Canada and the Global Compact on Refugees

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The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), a new international framework, is expected to be adopted by the end of this year. It aims to reenergize the international refugee regime, the core of which is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), and encourage states to commit to protecting forced migrants. The GCR’s Final Draft clearly says that member states will primarily be responsible for its effective implementation: “contributions will be determined by each State and relevant stakeholder, taking into account their national realities, capacities and levels of development, and respecting national policies and priorities” (para 4). After all, refugee protection is fundamentally a state responsibility.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 4 Winter 2018 by Sonal Marwah

A recent op-ed in Maclean’s (September 24) by Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, indicates that Canada is “well-placed” to be a global leader in enacting the UN’s global refugee plan. The UNHCR has already recognized Canada as a leader in resettlement efforts, as its resettlement approach is diverse and nuanced.

Canada was actively involved in drafting the compact and endorsed the partnership approach that was adopted. As outlined in the GCR’s Final Draft, this “whole-of-society” approach involves all “relevant stakeholders,” including new actors such as businesses and faith-based organizations, and greater involvement of refugees in host communities and host country systems.

Canada held consultations with domestic nongovernmental agencies to ensure that their priorities were reflected in the Final Draft. In particular, the government emphasized efforts on gender and education. Drawing on its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), the federal government is committed to supporting GCR efforts to mainstream gender equality and empowerment. The implementation phase will include effective and gender-sensitive monitoring frameworks and methodology to assess impacts. Canada also supports the rights of emergency-affected children around the world to education.

Canada is committed to “the task of leading and encouraging” to realize the Compact’s ambitious goals. As the government prepares for implementation of the compact, the following focal points should be considered:

1. The root causes of forcible displacement

People have interrelated and complex reasons for fleeing their homes, but the most common is war. In 2017, the top refugee-producing countries were Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Sudan—all war-torn and unstable. Prolonged armed conflicts are often exacerbated by international interventions, arms sales, economic collapse, poor governance, absence of human rights, and climate change.

Most wars today defy simple solutions. This should not discourage those who advocate for the displaced from developing a more comprehensive understanding of the intertwined local and global factors that fuel cycles of armed conflict. For Canada, this means learning how our own institutions and companies are linked to refugee-producing conflicts.

Canada’s relationship with refugees is paradoxical. Canada has a global reputation for welcoming refugees and pioneering successful resettlement strategies. However, Canada also shares responsibility for the displacement of at least some of those forced to abandon their homes. It supplies weapons that are used in some conflicts, is involved in resource extraction that creates disparity in foreign lands, and invests and develops industrial projects that cause immediate displacement and contribute to climate change, which can lead to future displacement.

Root causes need to be considered to better understand, address, and prevent displacement. The GCR (para 85) recognizes that eliminating root causes is the most effective way to solve the problems of refugees. Countries that cause and contribute to displacement must be responsible for facilitating access by forced migrants to the traditional durable solutions (resettlement, voluntary repatriation, and local integration), as well as other solutions and complementary pathways. Canada must acknowledge this responsibility and respond appropriately.

2. The need for policy coherence when responding to refugees

The current Canadian government has adopted a whole-of-government framework in which departments (Economic Affairs, Social Affairs, International Affairs, and Government Affairs) align their program activities and policies to achieve shared outcomes. To realize Canada’s commitments to the GCR, these departments must harmonize policies that relate to forced displacement and refugees.

For example, it is hypocritical for Canada to publicly condemn gross human-rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including a pattern of gender-based repression, while permitting the sale of $15-billion of military equipment to the Saudi government in a deal that has been widely questioned at home and abroad. It does no good for the Canadian government to pledge $9.3-million to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as it did this year, while continuing to support the military efforts of Saudi Arabia, a major combatant in the war in Yemen.

Such a lack of coherence across government departments wastes development funds and causes national and global actors to question Canada’s international efforts.

3. The gaps in development aid

In seeking solutions to prolonged and emerging refugee situations, Canada works with international and multilateral partners, primarily through UNHCR. At the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants held in September 2016, Canada pledged to increase humanitarian assistance by 10 per cent in 2016-2017 from 2015-2016 levels, provide multiyear support to UNHCR, and increase support for refugee education.

The present Liberal government has adopted the FIAP, with a clear focus on protecting women and girls, who constitute 50 per cent of the world’s refugees. It protects some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees identified by UNHCR through its Government Assisted Refugees resettlement program. It has created specific resettlement programs for Syrians and Yazidi women and girls who were targeted by Daesh fighters in northern Iraq and Syria.

These initiatives are worthy of praise, but the reality is that only one per cent of global refugees are resettled and so resettlement efforts won’t help most refugees. As well, such context-specific, one-off resettlement responses, while relevant, are necessarily limited in their global impact.

The United Nations recommends that developed countries spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA), with 0.15-0.2% of GNI allocated to the least developed countries. The 0.7 per cent target was set in 1969 by a UN expert commission headed by former Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson and has been repeatedly endorsed by international development forums and committees.

In Canada, funds for international assistance programs come from the International Assistance Envelope (IAE), which covers ODA. Currently, Canada spends 0.26 per cent of GNI on development aid. Starting in 2018-19, the federal government is pledging to provide up to $2-billion over five years in new resources. This will still not bring Canada up to UN standards.

The government has encouraged the private sector to consider development-focused partnerships and investments. Diversified funding sources can certainly assist the efforts of the government, but won’t get it off the hook. A significant increase in ODA is needed to respond to the current scale and state of forcible displacement. Here’s the reality: 86 per cent of refugees are hosted in developing countries, some of which are unwilling to host refugees, while others lack the resources to host large numbers of refugees for long periods of time.

As the GCR’s Final Draft points out (para 32), funding and mobilization of resources in a timely, predictable, adequate, and sustainable manner are essential for the successful implementation of the compact.

This is the third piece in a four-part series on the Global Compact on Refugees. Follow the links below to read the previous articles:

Part 1: The Global Compacts: A Primer
Part 2: Delivering on the Global Compact on Refugees

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