A coherent global framework for migrants and refugees?

In the aftermath of the first UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, Olivia Taghioff examines the significance of the summit’s outcome document.

We have all seen them: the distressing photos of migrants and refugees in bright orange lifejackets risking their lives in rickety and overcrowded boats, fleeing war, persecution, and poverty. Some have chosen to look away, others have chosen to act, but no one can ignore that it is an image that has come to define international as well as domestic politics, particularly in Europe, over the past couple of years.

The opening of the 71st UN General Assembly on Monday, with the first ever General Assembly meeting at Heads of State and Government level on refugees and migrants, reaffirms that large-scale migration is indeed viewed as the big development issue right now. Touching on a broad range of normative and practical concerns of the UN at its Member States, it is an issue that can no longer be ignored on the international stage.

In a series of moving talks by leaders of international organisations as well as representatives from different refugee and migrant communities, it was said again and again that the international community’s failure to safeguard the protection and rights of migrants and refugees, as well as the failure to prevent and end the conflicts that drives migration in the first place, is costing thousands of lives and threatening the lives and well-being of millions of people worldwide. Many references were made to the promise of Agenda 2030 to leave no-one behind.

An ambitious declaration

Mirroring the talks at the General Assembly, the language of the summit’s outcome document, The New York Declaration, reads as an enlightened and progressive manifesto. In it, the UN’s 193 Member States commit to “ensure a people- centred, sensitive, humane, dignified, gender-responsive and prompt reception for all persons arriving in our countries, and particularly those in large movements, whether refugees or migrants”.

This is of course in stark contrast to the anti-immigrant politics that many of the gathered Heads of State and Government pursue at home, often with strong popular support. Indeed, the New York Declaration has already come under criticism by NGOs and other humanitarian lobbyists for lacking concrete measures, making it possible to pay lip service to it while evading real accountability.

Yet, the fact that such a high-level summit took place, that the Refugee Convention of 1951 survived and that we now have a sound political declaration in place, is hugely significant. Together with Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, that took place back to back with the UN summit, it signals a shift from the current approach, where migration is largely dealt with regionally and domestically, towards a more coherent global framework that aims to distribute responsibility in a fair way and ensure the fair treatment of refugees and migrants wherever they are.

Strengthening global governance frameworks and norms around migration

While cross-border movements of money and goods have long been regulated by a series of international laws and agreements, the other fundamental aspect of globalisation – cross-border movement of people – has largely lacked global governance structures and is at best chaotic and at worst managed by criminal networks. This governance gap is about to be closed by several new UN partnerships and frameworks, intended to address the situation of migrants and refugees in a more wholistic way, including the inclusion of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a full member of the UN family. Over the next years, the UNHCR will take the lead on developing a multi-stakeholder ”Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework”, while UN Member States will start to negotiate a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, to be adopted in 2018.

Then again for real change to take place, the attitudes of electorates around the world also need to change. As migration is a megatrend likely to define development in the 21st century, driven both by fragility that has become more or less chronic in many countries and unprecedented mobility that constantly evolves, xenophobia is simply not a viable option. Politicians that promise a return to the past, with more socially homogenous societies, are deceiving their voters.

What governments really need to focus on is identifying the circumstances under which refugees contribute socially and economically and try to build on those. In doing so, the managerial discourse that frames much of the debate, such as “managing the crisis” and “solving the problem”, needs to be toned down in favour of a more realistic and humane discourse that acknowledges massive forced displacement as a reality for millions of people now and for decades to come. In line with the New York Declaration, governments around the world ought to focus on strengthening the norm of protection as a principle and a right. That is, if they actually stand by the ambitious declaration they have just endorsed.

For more on the outcomes from the UN summit for refugees and migration attend or watch our seminar on September 27.  

Olivia Taghioff By Olivia Taghioff

Olivia Taghioff is a former Programme Manager with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. She has many years’ experience of sustainable development policy, practice and communications from the UN, think thanks and NGOs. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked for UNDP in Kenya and Rwanda, primarily with UN system coordination and reform. Before that, she was with the Stockholm Environment Institute, where she focussed on climate change and global food security. She holds a BA in Social Anthropology and Development Studies from SOAS, University of London, and an MA in Journalism from Uppsala University.