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By Professor Elizabeth Ferris

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult political context in which to be negotiating new global agreements on migrants and refugees. 

US President Donald Trump proclaims ‘America First,’ slashes refugee resettlement numbers, and continues to push construction of a massive wall on the US-Mexican border in spite of evidence and the opposition of many in his own party. Anti-immigrant parties have gained political footholds not only in Hungary and Slovakia but also in Germany and Sweden. Australian policies toward asylum-seekers arriving by boat are both absurd and tragic. The European Union makes deals with less-than-savoury countries to prevent migrants and asylum-seekers from reaching European territories.  At the same time, the president of Lebanon – which hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees – says: “My country cannot handle it any more” and suggests it is time for the refugees to return.

These are tough times for refugees, migrants and those who host and work with them. And yet over the course of the next year, the governments of the world will have an opportunity to strengthen our collective systems for responding to refugees and migrants. 

In September 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration which set in motion a process for states to negotiate two new Global Compacts by the end of 2018:  a Global Compact on Refugees and a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.    

It is a bit frightening to think of finding ways to better uphold the rights of refugees and migrants at this particular moment in time, when so many governments seem more interested in containment than in protection of those arriving at their borders. Still, perhaps because of the large-scale movements of people and the growing realization that no single country can mount an effective response on its own, this is also an historic opportunity. 

Never before has there been such high-level attention from political leaders – and the UN General Assembly – to address refugee and migrant issues.  This opportunity is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes.  As William Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, often remarks, ‘This is a rendez-vous with history.’

Key players in the negotiations, including senior officials from the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Immigration and Border Protection, will gather in Sydney this month for UNSW’s Kaldor Centre Conference to analyze the potential – and the pitfalls – of this historic opportunity. Although both compacts were initiated by the General Assembly and both will be negotiated by governments, the two processes are actually quite different, with different underpinnings in international law, different institutional actors and diplomats, different venues for negotiations, different timelines for their final adoption, and different expectations about their outcomes. Tensions over definitions, categorization and institutional turf are inevitable. The timeline for the development of both compacts is short and brutally packed with preparatory meetings and consultations. 

This is an unprecedented opportunity to affirm the ability of the United Nations to address one of the most burning issues of our time. If the Global Compacts fail, the relevance of the UN and multilateralism generally will be weakened.  If they succeed in addressing the difficult issues – or at least setting out processes to address the difficult issues -- multilateralism will get a much-needed boost. 

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently stated that “We have a collective and moral responsibility to strengthen our response to refugee movements while redoubling efforts to address their causes.”

Will the two compacts reflect that collective and moral responsibility?  Will the two compacts strengthen response to refugees and migrants – or will they reflect the lowest common denominator of states’ interests?  

Right now, it is too early to predict how the two compacts will turn out. But as negotiations get to the business end, one thing we do know: the stakes are very high.


Professor Elizabeth Ferris is a leading expert on forced migration who has been closely involved in a range of international negotiations relating to displacement, including the 2016 UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York. She is a research professor at Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. She will deliver a keynote at the Kaldor Centre Conference 2017.

The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.