After years of refugee and migrant crises, for the first time in history this week 193 UN member states agreed to a unified approach. It was a consensus that was mostly talk with little action but it could yet be a platform for change.
The Summit's main achievement was to adopt the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. UN officials have described the Declaration as a 'miracle' and a 'game-changer', while NGOs, journalists and academics have largely dismissed it as an 'historic failure'. The truth lies somewhere between. Critics say that the Declaration's language is vague, it contains no immediate or concrete measures, lacks a key commitment to internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the clause on children in detention is compromised. The Declaration, its detractors say, only reiterates existing international principles that many states simply choose not to comply with.
Overall, it's fair to say this UN Summit was long on words, short on action. Failing to agree on any concrete measures, it agreed instead, to produce two Global Compacts for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, one on refugees and the other on migrants, in two years' time. In the meantime, refugees and migrants will still not receive sufficient help. To most observers, it seems like the UN has failed again, achieving little beyond a global consensus for non-commitments and more business-class travel to meetings for years to come.
It is hard not to question the UN's leadership. The out-going UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, together with the heads of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), did not push beyond the outdated mandates of the UNHCR. They collectively left discussions on institutional, organisational and operational reforms for a later, unspecified date.
In contrast to this timid showing, the Obama administration stepped up, showing moral leadership with a pledge to increase its refugee intake to 110,000 and to increase funding for humanitarian aid in 2017. Other nations present made similar promises, including Australia, and in this regard the US Leaders' Summit was more hopeful than the UN high-level meeting. However, with an outgoing president who struggles to get legislation through Congress there is only a slim possibility the US will deliver on its promises. Beyond Obama, there appears little chance the US will become more kindly disposed to refugees. Just this week, a violent act (the bombing by the Afghan-American Ahmed Rahami) and a heartless comment (Trump Jr's description of refugee children as 'skittles'), were grim portends of what is to come.
What the Summit should have done more of is discuss how best to coordinate across various UN agencies in collaboration with donor states and private sectors. There are serious gaps in the current UNHCR mandates which don't cover IDPs, livelihood and education. There are also millions of migrants who don't fall strictly under the 1951 Refugee Convention but need immediate humanitarian aid, ie. food, shelter and medical treatment. In addition to the three options that the UNHCR coordinates in the field – voluntary repatriation, local integration or third-country resettlement – refugees and migrants need long-term development programmes that include education and vocational training that can ultimately lead to jobs.
The CRR Framework
There is, however still some hope for reform. The New York Declaration did promise to develop a Comprehensive Refugee Response (CRR) Framework. Just as a country's immigration policy needs a whole-of-government approach, international migration requires a whole-of-UN approach. To be effective, this CRR framework must adopt more flexible and dynamic approaches, broader than state responsibilities. This could enable the institutional, organisation and operation reform that would allow the UN's existing field networks to work with local governments, businesses, civil society and key individuals.
The framework indicates the UNHCR will continue expanding its operations on livelihood, education, environment and public health in collaboration with local governments and NGOs in the field. It's already hiring hundreds of new humanitarian professionals.
IOM, now part of the UN, will be in charge of developing the comprehensive framework for the governance of international migration, incorporating its mandates into the UN system. The framework can employ the OHCHR's Universal Periodic Review mechanism to regularly monitor state practices on the protection of rights of refugees and migrants and to ensure government transparency and accountability. It should also incorporate the work of the UN Development Programme, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and UN Women to ensure humanitarian aid goes hand in hand with development programmes, the best interests of children, and combatting gender-based violence.
Hope for reform of the International Protection Regime
In addition there are three critical areas that need to be the focus of reform. The first concerns the role of private sector and the development of a 'business model' of the protection regime. Businesses and private sponsors have stepped up to help ameliorate humanitarian crises by offering refugees jobs and shelters. For migrants, corporates can agree ethical standards among their peers not to abuse vulnerable migrants, and make considerable donations to humanitarian aid. Corporate social responsibility has been the buzzword at the UN for a decade. Now, it's time for nation states to partner with those willing in the private sector to solve a problem the state alone cannot.
Second, legal and complementary pathways that advance refugees' right to work should be actively sought. There is plenty of evidence that refugees can contribute to local economies. Allowing them alternative pathways is the ultimate solution for the current crisis and beneficial for both refugees and host communities. States may see this opening as a threat to security and identity. 'Controlled migration' is a preferred mode by many conservative governments like Hungary and the UK. In order to better manage and control migration, states need to open more alternative legal pathways for refugees and regularise irregular migrants in an orderly manner.
Finally the most important and probably the most difficult challenge concerns children in detention and unaccompanied minors. Children are being compared to 'skittles'. This is particularly worrying as it dehumanises innocent children of a certain religion whose future depends on education and today's investment in humanity. Leaving them with no education will generate much bigger problems in the future, and these won't be contained to a single country. It's up to adults to determine the best interests of children. We need to act without delay.
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