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'A Minor Miracle: A New Global Compact on Refugees'

Speeches and statements

'A Minor Miracle: A New Global Compact on Refugees'

18 November 2016
Address at the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law,
University of New South Wales, Sydney

It is my pleasure to be here with you this evening. UNHCR has had a long-standing relationship with the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, since its inception in 2013, and we very much value our collaboration. I am also pleased to be speaking with you here in Australia, which is a country that was built on a long tradition of immigration and has in particular provided strong support for refugees through its resettlement and special humanitarian programmes. Australia is also a founding and active member of UNHCR’s Executive Committee. As a much valued donor to the United Nations and UNHCR in particular, Australia has contributed significant funding to address some of the most critical needs around the world, and has further been active in the wider region, especially as Co-Chair of the Bali Process. I have also been impressed by Australia’s thriving civil society and academic communities, which have made valuable contributions to global research and policy on refugees.

At the same time, from my vantage point of following global developments in relation to refugee protection, let me also say – and it is no secret – that we have had, over the years, concerns about the evolution of the asylum system in Australia. It seems to me – again from the benefit of distance, and being acutely aware of the challenges we face today with the magnitude, complexity, and scope of forced displacement globally – that the arrival of asylum-seekers by sea has attained a disproportionate space within the public and political discourse in Australia, notwithstanding the legitimate concerns about the potential dangers of such journeys and the smuggling and trafficking networks preying upon vulnerable people.

As a result, vigorous deterrence and border control measures have been put in place, many of which have also directly affected asylum-seekers and refugees who seek safety by sea. A bipartisan approach seems to have emerged around the deterrence of asylum-seekers arriving by boat. The use of interceptions, turn-backs, offshore processing arrangements, as well as policies on-shore have resulted in prolonged delays in processing and only provided temporary protection for refugees. Some of these measures have had a profoundly detrimental impact on the psycho-social well-being of refugees held in Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for protracted periods. These measures have incurred high financial costs, and now, given the humanitarian imperative, also implicated the already much stretched international community to find solutions. What is lost within the discourse and narrative around undoubtedly complex issues, is a sense of humanity and empathy for the individual human being caught up in the maelstrom of history.

Refugees, who by definition flee problems, have been turned into the problem, with barriers raised to prevent them from arriving without prior permission. In the process, some of the ethical and legal underpinnings of asylum and the 1951 Refugee Convention have been lost. Were one to take such an approach to its logical conclusion and apply it everywhere around the world, I cannot imagine how refugees would ever be able to access safety anywhere. In fact, taken to its extreme, it would render the very notion of refugee protection obsolete. Although human smuggling and trafficking need to be addressed, this must not be done at the expense of asylum-seekers and refugees who often have no choice but to travel across borders without permission.

How did we get to such a place in the treatment of refugees to begin with? And how can we ensure that border protection, combatting smuggling, saving lives at sea, and delivering protection and solutions to refugees do not come across as incompatible goals, but rather as a coherent whole? In short, how do we get out of this conundrum and square the circle – not just here, but also in other parts of the world? An underlying premise will have to be the recognition that refugees are a fact of life that will stay with us for the foreseeable future. We must respond to refugees with a deep sense of humanity and dignity, and in the knowledge borne of long experience that no country can solve problems on its own. And, we need to realize that security considerations need to go hand in hand with the refugee protection dimension.

This leads me to situate the discussion and the dilemmas played out here, and in South East Asia more broadly, within the larger global picture on refugee protection. I would like to offer some reflections on the way forward, notably on the opportunities inherent in the recently adopted New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, as well as the Bali Ministerial Declaration of March 2016, so that situations such as those we are faced with today can be addressed more constructively in the future.

We are living in a time of stark contrasts where, in the face of heightened crisis and change, a curious tension has emerged between indifference, inwardness, and isolationism on the one hand, and empathy, responsibility, and generosity on the other. Our collective failures to resolve raging conflicts and violence and prevent human rights abuses around the world – in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere – are no more evident than in the 65 million people displaced today – of whom 40.8 million are internally displaced, and 21.3 million are refugees, and for whom the horror and degradation of violence, kidnapping, rape, and killing have become facts of everyday life. Escape then becomes a necessity for the survival of millions.

When confronted with this reality, some in wealthier nations have chosen the path of retreat, looking inward at times, in an attempt to keep such tragedies at arm’s length. We hear from some quarters that this is not our problem – that this could never happen to us – that the victims of such atrocities have somehow brought this upon themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rising populism and xenophobia in different parts of the world that have found expression not least in non-entrée policies, some of which have also had the effect of ultimately vilifying refugees for trying to survive through flight. Although enacted in the name of border protection, such policies call into question whose protection is really at stake here, particularly as one of the main means of accessing protection has become irregular entry, with few regular pathways in sight.

More specifically, transfer arrangements without in-built and multilaterally agreed solution frameworks in place, with arbitrary detention leading to severe harm and suffering, and which deny opportunities for refugees to reunite with their family members, in effect punish and penalize the victims – persons who have survived conflict and violence only to face new forms of victimization in countries where they had hoped to find protection and safety. Equally worrying are push-back and interception practices without the proper refugee protection safeguards in place.

As such, policies of deterrence can inadvertently slip into policies of mistreatment and punishment, with the potential effect of dehumanizing refugees and asylum-seekers. This dehumanization, I fear, is a deeper phenomenon.

On a recent mission to Rwanda, I visited the genocide museum in Kigali. It brought home to me how insidiously the process of dehumanization can evolve. We have seen this emerge for minority groups in many situations of conflict around the world, compelling people to flee. Whilst of course different, societies in functioning democracies are not immune from this phenomenon, and sadly it can play out at times also in relation to refugees and migrants in receiving countries. The dehumanization of the ‘other’ and the consequent slow erosion of human dignity poses risks everywhere, and we must remain vigilant to these dangers, lest societies lose their cohesion, openness, and richness found in diversity.

Yet at the same time, there have been others who have recognized that deterrence is at best a short-sighted approach, running counter to a broader understanding of how we benefit from globalization and interdependence. Rather than shunning the most vulnerable, many have opened their arms to them – acknowledging their shared humanity, knowing that to bring them into their fold is not only a responsibility, but also the best way to ensure the safety of all.

The modern institution of asylum was created in this spirit, as a lifeline for those who are most at risk and, let us not forget, born out of the horrors of the Second World War. In the face of rising xenophobia, fear, and cynical political debates, we must hold fast to this sacred tradition as it is needed more critically than ever. When decision-making is based on heightened emotion, then discretion – rather than law – governs the treatment of individuals. To prevent slippages away from international cooperation and solidarity into national exceptionalism and self-interest, the sound legal framework set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention provides the guidance for a practical and principled approach, based on reason and agreed standards. The Convention is an instrument that has proven its adaptability over time, in light of changing realities and evolving human rights law, providing protection, for example, to those fearing persecution on account of their gender or sexual orientation or fleeing situations of armed conflict and violence.

In the absence of the ability to resolve conflicts globally, refugee situations are increasingly becoming protracted, sometimes lasting for decades, and host communities are in need of continued assistance, particularly those on the front lines in the so-called ‘Global South’ receiving the largest influxes of refugees. While many States commendably keep their borders open, the protection space is nonetheless shrinking, and serious gaps are emerging in asylum and reception systems around the world.

One of the biggest gaps has been the lack of an equitable distribution of responsibility between States for providing protection to the growing numbers of refugees. In this discussion, we should also not forget the contributions refugees make to their host communities if they are enabled to develop to their full potential, which increases self-reliance and reduces dependency on the resources of host countries.

The question we are faced with is how do we make the shift to enhance refugee protection globally? What tools do we need to turn fear and loss into hope and opportunity? How do we place the protection of people at the centre of our response? The New York Declaration holds much promise in this respect for refugees. It represents a revival of multilateralism as an antidote to isolationism, and presents collective engagement as the key to upholding the principles and values that we hold most dear.

The New York Declaration is the first declaration adopted specifically for refugees and migrants by the UN General Assembly. It is a truly remarkable achievement in today’s complex and retrogressive climate. It came at a time when some were calling for revisiting the 1951 Refugee Convention and eliminating the legal distinction between refugees and migrants, which would have eroded hard-won protections achieved for refugees over the past six decades, based on their particular need for international protection.

It was a refreshing surprise and relief, then, when the international community sent a strong signal through this Declaration that the world cares about refugees. Through this Declaration, States unanimously affirmed the principles of refugee protection enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. They called for easing pressures on host countries through enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding third-country solutions, and supporting conditions in countries of origin to enable safe, voluntary, and dignified returns. The Declaration is an expression of profound solidarity – both for those who are forced to flee and for the countries who shelter them. It demonstrates a clear acknowledgement of the unprecedented level of human mobility that characterizes our world today, of which forced displacement is a part, and recognizes that we have a global duty of care.

Some have asked what is new in the New York Declaration, and others have gone so far as to critique it for doing little more than to affirm the status quo. It has done actually much more. Not only does the Declaration reaffirm the principles of international refugee protection at a time when they are being profoundly tested, it also charts a new course for refugee protection. It sets out to ensure that refugees are well received when they arrive in host countries. It also seeks to improve contingency planning by supporting local responses to refugees, quickly marshalling funds and expertise from the international community, and providing for a more sustainable response where it may be needed.

Particularly important in the Declaration is the commitment to greater responsibility-sharing for refugees. Although the Preamble to the 1951 Refugee Convention stresses the need for international cooperation, it does not explicitly refer to responsibility-sharing. For decades, UNHCR has sought a strong, concrete statement of international commitment to responsibility-sharing. The New York Declaration now realizes that ambition. The commitment to ‘a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility’ set out in the Declaration serves as the basis for mobilizing a more effective – and more predictable – response when large movements of refugees occur in the future, thereby addressing a critical gap in the current system.

As part of the Declaration, States agreed on a comprehensive refugee response framework for addressing large-scale refugee movements and protracted refugee situations. This framework represents a paradigm shift in the way in which the international community responds to refugees. Recognizing that most countries hosting large populations of refugees receive too little support too late, States set out this framework to consolidate holistically the nuts and bolts of what is needed and what will be provided if a country is faced with a large-scale influx, from reception to ongoing support and solutions, and addressing root causes. States also committed to adopting a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, building upon and formalizing this new way of working.

Through more equitable sharing of responsibilities, the framework ensures greater support for both refugees and host communities. It also engages a wider array of actors – the whole of society – in crafting and tailoring a response to each specific refugee situation. State and local authorities join hands with humanitarian agencies, financial institutions, development actors, civil society, the private sector, and refugees themselves to chart a way forward.

In particular, the early involvement of development actors will enable a sea change in the way we craft refugee responses, linking the humanitarian and development worlds in new ways. The Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda provide an entry point for this. Development support can strengthen existing national health and education infrastructures to accommodate the needs of both host communities and refugees. The engagement of the World Bank, in opening up and increasing development funding for middle-income refugee-hosting countries, is a critical step in this direction.

In addition, the involvement of the private sector has the potential to channel investments to both refugee and host communities. In this respect, we very much welcome commitments such as the recent pledge of USD 500 million by George Soros for start-ups and other private sector initiatives by refugees and migrants, showing how businesses can bring both money and innovation to the picture. The private sector has long acknowledged the benefits that refugees can bring, particularly in the context of an aging workforce.

When received and supported properly, provided with access to livelihoods, education, and services, refugees can quickly become contributing members of their new societies – bolstering economies and communities, and often giving back over time far more than what was invested in their initial settlement in a host country. Refugees’ presence and entrepreneurial spirit can also revitalize flagging communities and economies in sparsely populated areas. It will come as no surprise to many of you here today, and certainly did not come as a surprise to me, that a recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that of those coming to Australia, refugees are the most entrepreneurial.[1] When investments are made in supporting refugees, we no longer speak only about the costs of providing protection, but also the dividends that effective protection can yield for host communities and refugees alike.

States have charged UNHCR with leading the implementation of a comprehensive refugee response, and over the course of the next two years, we will be piloting this novel approach in a number of refugee situations, starting with Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, both of which have been generous hosts of refugees for many decades. We also want to explore further how we can use this approach, along with the Bali Ministerial Declaration of March this year, in the context of South East Asia and Australia. The lessons learned from this experience will inform the development and adoption of a Global Compact on Refugees by the UN General Assembly in 2018.

The New York Declaration also paves the way for strengthening international governance of migration and, in addition to the Global Compact on Refugees, anticipates a Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration in 2018. As refugees and migrants often travel the same routes and face similar risks on their journeys, we need stronger linkages with the field of migration in order to learn from one another, deepen our analysis, and identify areas where we can join efforts. For example, one area where we have been involved over the past couple of years, particularly through the Nansen Protection Agenda, is displacement related to climate change. Climate change can both sow the seeds for conflicts that cause displacement, as well as exacerbate existing situations of displacement. Migration can be used as a form of adaptation for those at risk due to the adverse impacts of climate change. We look forward additionally to offering our expertise on protection and engaging in the conversations around such issues that will lead to the development of this Global Compact on Migration.

In conclusion, we now have an important launching pad with the New York Declaration. It seems to me that the real challenge is how to bring the fundamental humanitarian values that it embodies to life – to find a way to inspire empathy for people who are at risk, so that a politics of constructive engagement, emanating from within our broader communities, can become the politics of tomorrow.

[1] See, for example Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Humanitarian Migrants the Most Entrepreneurial: ABS Report”, 9 April 2015.