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 Policy Brief 3 - In search of commitments: The 2016 refugee summits

Executive summary

The backdrop

An extraordinary series of meetings took place in 2016 to respond to perceptions of an unprecedented global refugee crisis. This policy brief traces the context and the results of these meetings and explores the common themes that emerged over the course of the year. The meetings examined include: the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, held in London in February; the High-Level Meeting on Global Responsibility Sharing through Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees, held in Geneva in March, the World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul in May; the Summit on Refugees and Migrants, held in New York on 19 September; and the United States (US) Leaders’ Summit, held in New York on 20 September. Although not all these meetings were technically ‘summits’, they all sought to mobilise attendance and commitments at the highest political level, and for this reason are referred to in this policy brief as ‘the summits of 2016.’ 

Four specific contextual factors set the stage for the summits of 2016. First, the United Nations (UN) had scored major successes in summits focused on development, climate change and disaster risk reduction in 2015. Secondly, the growing carnage in Syria and the inability of the international community to address it was a vivid backdrop to all of the summits. A third and related trend was the dramatic increase in requests for humanitarian funding. Donors had tripled their contributions to humanitarian appeals over a decade – and yet it still was not enough. Finally, the summits took place at a time of political change. The United Nations Secretary-General’s term was coming to an end. There were nasty politics in Europe with the rise of right-wing populist parties and the United Kingdom (UK)’s decision to leave the European Union. Xenophobic politics in the United States had led to a vociferous reaction to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. These all contributed to a sense that the system itself was not fit for purpose. 

A snapshot of the summits

Co-hosted by Germany, Kuwait, Norway, the UK and the UN, a conference on Supporting Syria and the Region was convened in London in February 2016 with three objectives: to raise humanitarian funding, to consider long-term strategies for refugees, and to enhance the protection of civilians. The conference brought together over 60 representatives of states and international organisations and resulted in pledges of over US$11 billion to support Syrian refugees in 2016 and 2017. The conference also made a commitment to education, pledging that by the end of the 2016–17 school year, 1.7 million Syrian refugee children would be in school.

The High-Level Meeting on Global Responsibility Sharing through Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees was organised under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva on 30 March 2016. This was a ministerial-level meeting in which the traditional understanding of refugee resettlement was expanded to include including additional ‘pathways’ for admission, and where this expanded notion of resettlement was explicitly tied to global responsibility-sharing. The outcomes of the meeting included additional pledges of 15,000 new places for Syrian refugees and additional funding –US$10 million from the US and A$8.5 million from Australia – to support UNHCR’s resettlement work.

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), held in Istanbul in May 2016, brought together over 9000 participants, including 55 heads of state and government. This summit was not a state-led process, which turned out to be both its strength and its limitation. The large number of participants in the summit’s consultative process meant that civil society groups were fully engaged and represented in the lead-up to the summit. Rather than diplomats negotiating the text of an outcome document, the summit sought commitments from individual stakeholders. Even though both the London and the Geneva meetings had also sought individual commitments, the WHS took this to a whole new level, logging over 3000 individual and joint commitments from 185 stakeholders. Of particular interest to those working with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) was the recommendation to reduce the scale of forced displacement by 2030 and, specifically, to reduce the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) by at least 50 per cent. 

Following several plenary meetings of the UN General Assembly on the Syrian refugee situation, the UN General Assembly decided to convene a High-Level Plenary on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016. Unlike the WHS, the 19 September summit produced an outcome document, the New York Declaration, negotiated by states. The New York Declaration reaffirmed basic principles of refugee protection and expressed a commitment to responsibility-sharing for refugees. It called on UNHCR to implement a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and to develop a Global Compact for Refugees in 2018. The New York Declaration also set in motion a process intended to result in a Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (also by 2018), called for a state-led process to develop guidelines for migrants in vulnerable situations and called for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to become a related organisation of the UN.

The US Leaders’ Summit, convened by US President Obama on 20 September, was intended as a ‘pay to play’ meeting with invitations extended only to those governments ready to make specific concrete commitments. Unlike the 19 September summit, it focused only on refugees (not migrants). Unlike the WHS, it did not focus on IDPs, and unlike the February and May meetings on Syrian refugees, it focused on all refugees. It was attended by 32 states who committed to a US$4.5 billion increase in financial contributions to humanitarian agencies, a doubling of the number of resettlement spots pledged, and pledged to offer a million refugees new access to labour markets.

The 2016 summits were not the only refugee-related events of the year. Many international organisations, civil society groups, academics and non-governmental organisations took advantage of the heightened interest in refugees to organise their own meetings, issue position papers, and launch campaigns. At both the WHS and the September summits, there were hundreds of side events on issues related to refugees, migrants and broader humanitarian crises. Other agencies, notably the World Bank, took important steps to incorporate displacement into their programs. The private sector played an active and unprecedented role in all of the summits. 

While this policy brief focuses on global initiatives related to the summits of 2016, these were far from the only game in town. In particular, two initiatives – the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative (MICIC) and the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement (succeeded by the Platform on Disaster Displacement) – were developed as state-led initiatives outside the framework of existing multilateral bodies.

Themes emerging in the summits of 2016

A craving for commitments 

First, each of the five summits of 2016 emphasised the importance of concrete commitments, rather than adoption of ‘mere abstract promises.’ This focus on concrete commitments reflected a yearning for action, but further work is needed before this becomes the model of the future, particularly around the issue of accountability: who is keeping track of the commitments made and the extent to which they are fulfilled?

Process matters

Secondly, while multi-stakeholder processes have gained increasing traction in recent years, the summits of 2016 suggest that state-led processes, for all their weaknesses, offer the clear advantage of buy-in by governments. The fact that the two new Global Compacts will be adopted by UN member states also suggests a shift toward New York-based negotiations, where diplomats generally have less expertise on humanitarian and migration issues than their Geneva-based counterparts. At the same time, the experiences of the MICIC and Nansen Initiative offer an alternative way of strengthening normative frameworks – what some have called ‘mini-multilateralism’.

Emerging understandings of global responsibility 

The 19 September summit was the first time ever that the UN General Assembly had expressed a collective commitment to sharing responsibility for refugees. This was a significant achievement, but the New York Declaration fell short of the Global Compact on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees proposed in the Secretary-General’s report. Nonetheless, this commitment to sharing responsibility for refugees may serve as a basis for strengthening collective responses. Governments, civil society groups and academics are encouraged to think creatively about how greater responsibility-sharing might be expressed in practice.

A stickier issue is the question of global responsibility for groups other than refugees, such as migrants, IDPs, victims of trafficking or those fleeing disasters. The state-led process to develop non-binding guidelines for migrants in vulnerable situations may offer some guidance on these issues. 

Resettlement back on the table

In recent years, refugee resettlement has been the distant third solution for refugees (after voluntary repatriation and local integration). The emphasis on refugee resettlement at all the 2016 meetings suggests a renewed role for resettlement and other pathways to admission. Resettlement is a concrete expression of support for over-burdened host communities and is the logical corollary of a focus on responsibility-sharing for refugees. The summits of 2016 set the stage for an expanded role for resettlement in the future, which could be further developed at a dedicated conference or meetings in 2017.

The coming of two Global Compacts: Opportunities and risks

There are both risks and opportunities presented by the two-year process to develop new Global Compacts on refugees and migrants. While only one of the five summits of 2016 explicitly addressed migration, there are opportunities for much more sustained engagement between those working on migration and refugee/IDP issues. IOM’s designation as a related organisation of the UN offers possibilities for closer collaboration on refugee and migration issues, but also poses potential risks – for instance, that IOM will continue ‘business as usual’ rather than embrace the human rights standards of the UN, and that other UN agencies will not give IOM the scope needed to provide global leadership on migration issues. 

Development actors and the private sector: Be careful what you wish for

A clear theme in the summits of 2016 was the recognition – after decades of talk – that displacement is not only a humanitarian issue, but also a development one. While the jury is still out on whether a paradigm shift in understandings of displacement will finally take place – if development actors truly are fully engaged with refugees and IDPs from the outset of a crisis – major changes in humanitarian operations will be needed. In particular, this raises questions about coordination structures, host community programs, the role of the private sector and the development of new ways of working, including joint assessments, strategies and budgeting.

Where, oh where, are IDPs?

IDPs featured prominently in the World Humanitarian Summit but were barely mentioned in the outcome document for the 19 September summit. While two-thirds of the world’s 65 million displaced people are IDPs, they were almost completely left out of all of the state-led meetings of 2016. If 2016 was the year for refugees and migrants, perhaps 2017 could be the year for IDPs. 

Alas, more work ahead

The summits of 2016 occurred at a time of growing antipathy toward refugees in much of the world. Taken together, the most that can be said about the summits of 2016 and their many related initiatives is that they moved the international system a few steps further towards a more comprehensive and collective approach to refugees. Given the toxic context in which the summits were held, this should not be discounted. While far-reaching systemic change did not occur, it was perhaps unrealistic to think that a single summit – or even five – could address the many problems in the system. 

But what the summits of 2016 did do is leave us with openings for further work. Opportunities for progress over the next two years abound: the development of the two new Global Compacts, implementing a comprehensive refugee response, moving development and humanitarian actors closer together, developing new – and politically feasible – models for responsibility-sharing, addressing the needs of migrants in vulnerable situations, integrating IOM into the UN, implementing the ‘Grand Bargain’ on humanitarian financing, learning from the MICIC and Nansen Initiative, prioritising education and employment of refugees, taking concrete steps to address internal displacement, expanding and re-thinking resettlement, and working more closely with the private sector. Making progress in these areas will require a great deal of hard, often tedious work – work that is certainly less glamorous than preparing for a summit. But the summits of 2016 have certainly paved the way for the fundamental changes required to respond to the needs of the world’s 65 million displaced people. 

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