What You Need to Know about the First-Ever Global #RefugeeForum
December 18, 2019
The first-ever Global Refugee Forum (GRF) took place from December 16-18 in Geneva, Switzerland, exactly one year after the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) by the United Nations General Assembly on December 17, 2018. The GCR was the result of the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, was led by the United Nations Refugee Agency (also known as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR), and was meant to support and build upon existing frameworks on refugees (e.g., the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol guarantee).
Q1: Why is the refugee compact important?
A1: The 2018 refugee compact addressed the need to improve data collection, cooperation, and support for host countries. Its emphasis on job creation and livelihoods for refugees and host community members is novel, and its broader focus on easing pressures on host communities, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third-country solutions, and supporting safe and dignified return is laudable. However, important as it is as a signal of commitment to refugees, the GCR is not legally binding nor does it add to existing international legal frameworks. Candidly, those negotiating the GCR were wary of opening up hard-fought international legal protections to reinterpretation in an era of increasingly hostile political rhetoric in the United States, Europe, and beyond.
Even though legal frameworks were left unchanged, the refugee compact is important. As with many multilateral initiatives, the goal of the GCR is less to put yet another document out into the ether and more to provide a framework through which diverse facets of the international community can support refugees and host communities. It is in new pledges and commitments inspired by the GCR that solutions for vulnerable people can be found. Only one year after the adoption of the GCR, UNHCR has already been able to use the compact to mobilize greater commitments that will be crucial for countries such as Bangladesh, Uganda, Jordan, Colombia, and others, which are bearing the brunt of the global refugee crisis. This mobilization effort is also a core part of the first-ever GRF, which has as its stated mandate to “advance the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees.”
Q2: What are the main goals of the Global Refugee Forum?
A2: The GRF is envisioned to take place every four years. Though its mandate may shift over time, the first GRF was designed as a place for humanitarians, politicians, diplomats, advocates, academics, and, most importantly, refugees themselves to exchange ideas, good practices, and business cards. Because it is the United Nations, there was also time allotted for 3-minute statements from a number of external stakeholders and senior representatives from over 120 countries, from Malta, Turkmenistan, and Eswatini to Germany, Canada, and beyond.
This first GRF was also a place where governments, philanthropists, foundations, companies, international organizations, and others touted pledges, many of which were announced during these short statements. The private sector alone, for example, announced $250 million in new commitments toward education, legal assistance, jobs, training, and more. Ikea, the Lego Foundation, Chobani, and Vodafone are but a few of the over 100 companies attending the GRF, many of which have made promises that the UN High Commissioner Filippo Grandi called “significant both in quantity and quality.”
UNHCR deserves credit for placing concrete commitments from a broad range of stakeholders—and in particular the private sector—at the center of the GRF, allocating time for business leaders and refugees to speak alongside heads of state. UNHCR also deserves credit for the dogged focus on securing commitments before and during the forum. One hopes there will be commensurate efforts to make sure these promises turn into reality for refugees and their host communities.
Neither last year’s compact nor this year’s forum will solve the world’s refugee problems on their own. But global challenges deserve global collective action. And the GCR and GRF are steps in the right direction.
Q3: Where is the United States in all of this?
A3: Amid such a strong demonstration of multilateral and multi-stakeholder commitment to refugees and their host communities, the absence of high-level U.S. leadership at the GRF was noticeable. The U.S. delegation included Acting Assistant Secretary of State Carol O’Connell and U.S. Ambassador to International Organizations Andrew Bremberg. Though it is notable that the United States sent a formal delegation at all to a multilateral event focused on refugees, the comparative lack of high-level U.S. leadership at a forum featuring the secretary-general of the United Nations, several heads of state, and many foreign ministers parallels recent refugee-related policies coming from the Trump administration.
For example, on December 17, 2018, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously to accept the principles set forth in the GCR; Hungary and the United States were the only two countries to vote against the GCR. Despite arguments that doing so would be a strategic mistake, the Trump administration announced on November 4, 2019, that only up to 18,000 refugees would be resettled in the United States in fiscal year 2020, down from almost 85,000 in 2016 and 231,700 in 1980.
Though these trends point to an eschewing of global leadership on refugees, it is worth highlighting that the United States continues to provide one out of every three dollars to UNHCR, dwarfing the contributions of any other nation. This comparative fiscal generosity of the United States, rightly highlighted by Ambassador Bremberg in his remarks to the GRF, should be recognized and applauded.
However, leadership in multilateral efforts requires more than funding. The United States can use its significant multilateral and bilateral diplomatic cache to pressure bad actors to reform and to encourage front-line countries that bear the brunt of the global refugee crisis. The highest levels of non-U.S. refugee resettlement (i.e., responsibility or “burden” sharing) in the last two decades came in 2016 when the United States led by example by achieving its own highest resettlement numbers. It can mobilize even greater commitments—on resources, resettlement, and more—from other governments, multilateral institutions, and the private sector.
The United States has exercised global leadership on refugees beyond funding in the past. The GCR and the first-ever GRF—the primary vehicles through which the international community is responding to the global refugee crisis—were missed opportunities to do so again.
Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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