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There are 21 million refugees in the world today – the highest number since the Second World War.  But on a per capita basis, there are actually fewer refugees now than there were then.

Back in 1949–50, 48 per cent of Australia’s migration intake was comprised of refugees.  In the late 1970s, 25 per cent of new arrivals in Australia were refugees.  Today, refugees make up just seven per cent of our annual permanent migration intake. 

While refugees may face challenges initially, the data shows that over the longer term, their economic earnings rapidly converge with those of migrants and native-born Australians.  Their children tend to be our best educated people, and many have ended up as leading entrepreneurs. 

This is borne out in research from overseas as well.  From new cuisines to Nobel Peace Prize-winning discoveries, refugees bring know-how, skills and innovation.  They are particularly resilient and resourceful contributors, creating new markets and economic opportunities in their adopted countries.  Demographically, they help to redress declining birth rates and ageing populations.  This is why the IMF regards the current influx of refugees into Europe as bringing long-term economic advantages, provided that refugees are properly integrated into the labour market and the community.  

21 million refugees is certainly a lot, but in a world of 7 billion people, it is manageable.  The current call for a million refugees to be resettled annually is eminently doable.  The world has far greater capacity for international coordination than ever before, so we should be better placed than ever to address this. 

The problem is that too often, politics gets in the way of positive action.  It is in everyone’s interests to grow the global protection pie, but we need to be proactive, patient, encourage and model good practices, and keep our eye on the long-term vision of success.  There is no silver bullet, but there are myriad measures that can make a considerable difference. 

The UN Secretary-General’s high-level summit on refugees and migrants, to be held at the UN in New York on 19 September, was envisaged as an historic opportunity for progress on this front.  In his background report, the Secretary-General called for the creation of a Global Compact on Refugees.  Through the Compact, States would commit to greater responsibility-sharing, including through financial and in-kind support, technical assistance, legal and policy measures, and resettlement or other admission places; to more effective and efficient distribution of aid and assistance; to greater investment in reconciliation and construction; and to meaningful opportunities for local solutions.

However, hopes for a ground-breaking reorientation in refugee protection have become increasingly muted.  As Dr Jeff Crisp lamented in his recent blog for the Kaldor Centre, other initiatives over the past 18 months to address the challenges of displacement ‘have failed to live up to the hopes and expectations which they have raised’, and the September summit looks set to follow suit.

For a start, the Secretary-General’s call for a Global Compact on Refugees has been shelved for two years – partly because some States don’t want it to see the light of day at all (including, it is rumoured, Australia).  This is despite the fact that the Compact would not be legally binding.  It would set out a comprehensive, cooperative response to large-scale refugee movements, and promote equitable responsibility-sharing based on international law and established good practices. 

Instead, the immediate action point will be the creation of a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework for situations of large-scale influx, to be led by UNHCR in conjunction with States and other relevant UN agencies.  This will still be a positive step.  The formulation of a blueprint for cooperative and multi-stakeholder responses in mass influx situations may help to clarify the needs and rights of refugees, and the responsibilities of States and other actors, at various stages of displacement.  By way of analogy, the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement did not create new law, but did usefully bring together States’ existing duties in a single, operationally-oriented document, while also highlighting the needs of IDPs before, during and after displacement.  The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, and the subsequent Global Compact on Refugees, may inspire similar normative and operational coherence. 

The non-binding Political Declaration that States will adopt by consensus at the summit reaffirms the centrality of international law in guiding ‘long-term and sustainable solutions’.  States commit to protecting fully ‘the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status’, and reiterate their respect for the right to seek asylum, including the ‘fundamental principle of non-refoulement’.  They highlight the need to tackle the root causes of displacement through preventative diplomacy and the promotion of ‘good governance, the rule of law, effective, accountable and inclusive institutions, and sustainable development’. They also emphasize the necessity of heightened international cooperation. 

On the upside, States’ reaffirmation of their existing commitments under international law is significant, especially at a time when there is a palpable intransigence among States to respond in a truly coordinated and cooperative manner.  It’s also important given some politicians’ suggestions that these rules don’t matter.  From a legal perspective, States’ reiteration of the law in formal declarations forms a vital part of establishing State practice and opinio juris.  Still, when States flout their obligations with disturbing regularity, restatements of the law can feel like little more than rhetorical flourish.  

On the downside, nothing in the Political Declaration or Framework is particularly new.  The building blocks for effective responses to people on the move already exist – States must simply choose to use them.  Worse still, there are no clear mechanisms for action or accountability, and concrete targets are missing.  There is nothing reflecting the Secretary-General’s call for States to provide resettlement or other legal pathways for at least 10 per cent of the world’s refugees annually, for instance.  

UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, has said that the summit outcome can be looked at ‘from a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty perspective – and for us it’s a glass-half-full.’  Either way, there’s still room for more.  While we should not underestimate the importance of States affirming fundamental principles of international law, particularly in the current political climate, the summit does look likely to be a missed opportunity for a concerted action plan for the future.

There has always been a ‘responsibility deficit’ in the refugee protection regime.  When the Refugee Convention was drafted back in 1950, States rejected a proposal by the then UN Secretary-General to formally cooperate by ‘agreeing to receive a certain number of refugees in their territory’.  For this reason, the Refugee Convention does not settle the distribution of refugees.  The irony, of course, is that this is a policy area that demands collaborative action,  and as Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill noted over 20 years ago, until ‘we are able to move beyond reactive solutions and deal comprehensively with causes, then we are destined to be locked into ever repeating cycles of population displacement and therefore of displacement crisis.’

We need a protection regime that is predictable, universal and solutions-oriented – with roadmaps for action, and tools for accountability.  There should be better coordination between the (emergency) humanitarian and (long-term) development sectors, since many displacement situations are prolonged, and the longer-term needs of refugees need to be taken into account early on to reduce reliance on aid and promote resilience and self-sufficiency.  States should diversify and expand grounds for admission, such as through additional resettlement places, humanitarian admission schemes, skilled migration, labour mobility, education and family reunion.  Respect for human rights and dignity must lie at the heart of all legal and policy responses.

The humanitarian, economic, social and cultural imperatives for States to step up to the Secretary-General’s call to action in September are clear.  If they don’t, the costs of inaction will be considerable.

Visit the Kaldor Centre's resource page for more analysis and resources on the two upcoming international summits on refugees: the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September, and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees hosted by US President Barack Obama on 20 September.  

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