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The Global Compact on Refugees: In Search of Solidarity?

Set against the backdrop of the world’s increasing refugee population, the New York Declaration was unanimously adopted by the 193 Member States of the United Nations in 2016. The Declaration, a political agreement between signatory States, provided the stepping stone to two Global Compacts; the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The New York Declaration reaffirms long-standing legal obligations and gives a clear statement of intent regarding the global refugee protection debate; the apprehension that simply reaffirming legal commitments is inevitably distinct from tangible responses in practice. Refugee law academics specifically have been critical on this aspect, with Jeff Crisp noting that;

the September summit was intended to reinvigorate and bring new

commitments to the international refugee regime, rather than to reaffirm

a set of principles that have been in place for 65 years.

The New York Declaration and subsequent Global Compacts do not create binding commitments on States. Whilst this does not per se negate their importance and significance, specifically in terms of refocusing the conversation, questions do persist. Specifically in a period when protection obligations are routinely contravened and ignored and, as Jane McAdam has appropriately recognised, ‘too often, politics gets in the way of positive action’. The fact that the two Global Compacts were delayed by two years following the New York Declaration arguably demonstrates the current state of global affairs. Specifically whereby binding consensus has failed to be reached with regards to addressing the refugee situation the world is presently facing. Hungary went further still, joining the United States of America in voting against the GCR; a clear indicator by certain States of an unwillingness to cooperate in sharing responsibility for the world’s refugee population.

The draft of a Global Compact on Responsibility Sharing in June 2016 significantly and meaningfully aimed to ‘commit to an equitable sharing of responsibility for hosting and supporting refugees, while taking account of differing capacities and resources among States’. Unfortunately, this language was ultimately diluted, with the final GCR adopting a more conservative stance. Paragraph 4 of the GCR sets forth that:

The global compact is not legally binding. Yet it represents the

political will and ambition of the international community as

a whole for strengthened cooperation and solidarity with refugees

and affected host countries. It will be operationalized through

voluntary contributions to achieve collective outcomes and progress

towards its objectives […] These contributions will be determined

by each State and relevant stakeholder, taking into account their national

realities, capacities and levels of development, and respecting national

policies and priorities.

The overarching aims and objectives of the GCR can be found at paragraph 7 which outlines that:

The objectives of the global compact as a whole are to: (i) ease pressures

on host countries; (ii) enhance refugee self-reliance; (iii) expand access to third

country solutions; and (iv) support conditions in countries of origin for

return in safety and dignity. The global compact will seek to achieve these

four interlinked and interdependent objectives through the mobilization of

political will, a broadened base of support, and arrangements that facilitate

more equitable, sustained and predictable contributions among States and

other relevant stakeholders.

The significant outworking of the GCR is the Global Refugee Forum, the first of which took place in late 2019, ‘dedicated to receiving formal pledges and contributions’. These can be in the non-exhaustive form of ‘financial, material and technical assistance, resettlement places and complementary pathways for admission […]’ as noted in the New York Declaration. Pledges and contributions (inclusive of the breakdown in the type of pledges and progress of implementation etc) can be tracked on the UNHCR dedicated dashboard. International solidary remaining the primary focus of the GCR, with paragraph 5 noting:

The global compact emanates from fundamental principles of

humanity and international solidarity, and seeks to operationalize

the principles of burden- and responsibility-sharing to better protect

and assist refugees and support host countries and communities.

We have reached a fundamental crossroads in history whereby the responsibility for persons seeking international protection needs to be met with immediate action and concrete commitments. This necessitates action and tangible commitments as a priority. The arguable shortcomings of the GCR in this regard, has led to James Hathaway to class it as a ‘cop-out’. Time will ultimately tell whether the final GCR document’s conservatism on the matter of responsibility sharing was well-founded, or whether it worked merely to reaffirm the regressive and individualist trends without building towards substantive change. In contrast, Alexander Betts views reaching an agreement on the GCR itself as ‘an achievement’, specifically in light of ‘the current political context’. However, he further notes that ‘it would be misguided to regard this as the endpoint’.

Whilst very much disappointing with respect to the GCR’s voluntary model of responsibility sharing, thus lacking any accompanying palpable obligations, it can be viewed as a clear attempt to refocus the conversation. Reframing the conversation in a constructive manner, the GCR can arguably present an opportunity for ongoing discussion and continued dialogue on this pressing matter. This is particularly significant, given the current state of affairs whereby sovereignty and securitisation rhetoric is often the norm. It certainly was not the ground-breaking Compact which many refugee scholars and practitioners had hoped for, yet many legal instruments rarely are. Where the responsibility sharing element was lacking in the GCR, the onus is now on academics, policy advocates and NGOs to continue to strive in advocating for greater change and holding callous responses towards refugees by States to account.

It might be worth concluding this blog on a broader point in light of the events of 2020. Whilst States continue to contend with responses to the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic, it is worthwhile considering the substantial impact of restricted mobility on the refugee population. Global resettlement, on which the GCR heavily promotes as a tangible solidarity response through State pledges, has currently seen a substantial drop-off in 2020 due to significant travel restrictions. As Cathryn Costello notes that ‘it will be in their [GCR and GCM] implementation that change (if any) emerges’. The global nature of the concerns is evident and continued dialogue must ensure that the practical promises of the GCR come to fruition.

Sarah Craig is a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on solidarity within the Common European Asylum System, specifically looking at regional solidarity and fair-sharing ambitions.

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