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Expert Views: How Promising Is the Global Refugee Compact Zero Draft?

Experts weigh in on the U.N. refugee agency’s “zero draft” of the Refugee Compact, a global deal on transforming refugee response set to be agreed this year.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A child stands among tents at a makeshift camp outside the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on February 4, 2018.Juan Carlos Lucas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, released the initial or “zero” draft of the Global Compact on Refugees last week. The document will be the basis for discussions over the final Compact, a global agreement meant to transform how the world manages refugee situations, set to be concluded by September.

We asked experts what was surprising, disappointing or reassuring in the draft, what was missing or poorly addressed, and what could be truly transformative. Please send in your own comments and responses using this form; we’ll include the best responses below.

Jeff Crisp, Refugee Studies Center and Chatham House

First, the good news. If all of the worthy proposals included in the zero draft of the Global Compact on Refugees were to be effectively implemented, then exiled populations and asylum seekers across the globe would enjoy much better access to protection, assistance and solutions than is currently the case. In short, the document says many of the right things.

The bad news is that it does so in a way that is cautious in tone, constipated in style and curiously oblivious of both current realities and historical experience.

The bad news is that it does so in a way that is cautious in tone, constipated in style and curiously oblivious of both current realities and historical experience.

First, and as could have been predicted from the content of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, the zero draft is long on general principles but short on specific commitments. In terms of state action, it is dominated by references to what governments “could” do, while the words “should” or “must” are significant by their absence.

Second, the document reinforces the misleading message that the Global Compact represents something new and different. In fact, the document incorporates a number ideas that have been recommended for years (e.g., fewer camps, more cash assistance and the engagement of development actors) with varying degrees of success.

Third, the zero draft places particular emphasis on the need to collect “reliable, comparable and timely data” on refugees. But it has much less to say on the ways in which humanitarian organizations might listen more effectively to refugee voices, recognizing and responding to their own initiatives.

Farida Bena, Director of Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy, International Rescue Committee

While we appreciate efforts to mobilize a collective response to displacement situations, the text almost always calls only “interested States” and other actors to action. There is no clear definition of what “interested” means in this context (countries impacted by refugee movements? Or willing to help impacted countries? Or both?) nor an indication of contingency plans in case no one is interested in taking action.

This kind of language… has the potential to weaken global accountability by introducing an à la carte approach to protecting and assisting refugees.

Also, interested States and other relevant stakeholders are given the opportunity to pick and choose what they “would” or “could” do at each stage of the international response. There is very little in the text about what the international community as a whole shall do to uphold its collective responsibility towards the millions of refugees who are forced to leave their homes every day. As it stands, this kind of language – which is already nonbinding – has the potential to weaken global accountability by introducing an à la carte approach to protecting and assisting refugees.

In addition, we welcome the proposal to develop a key set of indicators to track progress on the Global Compact on Refugees. However, we would also like to see a time line attached to it, with concrete targets and benchmarks that can tell us if we are moving in the right direction. Civil society must be part of this conversation, which needs to be inclusive and start immediately in order to produce a credible monitoring and evaluation system by the time the Global Compact is finalized later this year.

Sana Mustafa, Founding Member, Network for Refugee Voices

The zero draft of the Global Compact on Refugees in its current state reads like a list of recommendations and best practices, without suggesting actionable or concrete solutions. The draft calls on the international community to meet the “needs” not “rights” of refugee and host communities and stays away from issues like refugee human rights and access to justice. The Programme of Action makes extensive recommendations related to “voluntary repatriation” but nonrefoulement is not mentioned in the document. The Compact must reinforce and add to the refugee protection regime in place and take a rights-based approach to new solutions.

Refugee self-reliance requires refugee participation in designing and implementing these policies.

As The Network for Refugee Voices, we are happy to see that the zero draft recognizes the need to consult refugee communities in these processes; this is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Refugee self-reliance requires refugee participation in designing and implementing these policies; we should be empowering refugee-led initiatives and including refugees in decision-making. We acknowledge our responsibility to do our part to make this document as ambitious as possible. We look forward to collaborating with member states and stakeholders to ensure the GCR is practical, effective and sustainably implemented.

Chelsea Purvis, Policy and Advocacy Adviser, Mercy Corps

Young people aged 10 to 24 make up more than a third of all refugees, but refugee responses often overlook this group. It is therefore encouraging to see the zero draft of the Refugee Compact contain commitments to young refugees (reflecting, perhaps, the consultation of young refugees during its drafting).

The draft acknowledges that the international community should consider how to partner with young people during refugee responses, calls for the systematic collection and use of age- and sex-disaggregated data and encourages states to promote economic opportunities for young people.

But if the Compact is really going to change things for young refugees, its language needs more teeth. The Compact should say that States will – not should – partner with young people from the start of a response, working with them to design and evaluate programs. Girls and young women must be engaged in this process.

Further, States must commit to establishing safe spaces and community-based protection networks for young refugees. Targeted psychosocial support must be integrated into activities for young people across sectors.

The Compact promotes flexible education, but it should clarify that young people need access to quality informal education and vocational training.

Adults shouldn’t be the ones determining what works, and what doesn’t, for young people. Young people themselves should make that determination and States must commit to involving them in the monitoring of the Compact’s implementation.

Behzad Yaghmaian, Professor of political economy, Ramapo College

Despite its many positive initiatives, the zero draft contains damaging departures from the past. The changes may severely weaken refugee protection and the possibility of reducing deaths at sea and on land as well as involuntary repatriations.

Unlike earlier U.N.-led agreements regarding refugees, the zero draft hardly mentions refugee rights. Human rights are only mentioned once in the body of the document. This is even a step backward from the 2016 New York Declaration. The harmful effects of this omission cannot be overstated.

A rights-based approach protects refugees against abuses and denial of access to resources. The removal of rights as the central focus of zero draft creates potential ambiguity about a perceived hierarchy of rights between the nationals and refugees. This ambiguity could affect state neutrality over resource allocation and legal protection.

The zero draft marginalizes resettlement and emphasizes aid as a solution for the unequal responsibility and burden sharing between the global south and north. This reflects the new protection blueprint which legitimizes the restriction of refugees resettling in rich northern states and the warehousing of refugees in the global south.

More aid is needed for refugee protection in the global south, but it cannot replace resettlement.

More aid is needed for refugee protection in the global south, but it cannot replace resettlement. The majority of host countries face not only inadequate services and livelihood opportunities, but also political violence and social tensions that severely limit refugee protection. Aid to host countries can, at best, partially reduce the economic insecurities refugees face. It leaves other endemic insecurities intact. So refugees will continue to take huge risks in search of protection elsewhere.

Further, aid often remains a commitment that is only partially delivered. The non-delivery of aid can, in some cases, result in involuntary repatriation. States may even use repatriation as a tool to obtain undelivered aid.

Given rising xenophobia and nationalism, persuading northern states to accept a resettlement quota that meets the protection needs of the growing refugee population is a daunting task. But uncompromised persistence on rights and resettlement is the only guarantee for refugee protection in the long run.

Elizabeth Mavropoulou, PhD candidate, University of Westminster

A normative framework on equitable and effective responsibility sharing remains a fantasy. The zero draft fails to flesh out substantive commitments for meaningful participation in responsibility sharing. It merely reproduces the language of the New York Declaration on a vague commitment to differentiated responsibilities on the basis of capacities and resources. It does not elaborate on how such differentiation in protection responsibilities can be operationalized in practice and on what basis. The current state of affairs, through the lens of the zero draft, shows no intention on the part of States to put such responsibilities into practice, even in a non-binding document such as a global compact.

Alice Lucas, Programme Manager, Refugee Rights Europe

The Global Compact for Refugees represents an opportunity for Europe to vastly improve its reception facilities and protection for refugees and displaced people. However, the overall language used in the zero draft is excessively vague. Suggestions that States “could” take action, alongside references to “interested” States, are simply not sufficiently assertive.

We regret that the zero draft distances itself from notions of human rights, and instead calls on states and the international community to meet the ‘needs’ of refugees. We also remain concerned that the principle of non-refoulement is not adequately addressed in the Compact, which rather makes reference to ‘voluntary repatriation’.

We believe that the current draft fails to recognize that access to education, healthcare and accommodation are fundamental human rights enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Providing education and healthcare are not optional for host States; they are fundamental responsibilities which need to be upheld.

These answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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