Delivering on the Global Compact on Refugees: The need for principled leadership from UNHCR

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Here is the second piece in a three-part series on the Global Compact on Refugees. You can read Part 1: The Global Compacts: A Primer here

November 6, 2018 By Sonal Marwah

Emerging humanitarian crises and protracted conflicts have caused the number of global refugees to soar to 25 million, the highest figure ever recorded. These refugees face threats to their safety and their rights. Traditionally, the durable solutions to the problems refugees face included local integration, third-country resettlement, and voluntary repatriation. Today, such solutions are only a distant dream for millions.

Developing countries host 89 per cent of refugees and 99 per cent of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Developing countries thus bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the global refugee situation. They are unable, and sometimes unwilling, to provide for and protect such persons. But developed countries have not assumed adequate responsibility for refugees. Over the years, they have introduced restrictive refugee policies, which reflect a growing and dangerous tendency to frame refugees as political liabilities. Such politicization risks undermining the principle of international solidarity with those fleeing war, abject poverty, and persecution and with hosting countries and communities.

Now, a new framework is being developed to reinvigorate the refugee system and effectively respond to the large-scale movement of people across borders.

The September 2016 High-Level Meeting on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in New York City produced a commitment to develop a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The intent of the GCR was to provide a basis “for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing among the UN member states, together with other relevant stakeholders” (para 3) to improve the lives of refugees and support host countries and communities. The process of creating the GCR was spearheaded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Final Draft of the GCR was released on June 26, 2018. It has four objectives:

  • Improve burden- and responsibility-sharing for refugee protection among states;
  • Strengthen national protection systems and response capacities worldwide;
  • Enhance socioeconomic conditions for refugees and host communities; and
  • Resolve protracted situations of forced displacement through durable solutions.

The GCR is not legally binding; contributions to its objectives and programs will be voluntary. “These 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). The core goal of the GCR is to reinvigorate the international refugee regime worldwide, enhancing the protection of refugees and other persons of concern such as IDPs and stateless persons.

Implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees

Global refugee summits will be convened every four years to document and assess the actions and contributions of member states. The UNHCR will monitor and convene these sessions. The first is scheduled for 2019.

From the Final Draft, it’s clear that member states will be responsible for the successful implementation of the GCR. However, these same states have thus far left largely unfulfilled their commitments to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Neglected promises by wealthier developed countries have contributed to the so-called “refugee-crisis.”

It is clearly also the responsibility of the UNHCR, the organization mandated to protect refugees, to provide principled leadership in implementing the Compact. However, while the Final Draft explicitly mentions the need for states and new stakeholders (such as the private sector and media) to lead in mobilizing contributions and support, it never mentions the critical role of the UN Refugee Agency. At a time when hard-won rights for refugees are being chipped away by different political actors, the need for steadfast UNHCR leadership should be stated clearly.

Limitations and concerns

It will not be easy for the UNHCR to fulfill such a role. Eighty-seven per cent of its funding comes from voluntary contributions from member states. Three donors—the United States, Germany, and the European Union—account for 60 per cent of the budget of UNHCR. Much of its funding is earmarked for specific programs. As well, over the years, donor support has decreased, even as the number of forcibly displaced people grows.

Only 56.6 per cent of the UNHCR’s budget was met in 2017 and only 58 per cent in 2016. In 2018, proliferating crises and new emergencies in Venezuela, Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan have further stretched the organization’s capacity. In 2018, it asked for $8-billion — the largest funding ask in UNHCR history, but is expected to get only 55 per cent of that. Such a funding gap has particularly affected its ability to respond to refugee and displacement situations in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, and Somalia.

Recently, the United States slashed the number of refugees it admits through its resettlement program and reduced its support for the UNHCR and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Cases that require a stronger response

Reliance on fickle voluntary funders could be responsible for UNHCR’s reluctance to publicly denounce member states that violate the protections and rights of refugees. Recently, for example, the Libyan coastguard, with EU support, has been intercepting refugees in boats and returning them to that war-torn country. Thousands have been locked up indefinitely in deplorable detention centres in Tripoli.

These actions have been widely criticized by human rights organizations, international humanitarian organizations, civil society, refugees and migrants, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the “UNHCR has kept very quiet about the EU’s role in the process of interception, return and detention,” despite the fact that these actions have resulted in repeated refoulement (the forcible return of refugees), which is prohibited in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Currently, a migrant caravan is travelling from Central America through Mexico to reach the United States. UNHCR staff are helping Mexican authorities provide basic shelter and humanitarian assistance, and ensuring registration of asylum seekers. The UNHCR has also released public statements reminding countries to respect asylum requests and refugees’ protection needs. However, they fall short of actually calling out the Trump administration’s blatant disregard for human rights and for international norms of refugee protection.

There is growing evidence that U.S. border agents are illegally turning away asylum seekers along the border with Mexico. In other cases, those who are waiting to register their claims are stuck in Mexican territory that is controlled by gangs similar to the ones they feared in their home countries. These actions directly affect asylum seekers. Those turned away could explore dangerous alternatives, attempting to enter the United States irregularly, either with human smugglers or on their own via perilous desert routes.

Why has the UNHCR not publicly denounced the harmful actions of the United States and the European Union? Because both are major donors? Because both have been traditional allies? The answers aren’t known, but what is certain is that the UNHCR must call out member states that harm refugees and violate the principles of humanity. It must send a clear message of support to refugees.

An NGO reflection paper on the GCR notes that the standards and principles that underpin the GCR “must not only reaffirm, but also strengthen international refugee law and the international refugee protection regime, through a full and robust interpretation of the Refugee Convention.” To translate this statement into action, the UNHCR must hold itself to the highest standards and principles, sending a clear message that actions that violate the Refugee Convention will not be tolerated.

The way forward

The GCR is an opportunity for all stakeholders, new and old, to stand in solidarity with refugees and host countries. UNHCR’s efforts in producing the Final Draft should be applauded. Now the work of implementing the compact begins.

This will no doubt require “national ownership and leadership” from member states, as is pointed out several times in the Final Draft. In addition, successful implementation requires clear and bold leadership from the UNHCR. In its plan for 2017-2021, it notes its “commitment to putting people first” and its priority to “bring about concrete improvements in the lives of all those we work for.” The UNHCR also makes a clear commitment to the Global Compact on Refugees.

Certainly, the UNHCR is challenged by insecure and inadequate funding and possible political pressure from major donors. But it is also clear that its silence over dubious migration arrangements and illegal actions comes at the price of the lives, safety, and dignity of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. For the GCR to truly succeed, the UNHCR must do more than facilitate and coordinate. It must lead.

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