specific emergency. The membership of the platform “would draw on pre-announced expressions of interest or standby arrangements.” By design, such a mechanism will be reactive in nature. It is unlikely to galvanize the sustained political will and diplomatic commitment required to change how the international community responds to the world’s refugee crises. Member states should call for the Support Platform to exist as a standing body with a composition of both donor and host states that have demonstrated a commitment to supporting refugee responses.

Draft 2 of the Global Compact on Refugees expressly proclaims that the Compact aspires to make significant improvements to support refugees and the communities that host them. However, for this aspiration to become a reality, the global governance mechanisms in the Compact must be devised in ways that are most likely to galvanize political engagement through sustained states leadership – and member states must make this point loud and clear in Geneva next week. 

— Mark Yarnell is a senior advocate with Refugees International