UN unveils new refugee compact

The United States is one of two countries that has refused to sign on.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina at the high-level event hosted by the UNHCR on the Global Compact on Refugees at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2018. CREDIT: U.N. media center.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina at the high-level event hosted by the UNHCR on the Global Compact on Refugees at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2018. CREDIT: U.N. media center.

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK  — In the two years since President Barack Obama held his refugee summit here during the General Assembly, a lot has changed. But also, nothing has changed. In some ways, things have gotten worse.

In 2016, there were around 60 million displaced people around the world. According to the UNHCR — the U.N.’s refugee agency — there are now 68.5 million. And only about 1 percent of those are settled, with the process being glacial. The United States, for instance, takes around 2 years to process a refugee application.

At a high-level event hosted by the UNHCR on the Global Compact on Refugees on Monday, Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina pointed out that of the $915 million pledged to help her country deal with the over 700,000 Muslim minority Rohingya fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar, only 33 percent has actually been funded. 

“World leaders must come forward with political will and commitments,” said Hasina. 

Across the board, the agencies and country representatives at the event on Monday talked about how much their country or agency had done to help migrants and refugees, how much they’d spent, and how important international support from other countries was. To hear them speak, one was left to wonder how there is any shortfall at all.


Whatever support is forthcoming will require international cooperation. Given how even wealthy European states have fought among each other on which should take more asylum seekers and pay for resettling them, this is easier said than done because domestic politics still drive the refugee policy of most states, creating what UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called “a growing climate of hostility, xenophobia and rejection.”

Even states that have taken millions of refugees have commodified them. Turkey, for example, has asked the European Union for money and other concessions to contain them rather than allowing them to travel on to Europe. 

Watching the event from her seat in the second row of the auditorium was Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Washington office of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — the agency focused on the needs of over 5 million Palestinian refugees which just saw its funding cut by President Donald Trump.

“Sitting here, listening to this conversation makes me realize that UNRWA’s ahead of the curve, because our work entirely focused on education and human development and ensuring that refugees have long-term, sustainable approaches, absent a political solution,” she told ThinkProgress.


This does not make UNRWA immune from politics, though. President Trump’s decision to cut U.S. funding to the agency was a political move, aimed at redefining what a refugee is and taking away the right of return for most Palestinian refugees.

And that funding cut hurts.

“We have not bridged our deficit — it still stands at $186 million, which is really for us an existential crisis,” she said, adding there’s hope that other member states will step up.

This new declaration that everyone is excited about originated in 2016, when in the New York Declaration, member states gave themselves two years to come up with a plan to handle migration — that includes economic migrants and asylum seekers — while making pledges to do more. 

Those pledges may have come in the form of funding to the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, or a promise to take more people into their borders.

Despite the fact the the summit was only really needed because so many member states were failing around 60 million migrants worldwide so miserably, the event and declaration were a real feel-good moment at the United Nations General Assembly.


Fast forward to 2018, where member states have delivered on coming up with a plan — to be adopted in Marrakesh in December — but as far as those pledges and numbers go, things are pretty bad.

As of today, less than 40 percent of UNHCR’s operations are funded, with some struggling to even meet the basic needs of refugees. It’s efforts in Afghanistan are funded at 24 percent, in Syria, 33 percent, in South Sudan, 27 percent.

While much of the rhetoric on refugees involves national security concerns and fears of terrorism (despite facts supporting the contrary), UNHCR data shows that 60 percent of the displaced are women and children. That’s an average. In places like South Sudan, 80 percent of the displaced are women and children.

The United States, under the administration of President Donald Trump, has taken a hardline stance against migrants and refugees.

Earlier this month, the State Department announced a new ceiling of 30,000 for the number of refugees it would allow in Fiscal Year 2019 — a big drop from the previous year’s 45,000, of which the U.S. has actually resettled some 22,000.

The Obama administration was hardly known to be soft on migrants — his nickname among migrants-rights activists was Deporter In Chief. But the compact which originated at his summit is not acknowledged by his successor, which, said Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, is “unfortunate.”

Calling the compact a “step in the right direction,” Naidoo told ThinkProgress that “rich countries have created a false notion that they’ve absorbed most of the refugees,” which is not the case.

Citing camps in Kenya, Pakistan, and Turkey, he added, “The number of people poor countries have had to absorb is significantly higher than the numbers we saw in Europe.”

International laws governing refugee protections, Naidoo pointed out, came out of the number of Europeans in the second World War.

“It is really extremely unfortunate that those that benefited at one point from an international framework that existed on refugees are now turning their backs on it in such a massive way.”

Naidoo ended his comment with a warning: “If people think that the refugee crisis is bad now, then it could turn out that what we are looking at now will be a Sunday morning picnic as the climate crisis continues.”