Volker Türk explains thinking behind plans for global refugee compact

UNHCR protection head details how a new deal for refugees will help both refugees and host communities

Volker Turk explains why the global refugee compact matters
© Ariane Rummery, producer / Alex St-Denis,camera-editor

Why it matters

Why do we need a new compact on refugees?

About 60 per cent of the world’s refugee population lives in about 10 countries, all in the global south.  Refugees often live in the poorest parts of these countries.  

The global compact is a response to the need for the international community to come together and help countries that are particularly affected by refugee movements.   That’s the whole purpose.

But why a new international agreement? Does this mean the Refugee Convention is not fit for purpose?

The Refugee Convention focuses on rights of refugees and obligations of states, but it does not deal with international cooperation writ large. And that’s what the global compact seeks to address.

How it will make a difference

What tangible difference will the compact make in the lives of refugees or the communities that host them?

We would see better education for refugee boys and girls, as well as better access to health services for all refugees, and more livelihood opportunities. We would also see a different way host communities engage with refugees, hopefully moving away from the encampment policies that we still have in too many countries. 

Host countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Iran, the Central American context, or Lebanon -- with its infrastructure and health services enormously challenged by hosting a million refugees – would get the support they need. 

The compact would make sure that countries like Lebanon are supported. Not just from a humanitarian perspective but from a development cooperation perspective. And that’s what is new. 

Also, we would hopefully get more resettlement places and more ways refugees can move to third countries – such as through family reunification, student scholarships, or humanitarian visas so refugees can travel safely (what we call ‘complementary pathways’).   There would be more support in the form of standby arrangements, providing technical support to host countries from gathering and analysing data to environmental management.

But if the compact is not legally binding and countries can pick and choose which elements suit them, can it really make a difference?

It is correct that the global compact is a legally non-binding instrument. But it is a very strong political signal because it is going to be adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations as a way to dedicate themselves to the cause of refugees.

Member states are taking this extremely seriously and want to discuss each and every section of the document. They want to own it.   So even if it is non-binding, it has incredible significance.

Reactions to draft compact

Some have expressed concern that the draft compact doesn’t include strong statements on key principles of refugee protection like non-refoulement.  Why doesn’t it address those key issues?

It’s not a question of restating the 51 Convention or each and every principle or every standard, because we have these standards. We are building on a very solid foundation of international law, of international standards and practices.  We want to go beyond what already exists and address a very specific gap which is to better define international cooperation to share responsibilities. 

As talks on the draft compact get underway, are particular concerns emerging?

It’s clear that the host countries feel that the compact has to have more teeth, and there needs to be clearer commitments from the international community on the mechanics of responsibility sharing. 

We also heard from some of the donor countries that we need to broaden the base of support beyond the historically small group.    The global refugee situation is of international concern for all 193 Member States of the UN. It’s not just for 10, 15, or 20 countries.  We need more donors, more countries to contribute support. 

The mechanics of responsibility sharing: how it’s all going to work?

Paint a picture for me on how it’s all going to work when there’s a new refugee crisis with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to, say, Bangladesh.  What should happen?

First of all when a country is hit by a large scale influx, such as in Bangladesh or Uganda with the latest influx of Congolese refugees, we quickly need to know the needs of the people and the impact on the receiving country.

Then we have to present the needs in terms of financial support, humanitarian assistance and development cooperation to the international community writ large.   We would need to see if some countries come forward and say: yes I’m going to pledge funding; I am going to help on the education front; I will help with technical expertise through standby arrangements to ensure jungles don’t disappear due to a huge influx of people to a certain area (currently happening in Bangladesh); yes, we are going to increase resettlement.

So what we want to achieve is a very quick galvanising of support: political, financial, resettlement support so that countries – when they are faced with such a situation – feel that they are not on their own.  That they are not isolated, that no one cares. That actually yes, the international community cares about the people but also the country that is affected.  And it stands in solidarity, and acts in solidarity with them.  That is really the purpose.  

So is it really about drawing together various existing tools, and ensuring they happen faster, and more systematically?

The idea is very much to trigger and activate mechanisms that are faster, more equitable, more predictable, and that are also more comprehensive.  

What will it take to build confidence among host countries to let refugees work, own businesses, live outside of camps and generally have more progressive policies for refugees? 

It is important to recognise the incredible challenge for countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, which have their own development challenges to suddenly be confronted with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people.

But if countries can also see crisis as an opportunity and adapt their policies accordingly, this can be turned to an advantage.    This means saying: okay this is a remote part of the country, we have this influx of people, we have international engagement and (so) let’s use it so that both the refugee population and the host community can benefit from boosted development cooperation.   So we do not just develop and focus on one camp, but we focus on the area where refugees are hosted and live with local communities.  And we make sure that we build the infrastructure, we build the roads, the electricity grid, the water supplies that benefit refugees and also the host communities.  We build the livelihood opportunities that go along with that. 

Of course, you need investment. You need an initial strong, robust response. You need the support and solidarity.  So that’s what is changing in the new approach, and it’s a strong case to make to countries. 

The new World Bank financing for low income countries hosting refugees is broadly welcomed. But what do you say to those governments which ask why should they have to take out loans to help refugees?

It is great to see this important engagement by the World Bank to support low income host countries in fragile areas, so that they get the infusion of funds to develop certain parts of the country where refugees are also hosted.  

The scheme is a combination of grants and loans with very soft conditions, which takes into account the benefits for refugees and host communities.   So the fact that host communities benefit from it, makes it an investment in the country’s development.   The World Bank looks at it in terms of financial feasibility and long term benefits for the country.

Relationship between the refugee and migration compacts

There are in fact two global compacts in the works – one on refugees and one on migrants. How do they relate to each other and are there two?

The New York Declaration that was adopted in September 2016 gave birth to two compacts: one on refugees and one on migration.  They need to be coherent with each other, but they also pursue very different objectives.

We have no clear, solid policy legal framework when it comes to migration. Whereas in the refugee context, we have a very solid legal foundation, a policy foundation, an operational foundation.  

So on the refugee front, given the fact that we have all these standards, foundations, legal frameworks and operational knowledge already in place, we have moved to addressing particular aspects that really require international cooperation. Whereas on migration, you essentially start from scratch.  

Both compacts are ambitious. When adopted in the course of this year, it’s going to be a sea change in the way the international community deals with the very complex issue of migration and engages with refugees and their host communities, acting in strong solidarity with them.   We hope this will have a direct impact on the lives of millions of people.