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The Week That Refugees Were at the Top of the U.N. Agenda

There were a string of meetings, agreements and promises to support refugees and migrants during the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. We look at what happened, and what has been pledged.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on Sept. 20, 2016. AP/Carolyn Kaster

As world leaders gathered in New York this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, the world’s 20 million refugees were at the top of the agenda.

“We are facing a crisis of epic proportions,” U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told a refugee summit on Tuesday, referring to the 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes around the world. “This is one of the biggest tests of our times.”

A series of meetings, agreements and pledges from countries and organizations in New York this week made an effort to meet that challenge. As policy advocates debate the effectiveness of these efforts, here is a recap of what happened at the U.N. this week.

U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants

The 193 member states of the United Nations met a day before the General Assembly for the first ever special U.N. summit on refugees and migrants.

The countries adopted an agreement in which they pledged to protect the rights of displaced people and share responsibility for their care and protection, called the New York Declaration.

The text of the agreement had been subject to months of negotiations, and the final draft does not contain any specific pledges or legally binding commitments for aid or reform.

Instead, it contains a series of political commitments to protect displaced people, and a set of principles for the U.N. refugee agency’s response to various refugee crises, called the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.

The declaration also lays out a two-year timeline for countries to negotiate two global compacts that might have more concrete outcomes, one on refugees and another on “safe, orderly and regular migration.”

IOM Joins the United Nations

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the top global body for migration, formally joined the United Nations at the General Assembly, becoming the U.N.’s migration agency.

IOM members voted to join the U.N. system in June, and the organization’s leaders hope their integration into the U.N. will give migrants a greater voice in global negotiations.

Leaders’ Summit on Refugees

On the first day of the General Assembly, U.S. president Barack Obama hosted a separate summit of world leaders, to encourage countries to voluntarily make specific commitments to aid and protect refugees.

It was a smaller gathering than the U.N. summit – 52 countries and international organizations participated in the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, which was cohosted by the U.N. secretary-general, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden.

At the end of the summit, the hosting countries said in a statement that they had met or exceeded each of the goals for the summit:

  • 32 donors committed to give an additional $4.5 billion to the U.N. or humanitarian organizations this year, compared to 2015
  • between them, participating governments agreed to approximately double the number of refugees resettled or admitted to their countries through various routes
  • at least 17 governments committed to policy reform, and other countries agreed to financially support them, in order to ensure some 1 million more refugee children can attend school
  • at least 15 governments committed to policy reform to enable 1 million more refugees to legally work.

Countries’ Pledges

Several countries began to release information about their specific pledges to aid and support refugees in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Leaders’ Summit.

China, for example, pledged $300 million in new humanitarian aid over the next three years, and Canada announced it would increase humanitarian assistance by 10 percent this fiscal year.

Jordan, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, said it would help 40,000 more Syrian children get back to schools. Ethiopia, home to nearly 750,000 refugees, promised to reserve 30 percent of a new job creation plan for refugees.

U.S. officials said seven countries – Romania, Portugal, Spain, Czech Republic, Italy, France, Luxembourg – pledged to take in 10 times more refugees than last year.

Companies’ Pledges

The White House also took the opportunity to announce Tuesday that 51 American companies have pledged $650 million in support of refugees after Obama issued an appeal to corporations in June.

Among the list of company pledges is an Airbnb scheme to allow hosts to temporarily accommodate refugees, Facebook’s promise to provide Wi-Fi to 35 locations in Greece, and LinkedIn’s plan to expand its Welcome Talent initiative – which helps new arrivals in Sweden to find jobs – to other countries.

Meanwhile, U.S. billionaire George Soros pledged to invest $500 million in companies and other initiatives founded by refugees and migrants. Soros’ Open Society Foundations also announced a new project with Canada and the U.N. refugee agency to provide training through Canada’s refugee sponsorship program and help other countries set up similar private sponsorship initiatives.

Read more of our coverage from the UNGA:

This version clarifies that 30 percent of a new job plan in Ethiopia will be reserved for refugees. An earlier version reported that the plan would create 50,000 jobs, but the figure is now higher.

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