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New York Declaration on Refugees: A One-Year Report Card

A year after the first ever U.N. refugee summit, policy expert Jeff Crisp examines the four key objectives of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework agreed in New York, and the major questions and obstacles that remain to be resolved.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

One year ago, 193 members of the United Nations adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, which laid out an action plan for a new era in refugee response.

The U.N. refugee agency has described the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) as a “game changer,” “paradigm shift” and a “milestone for global solidarity and refugee protection.”

That upbeat assessment is understandable. Refugee movements have unfortunately become a politically toxic issue, so it was an important achievement for the U.N. to negotiate a declaration that upheld the basic principles of refugee protection and committed states to address refugee issues in a more cooperative and coordinated manner.

Yet it is increasingly clear that the objectives agreed in New York will be difficult to attain.

During the past year, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and quickly rejected the country’s traditional leading role in the international refugee protection regime. The European Union has pursued dodgy deals with a number of authoritarian and failed states. Tightening borders have made it even harder for Syrians to escape the conflict in their country. Refugees from unstable countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia have been forced or induced to return.

None of this bodes well for the New York Declaration. They also present some specific challenges for each of the four stated objectives of the CRRF:

1. Easing pressures on countries that host refugees

Developing countries, where some 85 percent of the world’s refugees live, have long resented the disproportionate responsibility they bear for the world’s exiled populations, further exacerbated by massive recent influxes into countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Uganda. It makes a great deal of sense for this issue to be at the heart of the U.N.’s new framework.

But how exactly will those pressures be eased? Regular refugee assistance programs are already underfunded, and it is not clear where the extra resources needed to support host communities will be found.

Some are pinning hopes on the World Bank’s new engagement on displacement, after decades of discussions on the issue. Yet even if the World Bank follows through on all of its commitments, many questions remain.

Will the World Bank’s developmental approach be restricted to strategically important and middle-income countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, or will it also be extended to fragile areas such as eastern Chad and eastern Sudan? Will countries hosting refugees be willing to borrow money from the World Bank?

And will they have the patience to wait for the developmental approach to take hold and for its effectiveness to be demonstrated? Or will they, as seems to be the current case in Lebanon, be tempted to short-circuit the search for solutions by pressing refugees to repatriate before they are ready and willing to do so?

2. Building refugees’ self-reliance

Despite decades-long efforts to enable refugees to work and support themselves, very limited progress has been made. Many refugees continue to be at least partly dependent on aid, or have found their own way to survive without it, usually in the informal (and often exploitative) sector of the economy.

The reasons for this are well-known. Host countries often prefer to confine refugees to camps and are reluctant to give them access to the means of production, such as arable land, the labor market, legal trading opportunities and capital investment.

Such policies are based on two misguided assumptions: first, of a “zero-sum game,” in which every livelihood established by a refugee deprives a citizen of the same opportunity; and second, that refugees who are able to support themselves will become too comfortable and less inclined to return to their own country, even if it is safe for them to do so.

These arguments will have to be challenged. But countries hosting most refugees are unlikely to accept counter-arguments and grant refugees the right to employment unless they see the world’s more prosperous regions providing real evidence of their commitment to international responsibility-sharing, which lies at the heart of the New York Declaration.

3. Expanding access to resettlement and other complementary pathways

One of the most tangible ways industrialized states could demonstrate such commitment is to increase resettlement, enabling a larger number of refugees to move out of the developing world and start new lives in places that are better equipped to support them.

That outcome seems highly unlikely. In the negotiations that led to the New York Declaration, wealthier countries were adamant that there should be no specific target or binding obligations on refugee resettlement numbers.

Since then, the U.S., by far the world’s largest resettlement destination, has slashed its annual resettlement quota and made admission much more difficult for people from a number of Muslim-majority countries that produce a large proportion of the world’s refugees.

Other states are unlikely to fill this gap – the E.U. has struggled to implement an internal relocation program, for example – even though Canada has made some commendable steps to expand resettlement.

There was also very limited response to a UNHCR conference in Geneva six months before the New York summit about “alternative pathways” to asylum for Syrians, including family reunification programs, humanitarian visas, educational scholarships and employment opportunities. Governments offered little that was new or significant in scale. Refugees, it appears, are not welcomed by many states, even if they arrive in a safe, legal and controlled manner.

4. Fostering conditions for refugees to voluntarily return home

This almost certainly enjoys the widest degree of support within the international community. UNHCR and other key stakeholders have for several decades espoused the notion that repatriation is the best and often only solution to refugee situations.

But fostering conditions that are conducive to return is often a long, slow and frustrating process – and not surprisingly so, given that it usually involves countries whose political, economic and social systems have been torn apart by years of armed conflict and communal violence.

Refugees may well be reluctant to return to such conditions, and on numerous occasions this has prompted impatient states, and the international organizations they fund, to launch repatriation programs that are neither voluntary nor safe, contravening the law and norms of refugee protection. This must not be allowed to happen under the auspices of the CRRF.

Ultimately, humanitarian and development organizations have limited impact on fostering conditions that are conducive to refugee return. Much greater attention must be given to the effective functioning of the U.N.’s peace and security machinery.

In the 1990s, for example, large-scale voluntary repatriations became possible in regions of Central America, southeast Asia and southern Africa with effective U.N.-brokered peace agreements and multidimensional U.N. peacekeeping and peace-building operations.

If we are to learn lessons from that experience, it is that the fourth objective is possible only if there is a concerted “surge in diplomacy for peace,” as advocated by Antonio Guterres, a former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, when he assumed the role of U.N. secretary-general in January.

The views in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply. 

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