The United Nations will convene a summit on large movements of migrants and refugees on September 19th in New York. While sparked by the well-publicized flows of people from the Middle East and Africa to Europe over the past many months, the high-level meeting will consider issues of migrants and refugees from a broader perspective. Though the summit itself is not scheduled to produce significant new commitments, it sets the stage for a process that could prove tremendously important.
UN Member States have negotiated a draft outcome document for the summit that will be submitted for adoption later this month. The document is a helpful intervention in a number of respects, although it falls short in others, as will be discussed below. It begins with the premise that migrants “make positive and profound contributions to economic and social development in their host societies and to global wealth creation” and extols the benefits of diversity that come from immigration. It takes note of the perilous situation of “vulnerable” migrants and refugees (with particular attention to women and unaccompanied children), and expresses “profound concern” at the thousands of persons who have lost their lives in transit. In adopting the document, states would commit to “protect[ing] the human rights and fundamental freedoms of refugee and migrant children, regardless of their status, and in accordance with the best interests of the child.” They would also pledge to support a global campaign to counter xenophobia, to be proposed by the UN Secretary-General. To make progress on facilitating migration and improving migration policies (as called for under the UN Sustainable Development Goals), the draft outcome document recommends launching intergovernmental negotiations towards adoption of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in 2018.
As to refugees, the draft stands firmly behind the 1951 Refugee Convention—and its core principle of non-return of refugees (“nonrefoulement”). This is no small achievement in a time of increasingly restrictive state and regional practices. The documents calls for improved coordinated among humanitarian and development agencies in responding to refugee emergencies and longstanding displacement situations, with the goals of improving refugee self-reliance and enhancing assistance to host communities. Furthermore, it emphasizes the “centrality of [international] responsibility sharing”—a recognition that countries neighboring a country in conflict typically bear most of the burdens of refugee flows. If implemented, these measures could provide a real advancement for millions of refugees who are living lives in limbo in camps, settlements, and marginal urban areas around the world.
Issues Not Adequately Addressed
In the search for a consensus document, a number of issues were rendered in vague language or left out of the document entirely. The most significant include:
Where To After the Summit?
The important question is whether anything will have changed the day after the summit. To some degree the answer will be “no”—or at least not much. The summit will do little to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis facing migrants undertaking dangerous journeys to Europe. It will not call for the convening of a global conference on Syrian refugees (or Afghan, Somali, or Eritrean refugees). It will not establish new norms for forced migrants who do not fit within the Convention’s definition of refugee. Nor will it provide a system of accountability for implementation of the new business model of refugee protection and assistance. It is widely recognized that millions of persons will be forced from their homes in the future because of natural disasters and climate change, yet the summit will not produce outcomes concerning these issues.
Indeed, the outcome document itself will only be hortatory. It will not purport to establish any new obligations on UN Member States.
However, in the face of increasingly contentious discussions and vitriolic rhetoric, the summit will have made a difference if Member States—through adoption of the outcome document—affirm the benefits of migration, promote international norms that protect migrants and refugees, commit to programs to counter xenophobia and discrimination, and call for international cooperation and responsibility sharing for refugee protection and solutions (including assistance to hosting states).
But perhaps the most significant contribution of the summit will be the commitment of the Member States to draft a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and a Global Compact on Refugees. This work, which will take place over the next two years, can carry forward on the commitments of the summit and also address the gaps identified above.
T. Alexander Aleinikoff is a Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Visiting Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, and former Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. This is adapted from a policy brief he wrote for the Development and Peace Foundation.
Source: Migration Policy Ins