States reach historic deal for refugees and commit to more effective, fairer response

UN General Assembly agrees on an innovative global framework to better serve the forcibly displaced and their host communities.

Members of the Pihcintu Choir performing at event to mark the affirmation of the Global Compact on Refugees at the UN Headquarters in New York City.
© UNHCR/Andrew Kelly


NEW YORK, 17 December 2018 – In a historic decision, the member states of the UN General Assembly today agreed on a new international framework – known as the Global Compact on Refugees – that will transform the way the world responds to mass displacement and refugee crises, benefiting both refugees and the communities that host them.

“No country should be left alone to respond to a huge influx of refugees,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Refugee crises call for a global sharing of responsibility, and the compact is a powerful expression of how we work together in today’s fragmented world.”

The Global Compact on Refugees was agreed as part of this year’s annual resolution on UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.  It builds on the existing international legal system for refugees, notably the 1951 Refugee Convention, and on human rights and humanitarian law. It is a non-binding operational tool to bolster cooperation.

“The compact is a powerful expression of how we work together in today’s fragmented world.”

After two years of extensive consultations led by UNHCR with member states, international organizations, refugees, civil society, the private business sector and experts, this new global deal will provide more robust support for the countries where most refugees live. It will also strengthen the shared responsibility to aid those who are forced to flee by conflict or persecution.

“In this world of ours, which often turns its back to people in need, that has shamefully politicized the pain of exile, that has demonized refugees and migrants, this compact, in sinergy with the compact on migration, can really represent a new commitment to international cooperation,” Grandi said.

This deal comes at a time of urgent need to address record-high displacement figures – over 68.5 million people have been forced to flee worldwide, including more than 25.4 million people who have crossed borders to become refugees.

Nine out of 10 refugees live in developing countries, where basic services like health or education are already strained. The compact aims to address this issue by providing more investment – from both governments and the private sector – to further strengthen infrastructure and the provision of services for the benefit of both refugees and host communities.

It also calls for policies and measures that will enable refugees to access education and to lead productive lives during the time they are in exile. The compact aims to address the environmental impact of hosting refugee populations and includes promotion of the use of alternative energy.

The agreement also envisions more resettlement opportunities – such as through family reunification, student scholarships, or humanitarian visas – so that refugees can travel safely. It notes that the voluntary return of refugees in conditions of safety and dignity remains the preferred solution in the majority of refugee situations.

The new agreement will monitor progress through the creation of follow-up systems, including a Global Refugee Forum every four years at which governments will report and pledge on a range of measures – funding, policy, legal changes, resettlement quotas, etc.

“Resettlement gave me hope.”

The refugee compact’s adoption by the UNGA comes days after an intergovernmental conference adopted a separate Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakech, which will be presented to the UN General Assembly later this week.

“Today marks beginning, not end of our work to respond comprehensively to the challenges that refugees and their hosts face,” said the president of the UN General Assembly Maria Fernanda Espinosa during an event marking the historic adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees at the UN Secretariat in New York.

“As of tomorrow, all member states, together with the society and the UN family, are called to step up our efforts and deliver. The 25 million refugees in the world today expect this of us.”

“We are here to educate people about what we’ve been through.”

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of conflicts and other circumstances forcing people to leave their home countries.

“While we must respond to the immediate needs of refugees, this is merely treating the symptoms, unless we also deal with the root causes of the record numbers of people displaced by conflict and persecution around the world,” Mohammed said.

Bertine Bahige, a former refugee who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and spent five years in a refugee camp in Maputo, Mozambique, moved the event attendees with his inspiring story of resilience and integration in the United States, where he was resettled in 2004.

“Resettlement gave me hope,” Bertine said. “I was given a second chance in life, and I wanted to do something purposeful with that life.”

Bertine is now a cornerstone in the community of Gillette, in the US state of Wyoming, where he is an elementary school principal. Because of what he went through as a child, Bertine especially enjoys working with at-risk children and ensuring they receive the support they need to succeed.

“I knew the pain they were feeling, the pain of not having enough,” Bertine added. “But I also knew that if I can place that hope that was given to me, it can make a difference.”

“Today marks beginning, not end of our work to respond comprehensively to the challenges that refugees and their hosts face.”

Thirty-four members of the Pihcintu choir, refugee and immigrant youth from 19 different countries, closed the event on a high note with two uplifting songs.

“I think music is education,” said Fatima LamLum, 14, from Iraq. “We are here to educate people about what we’ve been through.”

The choir members, girls and young women ranging from nine to 23 years old, came all the way from Portland, Maine to perform at the UN headquarters to show their support for the adoption of the Global Compact.

Nyawal Lia, a 24-year-old former refugee from South Sudan, stressed the importance of raising their voices in the communities they belong to: “It is critically important for refugees to step up in our representation, and for the receiving countries to recognize our contributions.”

Bertine and the members of Pihcintu choir are examples of the kinds of solutions the global compact aims to strengthen and build on to ensure refugees and their host communities can thrive. Its historic adoption today makes its ambition a reality.