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Global Compact on Refugees is a good start, yet much remains to be done

The Straits Times (Singapore)
Syed Munir Khasru
January 02, 2019


On Christmas Day, a second Guatemalan child died in United States government custody while being detained after crossing the US-Mexico border.

In Libya, rampant child abuse persists in 26 Britain-funded refugee detention centres which critics say have been created as a way for European countries to outsource their problem with asylum seekers in their borders.

More than 200 children are held in Australia's offshore detention centre in Nauru, where they live in prison-like holding areas, with many separated from families.

These incidents demonstrate that the global refugee management architecture needs fixing.

Amid such stark realities, out of a total 193 United Nations members, 181 endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees half a month ago, after two years of intense negotiations, dialogues and consultations.

The Global Compact on Refugees was envisioned after the historic New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants at the United Nations Summit on Sept 19, 2016. Through this declaration, the UN member states declared their political will towards improving global refugee and migration governance.

The declaration was historic as, for the first time on a global platform, both open and inward-looking states declared their willingness to address problems with the current global refugee and migration regime. As part of that declaration in 2016, UN member states agreed to work on two global compacts: on migration and refugees. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was formally adopted in Marrakech last Dec 10.

A week later, the Global Compact on Refugees was adopted. However, the US and Hungary refused to endorse it and Eritrea, Liberia and Libya abstained. Hungary had declared beforehand that it would reject it and Mr Peter Szijjarto, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was quoted saying: "With the Global Compact on Refugees, the UN prepared the little brother of the Global Compact on Migration, which opens the back door to those that cannot come in through the main entrance."

Both the migration and refugee compacts aim to provide concrete guidelines and milestones to improve the situation of refugees and migrants.

Refugees are individuals with no choice but to escape their country to flee persecution and threat to life while a migrant is a person leaving his country of origin to either escape a bad situation or to look for better livelihood in other countries.

Endorsement of the compact on refugees by 181 states amid an environment of growing populism is a welcome change. The non-binding but pragmatic and detailed nature of the compact and its global refugee framework will not force but encourage states to adhere to it. It requires pledges that states will not shirk from humanitarian commitments made on international platforms and risk harming their international goodwill and reputation.

While there is some scepticism on whether a non-binding compact can be effective, encouragement can be sought from the UN Millennium Development Agenda (popularly known as MDGs, from the eight Millennium Development Goals). Although a global non-binding, informal pact, it is viewed as a success because of the nature of its goals and reachable targets.

The same could hold true for the refugee compact. It calls for shared responsibility which should be welcomed by many developing and developed states which have been stretched to their limits in hosting refugees while many resource-rich nations have paid only lip-service to their responsibilities as 1951 Refugee Convention signatories.

Unlike the compact, the 1951 Refugee Convention is a legally binding, multilateral UN treaty which obliges signatories (145 in total) to protect refugees who are in their territory. While both Germany and Japan are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Germany has hosted one million Syrians while Japan has given shelter to only a handful. Financing the cost of protecting refugees, finding sustainable rehabilitation for them in both host and origin country should not be just the responsibility of a handful of countries but all signatories of the convention and the compact.

The compact is well-crafted and sets out concrete measures to arrange for better burden-sharing responsibility through a Global Refugee Forum to be held every four years. The forum will also conduct follow-ups and reviews and develop indicators to measure success in achieving the compact's objectives. These objectives include easing pressure on host countries; enhancing refugee self-reliance; expanding access to third-country solutions; and supporting conditions in countries of origin for refugees to return to in safety and with dignity.

Given how the refugee crises have unfolded over the past decade, it is impossible for states to shirk their responsibilities for an issue that has reached global proportions. At the end of 2017, there were nearly 25.4 million refugees around the world. Today, just 10 countries host 60 per cent of the world's refugees. Turkey alone hosts 3.5 million refugees, more than any other country. In Lebanon, one in every six people is a refugee and in Jordan, it is one in 14. More than a million Rohingya refugees now seek shelter in Bangladesh's coastal district of Cox's Bazar.

Ten governmental donors provide almost 80 per cent of UNHCR's funding. There is a problem with equal burden-sharing and the compact for refugees attests that and seeks to address it.

Many states like the US and Australia are already signatories to the Refugee Convention, which subjects them to take in refugees in need of protection against political, social and physical threat. The compact does not place anything additional to these obligations and, in fact, provides an implementable and practical path for the global community to undertake burden-sharing with regard to both hosting and financing.

Similarly, the compact does not open a floodgate of refugees into the heartland of Europe, but provides detailed pathways and milestones that can be reached and actions that can be undertaken to improve the ways refugees are treated in countries where they seek asylum. The compact also provides implementable guidelines for repatriating refugees to their countries of origin.

Migration, whether forced or voluntary, has always been a part of human history, and is especially commonplace in today's globalised and hyper digital world. Pre-modern migration of the Homo erectus from Africa to Eurasia to other parts of the world were the first instances of migration. People will always try to seek places to maximise their opportunities and settle in places where they find better ways of life and can live without fear.

Without a global road map for forced and voluntary migration management, refugees will continue to suffer and illegal migration will continue to thrive at the cost of lives and human dignity.

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