On December 17, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted nearly unanimously, with the US and Hungary being the only exceptions, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). This comes almost two years after the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees, through which countries pledged to share the burden of hosting and supporting refugees in an equitable, sustainable and predictable manner. In 2016, the New York Declaration evidenced an international acknowledgement of two realities; one, that the number of refugees was on the rise globally, and second, that the burden of this was borne only by a handful of nations, most of which were underdeveloped or developing. Thus, countries committed to overcoming this imbalance through a detailed programme of action, which finds form as the GCR.
Key features of the GCR
The GCR aims at attaining four overarching goals—easing pressure on countries that host refugees, expanding resettlement solutions for refugees, supporting conditions in the refugees’ countries of origin to facilitate repatriation, and enhancing refugee self-reliance. The GCR foresees arrangements at the global and regional level to ensure that an increasing number of countries respond to refugee outflows. It also identifies areas that need international support, such as refugee response systems and resource-based assistance for the education, health, food, nutrition and livelihood of refugees.
Further, the GCR establishes a Global Refugee Forum, where starting this year, countries will meet every four years to announce pledges and contributions to aid refugees. Pledges would be voluntary, and could take the form of financial, material and technical assistance as well as resettlement plans for refugees. In this manner, the GCR envisages that the countries hosting refugees would work with various stakeholders, including the private sector, to achieve a comprehensive response to refugee situations. The countries most affected by the specific large-scale movement of refugees could also request the activation of a Support Platform, which would ease pressure on the country by mobilising resources and providing alternatives for the relocation of refugees.
The GCR concludes by providing three durable solutions for refugee situations, to be used based on the development level and demographic situation in different countries. First, the voluntary repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin is the preferred solution. Second, the resettlement of refugees to other countries, to reduce the impact on a handful of developing countries. And third, the GCR also calls for host countries to allow refugees to integrate within the local communities, based on their national interests and policies.
In this manner, the GCR strengthens the rights of refugees enshrined under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, by providing for international cooperation in sharing responsibility of the world’s 69 million refugees.
India’s position on the GCR
India has participated in all six consultations leading to the completion of the GCR and voted in favour of its adoption. At each consultation, India suggested extremely relevant alterations, many of which find place in the final text. For instance, in February 2018, India suggested that there must be a follow up review mechanism to review the support to countries of origin and countries that host refugees; this now exists as the Global Refugee Forum.
Similarly, other suggestions such as the inclusion of Sustainable Development Goals in the refugee response framework, strong commitment to removing the root cause of refugee situations, international support and technical assistance for refugee data collection and capacity building, have all been included in the GCR. Overall, as a country that is home to thousands of refugees, India hopes that the GCR will mobilise genuine international support to realise equitable burden sharing of refugees.
The way ahead
Acting on the premise laid down by the GCR, countries have adopted positive measures to support refugee populations. For instance, Ethiopia will be closing 27 refugee camps within the next 10 years, to ensure that refugees are integrated with the local communities. Similarly, Burundi has developed a Regional Refugee Response Plan for 2019-2020, which has institutionalised job and livelihood opportunities for refugees to make them self-reliant.
However, while the GCR envisages an innovative approach to burden sharing, it has its limitations. Though 105 paragraphs long, it does not provide a clear mechanism to adequately support either host countries or refugees. It does not provide specific commitments, resettlement quotas or even minimum financial support that must be provided to a host country in a refugee emergency. Accordingly, there exists no concrete target to practically allocate the burden of the world’s refugees between countries.
Moreover, although the GCR establishes a Global Refugee Forum where countries can pledge contributions for burden sharing, it does not provide accountability for those countries that fail to fulfil their pledges. In fact, the text of the GCR makes it apparent that the emphasis is on sharing burden through material and financial assistance, as opposed to an actual relocation of refugees. Even where the GCR speaks of relocation and resettlement, it does so through words such as ‘where applicable’ or ‘States could’, evidencing an extremely weak commitment for countries. Therefore, while the GCR expresses an aspiration of the international community to share responsibility of the world’s refugees, it falls short of providing a practical mechanism to attain this very objective. In fact, relying on the GCR, developed countries, could continue to close their borders and shirk off their responsibility of relocating refugees, by merely paying financial aid to host countries.
Countries must utilise the key contribution of the GCR—the various platforms for deliberations that it has created—to devise effective and realisable solutions for the protracted refugee situations we witness today.
Arushie Marwah is a lawyer, currently working with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome, Italy.