Cause for optimism from New York summits

Danny Sriskandarajah reports on migration and refugees summits

I spent last week in New York where world leaders were taking part in not one, but two back-to-back summits on migrants and refugees. The first, hosted by the United Nations, delivered a process that will lead to the adoption of a new global compact on migration in 2018. The second, hosted by President Obama, delivered around $4.5 billion in additional funds for UN appeals and international humanitarian organisations working to alleviate the refugee crisis.

Many people have expressed their disappointment at the outcome of both summits. While I share their frustration in part, I cannot agree that the whole exercise has been a waste of time. Far from it. 

Never before has there been such a high-level or high-profile global focus on these issues. Never before have we seen such consensus around the need to create a more humane, coordinated and durable system for responding to one of the greatest global challenges of our time. Managing the scale, complexity and impact of migration is now an issue that stretches far beyond the remit or capabilities of any one state, or even bloc. These Summits are an indication of our global recognition of that.

I had been worried before events in New York kicked off that some states would see the Summits as an opportunity to row back on their existing commitments, to turn away from obligations that many under-pressure electorates are beginning to see as too onerous. But I saw little evidence of any attempt to renegotiate our existing legal and normative framework. And for that I am breathing a sigh of relief.

The biggest challenge to refugee protection and the management of large movements of migrants is not the current framework, but ensuring that states comply with it. I would argue that the 1951 Refugee Convention, for example, is one of the greatest achievements of the international human rights system. If it has one weakness it is that no state, in the past 65 years, has managed to live up to the spirit of the convention, let alone its letter in most cases.

Any new global compact, produced within the next two years, must include a roadmap for the practical implementation of countries’ existing commitments. Crucially, the compact must also be about sharing responsibility: at present, low and middle-income countries are struggling to find the resources to host the vast majority (86 percent) of the world’s refugees, while our wealthiest states refuse to do more than the bare minimum. A proposed pledge to resettle 10 percent of refugees within the developed world was quietly dropped during pre-Summit negotiations last month. This isn’t responsibility sharing; it’s responsibility shirking and shifting. And it is to the developed world’s shame.

There is support for principled, aspirational leadership to tackle the migration crisis: it was much in evidence at the citizen marches that preceded last week’s Summits. Few people would have predicted that governments meeting in Paris last December would reach a meaningful agreement on climate change – the other great global challenge of the 21st century. But they did.

And I still hold out hope for a Paris style commitment for refugees. Migration is a far more emotive issue than climate change and a riskier political challenge for leaders, but last week, rightly, it became everyone’s problem. Now we must maintain the momentum and pressure for a truly global solution. 


Danny Sriskandarajah is the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation He was Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a large NGO devoted to Commonwealth affairs based in London. He is a member of the Migration Matters Trust Advisory Board.