Breaking down the UN summits on refugees and migrants

What did the international community achieve this week? And was it enough? We asked experts to weigh in.

By: /
September 23, 2016
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the 71st United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

World leaders gathered in New York this week to attend two back-to-back summits focused on providing a better, more humane response to the mass migration of people fleeing conflict, political persecution and economic downturn.

A recent United Nations (UN) report found that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million 12 months earlier. The report also found that the bulk of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate were residing in low- and middle-income countries neighbouring hotbeds of conflict, namely Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. And while both summits this week primarily focused on refugees seeking asylum in countries other than their birthplace, the number of internally displaced people is nearly double that of those able to cross into another country.

After wrapping up last week’s Global Fund Replenishment Conference to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in Montreal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led a delegation to UN headquarters in New York City, where he urged leaders to explore new ways to solve the historic humanitarian crisis caused, in part, by Syria’s civil war.

On Monday, Trudeau announced that the Canadian government will increase humanitarian assistance this fiscal year by 10 percent, to a total of $752 million, and pledged an additional $64.5 million over the next several years to support people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. A portion of that money will be used to support a series of initiatives that aim to make education more accessible to displaced children in Iraq and Syria as well as in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.

Also, as part of the government’s $1.6 billion strategy announced earlier this year to address humanitarian needs in Syria and Iraq, $442 million will go toward humanitarian assistance over the next three years to support UN efforts in that region and long-term funding in support of the UNHCR’s global response effort.

Despite a breakdown of the fragile U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria after a UN aid convoy was bombed Monday night — causing UN officials to halt aid operations in Syria and members of the Security Council to go back to the drawing board as the fighting resumes — the week was full of impassioned speeches and hopeful pledges. (Trudeau’s official address to the Assembly was given Tuesday and can be read in full here.)

Here’s what you need to know.

United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants

On Monday, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in hopes of creating a blueprint to guide the international response to the mounting refugee crisis. Delegations from 193 member states swiftly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon deemed “a breakthrough.”

The declaration supports the protection of the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status, guarantees that displaced children will have access to education within a few months of settling in a country, and pledges to increase humanitarian and development assistance to countries bearing the most weight of the crisis.

Regarding refugee burden-sharing, something advocates have said is in need of urgent reform, the declaration sets out to “expand the number and range of legal pathways available for refugees to be admitted to, or resettled in, third countries,” thereby allowing refugees to move more freely instead of being stuck in the country they first crossed into.

Notably, the declaration seeks to get the ball rolling on the creation of a global compact on migration by 2018 that will deal with “all aspects of international migration,” as well as the development of separate voluntary guidelines on the treatment of migrants.

Also on the UN’s 2018 to-do list is a global compact on refugees, which will be based on a comprehensive refugee response framework that aims to make the burden-sharing of refugees more equitable. 

Throughout the summer, the New York Declaration went through several drafts in which key changes were made in order to get member states’ approval. During negotiations last month, a pledge to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees within the developed world was excluded from the declaration.

And while the document instructs signatories to adopt its principles in a “manner that is consistent” with international law, the declaration itself is not legally binding.

Ban also launched a new global campaign to combat xenophobia and intolerance, though some are already asking for more detail about how the campaign will be waged.

What the experts are saying

Andrew Thompson, CIGI senior fellow: “The declaration covers a lot of important bases; the devil will be in the details when they start to work out this framework. There were several drafts over the course of the summer and with each draft the obligations on states seem to get weaker and weaker. So ensuring states feel compelled to contribute to the system will be the real challenge because right now international human rights law doesn’t require states to actually contribute.

“The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees envisions international cooperation and calls for it, but doesn’t actually compel states to do so. What we have now is a system where a few countries, most of which are in the Global South, are shouldering a disproportionately large share of the load. A lot of countries aren’t doing their fair share. So the challenge with this global compact will be to ensure that those [states] not doing their fair share actually start to do so.”

Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch: “[The speeches were] pretty vapid and didn't really seem to express very much about the real, serious challenges to refugee protections that are occurring right now [like the recent closure of the Dadaab camp in Kenya]...You wouldn't know what the stakes are, how serious this is, how important it is to provide support to those frontline states that are screaming about this situation, where lives are hanging in the balance. That sense of an imperative, a life and death imperative was lacking.

“They kicked the can down the road. Why does it take another two years to come up with this compact? Is consensus on these principles any more likely two years from now than it is today?

“This was an opportunity to make a global declaration at the point when this was the relevant declaration to be making and the diplomats who came and negotiated this declaration watered it down,” he added. “There was an avoidance of the real issues and of the stakes that we're really talking about here.”

David Morley, UNICEF Canada: “When you get member states and world leaders together to talk about the most vulnerable people in the world and make a declaration, that’s an important first step. Things that [UNICEF Canada] thought should be in there, [like] the pledges to protect children from exploitation and violence and preserve family unity and access to education...is extremely important.

At UNICEF Canada, we would have liked a stronger wording on ending the detention of children seeking refugee status. It was addressed, but we feel that as member states review their practices we hope they go further and end the detention of children.”

The Leaders’ Summit on Refugees

On Tuesday, the day after the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, U.S. President Barack Obama opened the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees by calling the refugee crisis "a test of our common humanity.”

Fifty-two countries and international organizations participated in the summit, which was co-hosted by the governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden.

Harnessing the political will of world leaders following the UN summit and mobilizing corporate bigwigs (like Google, Facebook and Airbnb), the summit increased the total of financial contributions made in 2016 to the UN and other international humanitarian organizations by approximately $4.5 billion over last year’s levels.

According to a report released in August, UN humanitarian appeals, on average, are only 39 percent funded. Appeals for funding in African countries such as South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic are vastly underfunded, with campaigns only ranging between 19 and 24 percent funded. According to the statement released following the summit, several countries have pledged to continue giving increased financial support to humanitarian appeals over the course of multiple years.

Some countries that participated in the summit committed to expanding UNHCR-facilitated resettlement programs, while others announced plans to increase their admission of refugees based on family reunification, scholarships or humanitarian visas.

Canada is one such country. On Tuesday, the Liberals announced that Canada is partnering with the UN and billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation to implement programs that will mimic Canada’s private sponsorship system, which was set up by Pierre Trudeau in the ‘70s.

Following the summit, Immigration Minister John McCallum told reporters that 13 countries are considering adopting a similar system.

According to the Canadian government, the initiative will be two-fold: it will create a series of training modules on private sponsorship, based principally on a careful analysis of the Canadian model and made available to other countries who are interested in private sponsorship; it will also build the capacity necessary to disseminate the training modules and offer tailored advice on how to adapt and implement private sponsorship programs.

Two other major cornerstones of the summit were to improve refugees’ access to education and jobs. While no detailed list of individual countries’ commitments was provided by the White House, the statement noted that 17 countries that host large numbers of refugees “pledged to help increase refugees’ school enrollment, including by constructing new classrooms, training and hiring new teachers, and certifying and streamlining refugee education programs that previously offered only informal education or education using foreign curricula.” Further, it said, 15 countries also committed to “take concrete action to improve refugees’ ability to work lawfully by adopting policies that permit refugees to start their own businesses.”

Separately that same day, Obama announced plans to resettle 110,000 refugees in the U.S. in the coming year – a 60 percent increase over the previous year.

What the experts are saying


Andrew Thompson, CIGI senior fellow: “The commitments that came out of Obama’s Leaders’ Summit like [the initiative] to get one million students in school are very welcome... [The amount of money pledged] exceeded the expectations of the organizers. Unfortunately what we often see with these kinds of summits where countries pledge money to a particular cause, often the amounts of money that are delivered are far lower than the amounts committed, so it’s wonderful that the world community committed another US$4.5 billion to the system. The real questions are: When will this money appear and will the US$4.5 billion appear? The track record on these things is not terrific.”

Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch: “Getting funding is extremely important. Part of what we're hoping is that it will also be smarter funding, for resilience, for community-based projects, for transitions from these unending care and maintenance camp situations and instead having real investments in development and building of skills and productivity so refugees aren't looked upon as a drain on the donor community or on the host community, but instead, are actually able to contribute. That's win, win, win, for everybody involved; for the refugees, for the host communities, for the donor communities. It is a much smarter use of that money, instead of this kind of charitable consumption. It is actually an investment in the future, and in those host countries as well, because refugees can be and – given the opportunity – will be productive and will contribute to the societies in which they're living.

“I think U.S. President Obama personally deserves a great deal of credit in the face of a headwind of negativity with respect to refugees. We've had 31 governors that have lined up to say refugees from Syria and Iraq are not welcome to [the U.S.]. So, I think the fact that he's hosting a meeting of this kind at all is laudable and an important counterweight to that kind of really harmful rhetoric...But I do recognize the political realities that he's faced with. Congress has to fund refugee admissions and thus far hasn’t shown the inclination to do any additional admissions at all, so he has set the agenda as he leaves office for his successor, whoever that might be.”

David Morley, UNICEF Canada: “I think Canada has captured the international imagination because of the private sector involvement in resettlement, [but it's] not even just corporate heavyweights, it is equally impressive that what we see from Canada is a grassroots public sector involved in wanting to resettle refugees and help people. … It has sent an important message to its counterparts in other countries that are not on the front lines.”