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Volker Türk explains the global compact on refugees


Volker Türk explains the global compact on refugees

UNHCR protection head details how a new deal for refugees will help both refugees and host communities
30 August 2018

Why it matters

What is the agreement that has been reached and why does it matter?

About 60 per cent of the world’s refugee population lives in around 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 these countries that are particularly affected by refugee movements. That’s the whole purpose.

We have just ended an 18-month process of intense engagement with all 193 Member States of the United Nations plus all other stakeholders – non-governmental organizations, the private sector, faith communities, refugees themselves, and the World Bank.

It’s a miracle that in today’s world where there is a lot of polarization, where we see a lot of divisiveness, we actually managed successfully a multilateral process to address one of the most sensitive issues – refugees.

The global compact is a document that consolidates practices acquired over many years and often over decades, and puts forward a new vision of how the international community will engage with countries that are particularly affected by refugees.

If a country today is affected by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees or, by even ten or twenty thousand, what should the international community do to assist this country? That’s the question that the global compact answers.

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.

The 1951 Convention does not specify how you share the burden and responsibility, and that’s what the global compact does. It responds to one of the major gaps we have faced for decades.

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, those in Central America, or Lebanon — with its infrastructure and health services enormously challenged by hosting a million refugees – would get the support they need to meet both the needs of refugees and the communities that host them. 

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 aim to get more resettlement places and find more ways refugees can move to third countries – such as through family reunification, student scholarships, or humanitarian visas, so that 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 in many areas – from gathering and analyzing data to managing the environment.

But if the compact is not legally binding, can it really make a difference?

The UN General Assembly will adopt the global compact; that is our expectation, and once that’s done, it demonstrates a very strong political commitment of all 193 Member States to implement it, even if it’s not legally binding.

In today’s world, that’s how multilateralism is often done.

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 (which is currently happening in Bangladesh); yes, we are going to increase resettlement.

So, what we want to achieve is a very quick galvanizing of support: political, financial, and 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, or 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 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, or Rwanda, which have their own development challenges, to be confronted suddenly 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 into 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. This means 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, the roads, the electricity grid, the water supplies that benefit refugees and also the host communities. We also build the livelihood opportunities that go along with that. 

Of course to do this, you need investment. You need an initial strong, robust response. You need the support and solidarity. So that’s what we hope to secure with this new approach, and it’s a strong case to make to countries.

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 were set in train by the same declaration, but pursue very different objectives.

The migration compact really started from scratch. For the first time, at the level of the General Assembly of the United Nations, you had an intense discussion on the benefits of migration, on what migration brings to countries, but also some of the challenges countries face when they are dealing with migration issues. That’s what the global compact on migration tries to address. It puts together a holistic view of migration in today’s world.

There is a very strong human rights basis for everyone on the move. That’s clear.

At the same time, there is a legal distinction for those who, for valid reasons, cannot return to their country of origin, because of conflict, because of war, because of serious human rights abuses, because of massive inequality that leads to discrimination, because of gang violence, and so forth. For these people a specific legal regime has been established to protect them, and it is people in these situations that the refugees compact addresses.

The World Bank is involved in the global compact, and funds will be made available. The question is why hasn’t this been done before?

Perhaps I can talk about this in the context of partnerships. What the global compact does is it embeds the response to host countries, host communities, to the refugees in a much broader partnerships approach.

It actually looks at what the private sector can bring to the table, what faith communities can bring to the table, what the international financial institutions can bring to the table, and over the last three years, we have seen a sea change in the way, for instance, the World Bank group engages with refugee hosting countries.

The World Bank has established a so-called ‘refugee sub-window’, a specific financial instrument for low-income countries affected by forced displacement – US$2 billion for a couple of years – to help address the socio-economic impact of refugee flows into a particular part of a country.

What has happened is there is a realization within the international financial institutions that the impact of forced displacement can be a shock to the system – on water, sanitation, education, health, and you need to invest in the system so that it can cope with a much larger population, and that has happened over the last three years.

In a way, what the global compact does is not just build on existing partnerships, but also expand some of them and bring in new partners. And one of the big new partners that have come in are these international financial institutions.

This Q&A was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated to reflect recent progress in developing the compact.