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The promise and potential of the global compact on refugees - Closing remarks

Speeches and statements

The promise and potential of the global compact on refugees - Closing remarks

27 July 2018
IASFM Annual Conference 2018

delivered by Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh, Deputy Director, Division of International Protection, on behalf of Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

Thank you for the opportunity to join you here today to speak to the subject of the global compact on refugees, and the promise that it holds for how we engage in refugee situations in the future. I am pleased to be speaking on behalf of the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, and wish to extend his regrets that he was unable to join you here today as he had hoped.

It is my pleasure to share with you a few observations, from the perspective of UNHCR, on the development of the long-awaited global compact on refugees, and our hopes for how it will shape and strengthen our collective approaches to large movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations around the world.

The global compact emerged from an 18-month long process that started with the signing of the New York Declaration on Refugees in Migrants in September 2016 – a pivotal moment when all 193 United Nations Member States came together to agree on the need to manage better large flows of refugees and migrants and to enhance the protection of all people on the move – whether they move in search of new economic opportunities and horizons; to escape armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations; in response to the adverse effects of climate change and natural disasters; or for a combination of these reasons.

The New York Declaration set in motion two processes – one an intergovernmental process of negotiations for a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, and the other a consultative process led by UNHCR to develop a global compact on refugees. These are distinct processes with different objectives, but we have sought to ensure that they are aligned in any areas where they may overlap.

The process of developing the global compact on refugees has been an exciting one in which States, partners, civil society, and refugees have all played a key part. The global compact on refugees is built upon a strong foundation of law, policy, and practice developed over many decades, starting with the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, which emerged in response to the horrors of the Second World War – an instrument that has saved millions of lives over its nearly seven decades in existence, and that will be needed for as long as serious human rights abuses, persecution, and violent conflicts persist. We all have a responsibility to safeguard the 1951 Convention and to ensure its proper interpretation and use in the light of the evolving realities in today’s world.

This is most certainly the case now. The refugee protection system has come under pressure today with more 68.5 million people displaced [of whom 25.4 million are refugees], conflicts continuing and proliferating, and environmental degradation on the rise. While many countries have kept their borders open, notably Bangladesh, Uganda, and in Latin America, we are increasingly concerned by the waning political will in some quarters and inability in others to uphold fully their obligations to protect refugees. There have been instances where safe harbours were inaccessible to those fleeing for their lives, due to physical or administrative barriers at the border, or policies and practices of deterrence. And we have seen how some people, having no other options, have resorted to hazardous journeys over land or by sea.


For UNHCR, the answer to these challenges does not necessarily lie in “more law”, but rather in a more robust, comprehensive, and good faith application of the law and principles already in place. Given this, the global compact on refugees does not seek to recapitulate or revisit what is already well-established. Instead, it aims to address the pressures on the system by building on the solid legal regime we already have, to address what has been a perennial gap – that of ensuring burden and responsibility sharing for refugees, particularly in countries hosting the largest numbers for the longest time.

We know that more than 85 per cent of the world’s refugees live in the global south, and 63 per cent under UNHCR’s responsibility live in only 10 countries. The disproportionate impact of refugee situations on developing and middle-income countries needs to be recognized through better, more predictable support and solutions, which would enable refugees to be protected more effectively wherever they are located. Pressures on host communities could be eased by building resilience, expanding opportunities for solutions in third countries, and fostering conditions for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.

Since UNHCR was tasked with developing the global compact, it has engaged with States, partners, and civil societies to determine how best to achieve exactly this kind of support. As a result of five thematic consultations and a stock-taking exercise in 2017 and six formal consultations held in 2018, we have now arrived at a proposed global compact on refugees.

The global compact on refugees envisions a number new ways of approaching large-scale refugee situations, working with a wider range stakeholders, such as national and local authorities, international and regional organisations, international financial institutions, civil society, the private sector, academia, refugees, and host communities. It provides a basis on which to bring in development actors in particular, early on, to help set the stage for solutions from the start. In addition to humanitarian support based on humanitarian principles in times of emergency, development cooperation, which is complementary, can help ensure a sustainable response over the longer term.

Also, in consideration of the many colleagues present here today, I would like to call attention to how the global compact conceives of collaboration with the academic community. It proposes the creation of a global academic network on refugee, forced displacement, and statelessness issues, that would be supported by UNHCR, and involve universities, academic alliances, and research institutions.  Academics like yourselves, from the global north and south, could contribute to the evidence-based policy making and programme evaluation that will be central to realizing the goals of the global compact, particularly in the areas of responsibility sharing, admission and reception, improving conditions for persons of concern and host communities, and developing solutions. The network will facilitate research, training, scholarship opportunities, and innovative initiatives, which will result in specific deliverables in support of the global compact.

Such strong collaborative partnerships will be pivotal to the success of the new arrangements set out in the global compact to facilitate more equitable responsibility sharing.

First amongst these arrangements, and most notably at the heart of the global compact on refugees, is the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework [CRRF], which was already set out in an annex to the New York Declaration. The CRRF is an approach based on the recognition that the resilience of the host communities, often facing development challenges themselves, needs to be strengthened to enable them to continue providing the protection space for refugees. The CRRF aims to strengthen national and local services and infrastructures to ensure they can meet the needs of both the host communities and refugees, rather than creating parallel systems for refugees. It achieves this through the leadership of the host country government and the mobilization of partners to invest in and initiate planning for solutions from the outset of an emergency.

UNHCR has piloted the CRRF in 14 countries in Africa and the Americas and two regional refugee situations so far, and we are already seeing concrete changes on the ground. We have seen the adoption of new laws or policies for refugee inclusion in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the African Union. The World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries – The International Development Association (IDA) – is providing USD 2 billion in additional financing to support low-income countries hosting large numbers of refugees, and other development banks are investing in similar measures. Private and community sponsorship resettlement programmes and complementary pathways for the admission of refugees to third countries are expanding. And the private sector has become heavily engaged in projects for livelihoods, infrastructure, connectivity, and energy. UNHCR will soon publish a document online that highlights the progress made towards comprehensive refugee responses since the adoption of the New York Declaration. Lessons learned from piloting the CRRF – both what has and has not worked – have informed the development of the global compact.

Second, the global compact on refugees envisions that a Global Refugee Forum will be held periodically at the ministerial level starting in 2019, whereby States and other actors can make pledges of support to meet the goals of the global compact on refugees, as well as update and report back on them. This will help promote accountability for commitments made and ensure more sustained international attention to the refugee issue. Pledges will be concrete and mutually reinforcing, and could take the form of financial, material, and technical assistance; changes to national policies, laws, and practices; or the creation or expansion of programmes. Within the global compact on refugees, there is a Programme of Action detailing areas where such contributions could be made to support host States and refugees, such as support for early warning, preparedness, and contingency planning; reception arrangements; safety and security; registration and documentation; addressing specific needs; identifying international protection needs; access to education; voluntary repatriation; and resettlement places and complementary pathways for admission to third countries. A three-year strategy is planned to broaden resettlement opportunities, in particular, as a part of the Programme of Action in global compact.

Third, the global compact on refugees proposes the creation of situation-specific Support Platforms, comprised of groups of States dedicated to mobilizing support for the host country and the search for solutions. The Support Platforms will promote context-specific, predictable, broadened fora of support for refugees, host countries, and communities, in line with national priorities and national response arrangements. They will galvanize political commitment, facilitate support, and facilitate the early engagement of development actors. They will also foster dialogue, confidence building, and initiatives to find solutions.

It is hoped that these new arrangements will take us much further in our response to refugee situations than where we are today. We believe they are robust, practicable, and implementable, and provide a solid basis to move forward. They represent the best of what can be achieved in a document that aims to create, in effect, obligations for everyone, but is at the same time voluntary and legally non-binding. Over the course of the consultations on the global compact, we faced again and again the challenge of striking this difficult balance. Nothing in the compact creates new legal obligations, nor does it modify UNHCR’s mandate. Instead, we have a non-binding text that builds on past practices and charts the way forward.

While the text might not meet all the ambitions of everyone, it does provide a chance for us to achieve a more sustainable response to forced displacement, and it represents a reconciliation of different views expressed both throughout the consultations and through more than 500 written submissions. It is also important to keep in mind that the compact is not the end, but rather the beginning, of a process that will allow a continuation of the dialogue, including on the further development of the burden and responsibility sharing arrangements through their practical application. It is a working tool that creates the space for all of us to work towards stronger mechanisms for fair sharing of burdens and responsibilities.

The final text, which will be proposed by the High Commissioner in conjunction with his annual report to the General Assembly, was released on the 20th of July. Based on the strong and broad support received at the last round of formal consultations [3-4 July], it is our hope this text will be welcomed and adopted by the UN General Assembly in its annual resolution on UNHCR in December.

I would like to conclude with a few remarks on what this process has taught us about the future of multilateralism in what, to many, seems like an increasingly polarized political space. The development of the global compact on refugees was an 18-month journey, but it is a journey that actually started a long time ago when the General Assembly, in one of its earliest resolutions in 1946, declared that the refugee issue is one of international concern. In this sense, it has been part of a historic process, with all its shortcomings, yes, but also with all its aspirations and true potential. In the future, when we look back upon this time, when we have a quiet moment to reflect, I think it is safe to say that we will all be proud of what we managed to achieve, against all odds and in a difficult context, and what we managed to set in motion for the betterment of the lives of refugees. I am convinced that the hard work will pay off.

This process has shown how multilateralism is about our collective survival. It is an incremental and organic process that moves from common understandings progressively onward – to the aspirations, expectations, and hopes that shared work, undertaken in good faith, can deliver. It demands that everyone is heard and understood. It recognizes that there is some “give and take” needed to move towards a common purpose. Knowing this, we must not miss the forest for the trees. This was not a negotiation of a new convention or protocol, but rather it was, from the start, an iterative process in response to what the UN General Assembly, through the New York Declaration, asked us to do. Many intergovernmental processes, including the development of New York Declaration and the Sustainable Development Goals, were undertaken in a similar fashion.

The best proof of the effectiveness of this approach is when you look back at the zero draft of the global compact on refugees that was shared at the beginning of the year and see how far it has come today. You can see the evidence of what multilateralism can produce. It has been an intricate process – an exercise in listening and collective ownership, but also an exercise intended to transform the lives of refugees and their host countries and communities. In a way, it provides food for thought on how multilateralism can be achieved today and undertaken to address difficult and sensitive issues. Indeed, the exercise, in and of itself, has been one of immense complexity.

I know that some may talk about multilateralism in terms of an acceptable level of unhappiness, but we prefer to look at the glass half full – we have reached an acceptable level of happiness. In the end, and as the text stands, it has broad and overwhelming support. In this sense, we must cherish what we have already gained and use the opportunities before us to build on the global compact further through robust and serious implementation of the nascent framework that is emerging from it. Within UNHCR, we have already started planning in this regard. We are considering how the compact will change our own working methods, and how it will interlink with broader UN methodologies, UN reform, the development system reform, and the prevention side. We need to ensure a seamless transition between the ideas and concrete mechanisms generated by the global compact and processes within the wider UN system.

At the end, let me just share with you a quote that we recently recalled when reflecting upon this historic process. When the United States Constitution was adopted in 1787, although Benjamin Franklin noted that he was not happy with each and every part of the Constitution, at the end he entreated upon his compatriots to accept it, invoking language that resonates very much today with our own experience of developing the global compact and multilateralism. He said, “I hope, therefore, that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavours to the means of having it well administered.” I think this could not be a better way to capture the next steps for us all in this process.

At UNHCR, we are very excited about the global compact on refugees’ potential to transform the way the international community responds to large refugee situations. By creating an architecture of support for the countries most affected, we hope to see improvements in refugee protection and assistance, and a stronger focus on solutions from the outset. As always, implementation will be key – including in the preparation for the first Global Refugee Forum in December 2019. We hope that all stakeholders, including the academic community and civil society, who engaged so actively in the development of the compact, will continue to support its application in practice. We are counting on all of you to make this a meaningful reality in the lives of refugees and the communities who host them.