UN Summit seen as “game changer” for refugee and migrant protection

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A column of refugees and migrants is walked across fields by police in Slovenia in this October 2015 file photo.  © UNHCR/Mark Henley
A column of refugees and migrants is walked across fields by police in Slovenia in this October 2015 file photo. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

GENEVA - A high-level UN summit later this month to address large movements of refugees and migrants could potentially be a “game changer” that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency said today.

The UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants will be held at the General Assembly in New York on September 19, and is to be attended by heads of state and government, Ministers and leaders from the UN System and representatives of civil society, among others.

“Right now there seems to be huge momentum towards trying to make the 19th of September a really meaningful summit that will be a game changer for refugee protection and for migrants who are on the move,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday (September 6).

Fleming said the commitments were agreed on August 2. Once adopted at the Summit, they will be known as the New York Declaration, and contain annexes on refugees and migrants that will serve as the basis for future compacts.

“Coming at a time of multiple global crises, and when large-scale movements of refugees and migrants are challenging many countries – even stoking xenophobia in some quarters – it is very significant that 193 Member States of the United Nations are coming together to agree on a way forward to manage the challenges better, together,” she added.

Once adopted, the Declaration will be a “significant milestone,” Fleming said. In it, States declare profound solidarity for people who are forced to flee their homes; reaffirm their obligations to full respect of the human rights of refugees and migrants and pledge robust support to those countries affected by large movements of refugees and migrants. 

The Declaration includes commitments common to refugees and migrants, including: combating exploitation, racism and xenophobia, savings lives en route, as well as ensuring border procedures follow due process and are in line with international law.

“It also includes paying attention to the needs of women, children and those with health care needs, recognising and facilitating the positive contributions of migrants and refugees, ensuring they are part of development priorities, and ensuring adequate, flexible and predictable funding,” Fleming said.

In addition, the Declaration sets out specific commitments in relation to refugees and to migrants.

“Migration is the world’s oldest adaptation strategy,” International Organization for Migration spokesperson Leonard Doyle said. He noted that migration used to be a no-go area, but it was high time that every country tackled it in a grown-up, managed way, as 244 million migrants needed to see their issues addressed on the table rather than in the ante-room.

On the refugee side, some of the specific commitments include increasing support to the countries and communities hosting the largest number of refugees. There are related commitments to boosting early childhood and primary and secondary education for refugees, and creating jobs and income generation schemes for refugees and host communities.

“It is very significant that 193  Member States of the UN are coming together to agree on a way forward.”

There is also an emphasis on expanding opportunities for resettlement or other forms of admission to third countries. 

Furthermore, the Declaration provides for a Comprehensive Refugee Response (CRR) Framework to be applied in response to large scale refugee influxes or protracted situations. This will be broader than a typical refugee response, bringing in a range of stakeholders from the outset including local and national authorities, humanitarian and development actors, the private sector and civil society.

Fleming noted that the Framework also emphasises the importance of refugees becoming self-reliant and addressing the needs of local host communities. 

The New York Declaration is a reaffirmation of the importance and application of the international protection regime — the 1951 Refugee Convention, human rights and humanitarian law – at a time when there are record levels of forced displacement. 

Governments specifically acknowledge that the protection of refugees and assistance to host states is a shared international responsibility, and not to be borne by host countries alone.

The Declaration is a reaffirmation of the importance and application of the international protection regime.

This is a critical development. The New York Declaration also signals a shift beyond a mainly humanitarian response to refugee movements – usually in itself, severely underfunded – to a broader, systematic and more sustainable response to help refugees and the communities hosting them.  This will mean working on several fronts at once: addressing humanitarian needs, bringing in development actors sooner to help refugees and their hosts, and starting the longer term planning for solutions beyond the emergency phase.

The Summit will begin on September 19 with an opening plenary chaired by the President of the General Assembly and statements from high-level UN officials, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. There will be two parallel plenary sessions for statements by Member States.

There will be six roundtables dedicated to various refugee and migrant themes and a closing plenary. A concurrent civil society meeting will be also be held. In addition to the formal one day formal session, a series of side events are being organized between September 13 and 23.

UNHCR also very much welcomes the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis on September 20 convened by President Obama, which provides an opportunity for governments to make concrete commitments in funding to humanitarian appeals and international organisations, to admitting more refugees through resettlement and other pathways, and increasing refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through work and education opportunities.