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By Elizabeth Ferris*

I have been very fortunate to work in the United Nations Secretary-General’s office to help prepare the 19 September United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants.  Seconded by my university and supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), my particular task was to be the ‘pen-holder’ in drafting the Secretary-General’s report, In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants and to support the Special Advisor for the Summit, Karen AbuZayd in the preparations.  Although I’ve worked closely with several UN agencies and the International Organization for Migration in different capacities over the years, I’d never worked for the UN before.  To say it has been a learning experience is an understatement. The most important and difficult lesson I have learned is the need to get the ‘level of ambition’ right. 

As an academic, I like bold, ambitious ideas – particularly concerning refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, which is my particular area of expertise and passion.  Given the evident failure of the international system to adequately respond to large numbers of Syrian refugees and to migrants from over 100 countries, bold ideas are necessary.  And ambitious changes are urgently needed to address the less visible, but equally heartbreaking, stories of refugees living in limbo for decades.  But academic journals are filled with bold, ambitious proposals that have zero chance of success in the ‘real world’ of politics and diplomacy.  In order to advance the protection of both refugees and migrants – as I am convinced next week’s Summit will do – compromise is needed. 

Under the leadership of Karen AbuZayd, the Summit Secretariat received input from some 80 governments, and four rounds of extensive comments on draft text from 20 or so international agencies. We heard from governments who had erected fences to keep refugees and migrants from crossing their borders and from those who suggested that it was time to modify the 1951 Refugee Convention. We heard from governments who said ‘internally displaced persons absolutely must be included in the text’ and from others who said they would never approve a document which included internally displaced persons. We heard from those who urged us only to write about the positive aspects of migration, and those who warned us of the dangers of pitting refugees and migrants against each other.  Some of the comments were straightforward:  ‘don’t mention LGBTI issues’ and ‘we need something concrete on responsibility-sharing.’ Other suggestions were more ambiguous: ‘we hope the SG’s report is bold – but realistic.’  Bold but realistic is a hard balance to strike.  If the level of ambition is too high, a consensus document from 193 Member States becomes impossible. If it is too low, it may be adopted but will have little impact.

Although many compromises were made in the text of the Secretary-General’s report, we were relatively happy with the report’s balance between refugee and migrant issues and with the level of ambition. We included some bold suggestions, such as calling for the resettlement of 10 per cent of the world’s refugees every year, and bringing the International Organization for Migration (IOM) into the UN.  We proposed two global compacts – one on migration and one on refugees. 

In the political negotiations, however, more compromises were made, and specific concrete commitments were replaced by more general affirmations. It was a bruising and sobering experience to follow the negotiations. And yet, at a time of widespread xenophobia and a backlash against foreigners, the Political Declaration to be adopted at the Summit looks likely to achieve concrete, tangible results which will improve the protection of refugees and migrants.  It affirms the legal framework for refugee protection – something that was not a foregone conclusion in the negotiations.  The proposed Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework has the potential to be a game-changer in the way the world responds to refugees.  Imagine if we start thinking about solutions from the outset, and if a broader set of actors – from development banks to sports clubs – are mobilized from the beginning? 

There are even more possibilities for sweeping systemic change on the migration side.  For the first time, there is a commitment by governments to replace the current ad hoc nature of migration governance with a Global Compact that is more comprehensive and more fair.  There is recognition that migrants in vulnerable situations have protection needs, and an agreement to begin a process to develop guidelines to better protect them. 

It will be a challenge to implement the foreshadowed commitments of the 19 September Summit. Two years is really not much time to fundamentally transform entrenched systems.  But the Summit comes down firmly on the side of migrants and refugees – and the need to acknowledge and safeguard their rights – at a time when populist politicians are demonizing them.  It offers a host of possibilities for strengthening our collective ways of responding to refugees and migrants.  We have much to celebrate, but also a lot of hard work ahead of us to translate these principles into concrete actions to improve the lives of those who cross borders in search of safety and dignity. 

*Elizabeth Ferris is a Research Professor at Georgetown University and for another few weeks, a Senior Advisor on the Global Summit.  This is written in her personal capacity.


Visit the Kaldor Centre's September Summits 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.