Global Refugee Summits Offer Reasons for Both Disappointment and Hope
World leaders convened two summits in New York last week focusing on multilateral responses to the growing challenge of refugee crises and unmanaged migration flows, which have surged to the top of the agenda at the highest levels of government around the world. While score cards for these types of events are difficult to keep, it is clear that the summits offered reasons for both disappointment and hope.
To start, the concrete outcomes of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Summit for Refugees and Migrants were clearly less than its architects and activists had desired. The summit was called with the intention of forging Member State agreement on two multilateral mechanisms: a “compact” to better manage migration flows, and a mechanism to coordinate an equitable response to refugee crises. The New York Declaration signed at the summit was noteworthy in that it focused on both refugees and migrants—discussed together at a high level for the first time. Substantively, however, the text was limited to a recommitment by states to respect the rights of refugees and migrants already enshrined in international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, and leaders put off an agreement on both the refugee and migration compacts until 2018.
To address more immediate concerns, the Declaration included a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (to be implemented in the coming year) that codifies many of the lessons learned in the Syrian neighborhood regarding how to cooperate more effectively with development actors and national governments, as well as how to provide meaningful support for host communities. While the Framework will likely serve as a useful blueprint for response in future crises, its focus is by definition exclusively on the what of refugee response—what does an effective response entail? Questions of how and who—how will needed resources, services, and rights be secured? And who will provide them?—are left for later negotiations.
Perhaps most critically, the Declaration continues to focus on the symptoms and just a few of the consequences of ongoing displacement crises. The two issues that matter most are entirely neglected: (a) reducing the violence that produces displacement; and (b) investing serious foreign policy, development, and other resources to prevent the next crisis from creating the chaos that drives mass displacement—a conversation that may be particularly well suited to a multilateral forum.
The UN Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, led by the United States the following day, focused on more immediate concerns: a “significant” increase in humanitarian funding and resettlement places, and greater access to education and job opportunities for refugees. Separately, the United States also convened a CEO roundtable with American businesses to catalyze growing interest among some in the private sector into “new, measurable, and significant commitments to aid refugees.”
Taken in their totality, the two summits and the private-sector roundtable may have set the stage to some effect for the next, and possibly more substantive, conversation. Clearly, the fact that so much time and effort went into ensuring that the international community spoke with one voice, however vague, is a form of progress. The summits and roundtable marked a significant increase in the attention and priority given by the very highest levels of government to refugee situations and their resultant migration flows. Government leaders affirmed that out-of-control migration and refugee crises have adverse effects on their own security, economic, and foreign-policy interests—and thus must receive much greater policy attention—raising hope that these challenges may receive something approaching the level of resources, of all types, needed to address them in the coming years.
A number of concrete commitments that emerged from the two days of events also suggested more willingness to devote real financial resources to these issues. The 51 companies at the CEO roundtable committed more than $650 million in assistance for refugee education, employment, and other support, such as consulting or financial services. The biggest commitment came from philanthropist and investor George Soros, who pledged $500 million in investments meant to support start-ups, established companies, social-impact initiatives, and businesses founded by refugees and migrants. The results of the Obama-organized summit also appeared impressive: a $4.5 billion increase over 2015 in financial contributions to humanitarian agencies, twice as many resettlement spots pledged (including an increase of 25,000 admissions over the current 85,000 level from the United States for fiscal 2017), and new measures to improve access to education and work. That said, it is unclear how many of these commitments were truly new, as governments have a tendency to recommit money already pledged and contributions made at any point in 2016 could be counted in New York. Thus the true scale or significance of these pledges will not be known until money is actually allocated.
Several other initiatives launched or highlighted at the second summit also merit some optimism. The World Bank’s Global Crisis Response Platform will ensure access to needed development financing for refugee-hosting countries. The Emerging Countries Joint Support Resettlement Fund, a new collaboration between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, will provide technical assistance and capacity building to countries that seek to establish or expand their resettlement programs. Perhaps most notably, a Jobs Compact will finance the creation of two new industrial zones in Ethiopia that promise to employ a workforce that is 30 percent refugee. Alongside investments in the industrial zones by the World Bank, the United Kingdom, and the European Investment Bank, the Ethiopian government has also committed to gradually end its refugee encampment policy and grant work permits to refugee workers, raising the possibility that thousands of refugees from neighboring Eritrea and South Sudan might soon be able to legally earn a living and attend school.
The governments’ stated willingness in New York to negotiate a more full-throated refugee compact, and a corresponding compact for migrants, by 2018 also left advocates hoping that a formal, binding responsibility-sharing agreement may still be within reach. Yet remarks by several leaders at both summits made clear that sovereignty, rather than multilateralism, is still the lens through which many governments view issues of migration and international protection. Although British Prime Minister Theresa May's firm assertion that "countries have to be able to exercise control over their borders" was the starkest declaration of such views, her position is likely shared both by many other wealthy states and a number of middle-income ones—as a similar reference in the text of the New York Declaration itself make clear. Given the pressure facing governments across the developed world from insurgent populist parties—and the palpable public fears of uncontrolled migration on which they feed—the inability of the UNGA Summit to reach a firm commitment on responsibility sharing this year, one that would probably place further obligations on sovereign states, should not be surprising.
What is likely to follow over the next two years, then, is a tug of war between multilateralism and sovereignty. Whether this dynamic and the positions of the most relevant states, particularly the high-income countries that are most attractive to migrants and refugees, will change in the intervening time depends on a number of variables. Principal among them will be whether spontaneous mixed flows of migrants seeking humanitarian protection or better livelihoods continue apace—driven in part by emerging expectations among youth in many parts of the world who now consider migration a “rite of passage”—and whether the instability experienced in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and elsewhere is brought under control or continues to spread. The U.S. experience with Mexico and Central America suggests that it takes more than a generation—and enormous investments of all types, including trade, economic development, and migration management measures—before a flow begins to abate. It thus seems likely that governments will need to demonstrate progress on achieving “safe, orderly, and regular migration” at bilateral and perhaps subregional levels before negotiations intended to achieve this same goal can bear fruit at the multilateral level.