Embracing the Global Compact on Refugees

The existing body of refugee and migration law was recently complemented by the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The GCR aims to operationalise the principles of burden- and responsibility-sharing, to better protect and assist the refugees and to support the host countries and communities. The success of this Compact will be measured by indictors to be developed ahead of the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019. The GCR was adopted by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) after a consultation process including a series of thematic discussions and meetings in 2017 and a formal consultation on successive drafts between February and July 2018. This was then put to vote in front of the UNGA and was passed with an overwhelming majority. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants called for the creation of the GCR, with an aim to address the issue of forced displacement by strengthening the shared responsibility of those who aid refugees forced to flee by conflict or persecution. The shared responsibility eases the burden on developing countries, who host 90 percent of the 25.4 million refugees worldwide, by providing investment to further strengthen infrastructure and the provision of services for refugees and host communities. In addition to recognising the need to provide safe and legal routes to asylum for those forced to flee their homes, the GCR also calls for more resettlement opportunities. While not legally binding, it seeks to strengthen the international response to large movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations, and to better define cooperation to share responsibilities. This builds on existing international law and standards, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and human rights treaties.

Two countries voted against this Resolution, the United States of America and Hungary, while three abstained, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya. Hungary rejected the Agreement as they believed that the Compact would allow immigrants to travel freely and without control within a country and to decrease detentions, which would cause a security issue. The United States of America voted against the Compact over sovereignty concerns.

While showing concerns about the Compact, Australia did not pull itself out of the Agreement. Venezuela while signing the Agreement was wary of the possibility of the GCR paving way for other countries to intervene in internal matters. The Nordic countries supported the GCR as it has the potential of strengthening international solidarity and responsibility sharing and paving the way for a more effective collective response to one of the central global challenges of our time.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) led the formation of the GCR under adverse conditions: an endemic non-compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Trump administration’s budget cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), meaning significant cuts to UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP, and others, and potential mandate competition from the International Organisation for Migration as it became a related organisation of the UN. These constraints are reflected in the scope of the ambition of the GCR, as the UNHCR understandably excluded several key issues from the negotiations, such as the debate relating to the 1951 Refugee Convention and discussions on UNHCR’s own mandate. The decision to exclude such issues aims to avoid the political tensions while also being able to make a progressive step towards solving the refugee crisis. Within these constraints, the GCR is as ambitious in its scope as it could reasonably be expected to be.

While the GCR is non-binding in nature, it can still have a real impact on State behaviour. Its impact is to increase the extent of resources in the current system rather than changing the system. The GCR offers a summary of the actors who can contribute to responsibility sharing, and it identifies the areas in which they can contribute. Furthermore, the GCR outlines some mechanisms for contributions and it envisages new structures to elicit such contributions, such as the ‘Global Refugee Forum’ and ‘Support Platforms’ for specific contexts.

In the current political environment, the very existence of the GCR is seen as an achievement. However, this is not the solution or conclusion to this crisis. The GCR has already envisaged a mechanism of change in the form of a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). This framework aims to focus on self-reliance, economic inclusion, the creation of enabling environments, support for both refugees and host communities, and engagement with development actors. Several elements of the CRRF have been derived from Uganda’s self-reliance model. This framework is already functional in a few areas; Ethiopia hosts Africa’s second largest refugee population and the CRRF has created a framework within which the government has made ‘nine pledges’ in order to improve the lives of refugee which include the refugees’ right to work and their freedom of movement.

There have been criticisms of the GCR. One of the sharpest criticisms is that the GCR does not cover certain important topics, and therefore fails to address major challenges of law and policy. However, we feel that the compact could not have realistically addressed all aspects of the refugee system at the current historical juncture.

New drivers of displacement are an inevitable future challenge. Amid climate change, survival migration from Venezuela, and the role of state fragility in displacement, the international community will, at some stage, have to confront major normative and legal questions left aside by the GCR. The GCR has the potential to make a difference. To do so, though, it must have a clear-sighted theory of change on how to translate text into practice. This needs to be the first stage of a long-term strategic vision.