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By Susan Martin and T Alexander Aleinikoff

Not since the 1930s has United States leadership on global refugee issues been as absent as today. A recent report indicates the US has resettled only 11 Syrian refugees in 2017. At current rates, the US is unlikely to admit more than 24,000 refugees in total this year, the lowest level since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 – even lower than in 2002, when resettlement was temporarily halted after September 11. In the meantime, the Trump administration has taken steps to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to enter the US, to prevent Central Americans and others fleeing violence to reach safety in this country. These steps happen in the context of broader policy goals to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, reduce significantly family migration, and prevent the entry of Muslims in a wide range of admissions categories.

A failure of US leadership affects much more than domestic refugee and migration policy or, even, the refugees and migrants who are seeking entry into the US. This country has long been the most important actor in ensuring protection for refugees worldwide, through its financial support, resettlement of refugees and diplomatic efforts to encourage other states to protect and assist refugees. When US leadership has been robust, millions of lives have been saved. When it has waned, as it did during the 1930s, millions more have lost their lives to persecution and conflict. As a nation of immigrants, the US has also been a beacon to people throughout the world who want to partake in the American dream and bring with them their hopes, aspirations and skills.

Today, US leadership is needed more than ever, as governments grapple with defining the contents of two international agreements – one on refugees and the other on migration. The Global Compact on Refugees and another on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration are meant to be non-legally binding but articulate common understandings and commitments. Talks are ongoing, with hopes the agreements will be adopted by the United Nations before the year’s end.  The US is present at the consultations on the refugee compact, but the Trump administration refused to even enter negotiations on the migration compact. This is counter-productive. The US should return to the migration negotiating table and work to ensure that both compacts reach their full potential.

The aims of the refugee compact are to: improve responsibility-sharing; strengthen national protection systems and international responses that safeguard refugees’ rights; enhance social and economic conditions for refugees and host communities; and resolve protracted limbo for refugees through real, durable solutions. To achieve these aims, the compact proposes several new structures for international cooperation, including the convening of global refugee summits and global support platforms for particular refugee situations – efforts for which US leadership will be key.

The migration compact is about improving cooperation on international migration. It recognizes that no State – even one as powerful as the United States – can manage international migration unilaterally. As it pulled out of the negotiations, the Trump administration cited concerns about losing sovereignty. But cooperation with others can enhance sovereignty, by ensuring that all countries play by the same rules and thereby are better able to protect their borders. At the same time, the migration compact holds great potential for better protecting the rights of migrants and ensuring their safety. So the US would enhance its security, as other countries commit to work with the US to prevent the conditions that cause mass movements, to receive back their citizens who migrate through irregular channels, and to ensure that more migration is through safe, orderly and regular programs.  

This is not to say that the current drafts cannot be improved. As we propose in Making the Global Compacts Work, a detailed policy brief newly released by UNSW's Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, the refugee compact should be more explicit in addressing barriers that prevent refugees from finding safety; propose new mechanisms to boost funding for the immediate and long-term needs of refugees and their host communities; provide ways for refugees to participate in decisions about their own future; support enhanced refugee mobility; and focus more specifically on protracted refugee situations which have defied long-term solutions.  

The migration compact should set out more clearly the purpose of the document and its foundational vision and principles; acknowledge more prominently the beneficial role that migrants play in the development of both source and destination countries; recognize the importance of migration other than for employment, including for family reunification, education, trade and investment; and be more explicit in defining areas of migrant vulnerability, whether these are demographic, socio-economic, or situational (for example, those stranded in transit countries).

Both compacts need to ensure there are clear, robust mechanisms for monitoring progress and holding governments accountable for their commitments. And both should address gaps between the two compacts – most importantly, how the international community responds to people fleeing life-threatening situations, including natural disasters, but who do not qualify under law as either labor migrants or as refugees. Their protection remains at risk today.

We are cautiously optimistic that the two global compacts will be adopted. Political leadership will be needed, however. That is the real power that ensures other countries follow through on their commitments. That is what enables the UN system to protect and find solutions for refugees and provide a safe, orderly system of regular migration. It is deeply unfortunate that the US is not exercising its traditional leadership role—a failure that undermines the promise and potential of the compacts. Fortunately, other countries appear willing to continue consulting and negotiating compacts that should enhance protection and find solutions for refugees and migrants. We wish them well.

Susan Martin is professor emerita at Georgetown University and T. Alexander Aleinikoff is director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School. 


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