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Refugees and migrants: the view from this week's New York summits

Written by Marta Foresti


Summits easily fail; often they seem like all talk and little action.

As the two summits on refugees and migrants in New York this week ended, many commentators are pointing to the disappointing outcomes and uncertain next steps.  

Yet what is happening this week is politically important (if not quite game-changing), and there is more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

‘A political consensus unthinkable among European states’

Given the political context for these summits – Syria’s short-lived ceasefire, attacks on aid convoys, Brexit, the inflammatory rhetoric of the US presidential campaign – it is actually pretty significant that world leaders have managed to agree on a agenda to address displacement and migration.

At the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, 193 member states agreed by consensus to a joint declaration: one which falls short of proposing tangible solutions, but at least paves the way for a much-needed political process over the next two years to agree a framework for action (or ‘compact’, in UN jargon).

As Ban Ki-moon noted, a similar political consensus would be unthinkable among European states, so it was good to see the international community under the leadership of Ireland and Jordan step up to the challenge.

The Obama-sponsored Leaders’ Summit on Refugees delivered more concrete results. ODI’s Sara Pantuliano, who was in New York with me this week, gave a statement highlighting that:

Poor countries, who already host 86% of the world’s refugees, some rich countries and private sector organisations have responded to the challenge with a range of encouraging commitments, such as new resettlement places from Portugal and Argentina and Ethiopia’s statement on access to work for refugees.

But still no global cooperation on legal pathways for refugees and migrants

Most disappointing was the lack of progress on the overall narrative of global cooperation on human mobility. What I saw in New York was a world still divided into separate – often competing – communities and institutions, which are at best talking at cross-purposes and at worst overtly competing with one another.

For example, rich ‘western’ countries mostly made purely financial pledges for refugees but fell short of offering safe and legal routes to asylum and migration, which is the only pragmatic solution to better manage migration and displacement.

The voices of the so called ‘source’ or ‘transit’ countries, interested in a broader discussion on facilitating ‘safe, regular and orderly migration’ – as states committed to when signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals last year – fell on deaf ears.  I have heard representatives from Panama, Nigeria, Nepal and Ghana make statements at a roundtable where nobody from the UK, US or the EU was there to listen, let alone respond.

No united front on refugee and migration issues

Bringing refugee and migration communities together for the UN summit was controversial, as many feel that conflating these agendas is not just confusing but politically risky, given how toxic migration debates are in so many countries.

I personally felt that this was an opportunity to address the multiple realities of human mobility while respecting the specific needs and entitlements that different people have.  

Overall, however, the two communities failed to find enough common ground to propose a more united and coordinated front. The fact that the International Organisation for Migration joined the UN family could be a positive sign, but what it means in practice is yet to be seen.  

Better news on closer collaboration with development and private sectors

The most encouraging news this week came from the side events and conversations on the margins.

The World Bank is taking an increasingly proactive role, for example by putting forward proposals on how to support the Global Compact on Migration (which were discussed at an engaging and lively side event in collaboration with ODI ). World Bank President, Jim Kim, and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have forged a strong partnership and are collaborating on new innovative initiatives on forced displacement, bringing together the specific areas of expertise of the two organisations.

I was also encouraged to see the extent to which there is now agreement that refugees need jobs, livelihoods and education, as well as safety and protection. As Grandi noted, one of the key outcomes of the summit is the recognition – at last – that humanitarian aid and development must go hand in hand in addressing forced displacement.

A final word on the private sector: business leaders spent an entire day during the Concordia Summit sharing experiences and discussing openly with UN agencies, the media and other organisations what can be done in practice to support refugees and, to a lesser extent, to make the most of migration.

There are interesting initiatives being developed on skills-matching between employers and refugees and migrants, with a number of companies investing in innovative and entrepreneurial ideas to facilitate jobs and professional opportunities. I have not heard them say that human mobility is central to their business model and a key ingredient of their success, but I think that it is only a matter of time. This will help put some pressure on the politicians to step up to the challenge.

Only political leaders – not the UN – can drive action

I came away with a strong – and possibly controversial – thought: this is not an agenda for the UN to lead. It cannot be settled through resolutions, declarations or global consultations.

What we need is the kind of strong political leadership and resolve that Obama, Merkel and Trudeau have shown in different ways in the past year or so.  That’s the fuel that will keep the engine going for the next two years. So less talk, more politics, and then action.