Blog post written by Dr Yusuf Ciftci (University of Southampton) an RLI Research Affiliate, and forms part of a series of blog posts analysing the potential and shortcomings of the Global Compact on Refugees.

The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been endorsed by the General Assembly in the UN in December 2018. There were 181 votes for the Compact, while two countries – the United States and Hungary- voted against it. It builds upon New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants of 2016, which developed a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. This post discusses the potential and shortcomings of the compact on one of its main objectives: “to ease pressures on host countries” (paragraph 7). It explains that the Compact acts as a new tool for monitoring and international socialisation influence and could indeed be an important step in promoting a comprehensive perspective to burden- and responsibility-sharing in refugee protection. However, an effective outcome of the compact on this objective requires more work on reaching a shared definition and indication of contributions to responsibility- and burden-sharing.

The Compact appears to be an important step of ‘contemporary multilateralism’ by reaffirming the need for a collective and effective response to the refugee situations.  It can be seen as a reaction to the world’s increasing refugee population at an unprecedented scale. However, there are more underlying reasons for the creation of the Compact, one of which is more related to the questions over whether the existing framework for equitable burden sharing is fit for purpose. International obligations enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol regulate the responsibilities of individual states in providing international protection to refugees but many important issues, such as how to effectively share the responsibility for providing international protection, remain unresolved. UNHCR figures show that 85% of the world’s displaced people reside in developing countries, which indicates a striking imbalance in shouldering the responsibility for protecting refugees. Several host countries including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Bangladesh have highlighted the pressures they are facing, and have called for solidarity from the international community. Within this context, the Compact seeks to find a more balanced refugee protection regime across the world by changing the focus from emergency response to long-term solutions.

A new framework for comprehensive thinking

The Compact envisages a set of actions in relation to burden- and responsibility-sharing, which includes the creation of new forums and platforms to facilitate decision making and solidarity in asylum governance at two levels: the global and the regional/national level. Firstly, a Global Refugee Forum will be convened periodically to act as a platform for states to offer pledges in taking in refugees and to consider improving existing frameworks of sharing the responsibility of refugee protection. Secondly, at regional/national level, a non-periodic, case-specific Support Platform would also be convened to elicit support for refugees, host countries and communities.

Maybe the greatest promise of the Compact is that it promotes collective decision making to refugee situations. These new platforms do bring a new opportunity to think comprehensively about burden-sharing which has been largely neglected in the contemporary forced displacement contexts of Syrian and Rohingya refugees. The pressures of a high volume of refugees on neighbouring states were mostly treated by unilateral pledges undertaken on an ad hoc basis, but not by a systematic international dialogue. In contrast, the Compact promises a new structured and regularised way of addressing the pressures of host states.

However, one significant shortcoming of the Compact in its promise to ease the pressures of host countries is that it does not create a legal obligation to do so. The Compact uses strong language about state sovereignty, and the voluntary aspect of pledges and commitments. Despite offering a multi-stakeholder and partnership approach, the Compact repeats that it is up to the ‘concerned’ or ‘interested’ states to use these newly developed platforms and contribute to this cause. This line of thought implies that most states might not show up on these platforms as the attendance at the Global Refugee Forum and Support Platform is not compulsory.

The societal impact of the GCR?

Despite being a non-binding document, the new framework offered by the GCR does have an incremental approach that could mobilise further impacts. If there are enough states showing their willingness to share responsibility, the Compact is likely to have a monitoring impact that would create a societal pressure on other states who are reluctant to do their fair share in refugee protection. The Global Refugee Forums will be an opportunity to review the ongoing efficacy and implementation of previous contributions and pledges. As introduced in paragraph 104 of the Compact, biannual high-level officials’ meetings will act as a mid-term review mechanism. In addition, UNHCR will publish an annual update on the progress towards the objectives. Such a framework might indeed act as a mechanism to exert peer-pressure among states and to encourage pledges to help those countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Through this mechanism of influence, international benchmarks could be established and states may be more willing to contribute to this objective to avoid bad international publicity. Current reactionary practice in refugee situations might then be transferred to a pro-active manner by regularly monitoring commitments to address the challenges faced by host states.

It should also be acknowledged that the GCR was developed as a result of growing political will and ambition of UN member states. If this international awareness about refugee situations remains, states might indeed be inclined to ease the pressures on host societies through international societal pressures.

A need for a shared understanding of burden-sharing

Obviously, such societal pressures are not a panacea for an effective burden-sharing. This method should be complemented by a set of clear guidelines on the indicators of the responsibility of international protection. It would have been an immense step in the inter-state communication about burden-sharing if the Compact had developed a shared definition of indicators. Gilbert put forward useful questions to exemplify this problem:

“How much of a contribution is a State making that takes in 100,000 refugees, as against a State contributing US$40 million to aid budgets (and does it matter if it is humanitarian or development aid?), or one that permanently resettles 1,500 refugees, or even contributes 1,000 troops to a peacekeeping mission for six months?”

To have a shared understanding of indicators of contribution, there have been efforts in formulating new algorithms or ways of measuring responsibility. Traditional suggestions include an analysis of responsibility-sharing according to certain indicators like a country’s Gross Domestic Product per capita, population size or size of the territory. Moreover, Schuck suggested a new method underpinned by the idea of creating a market of responsibility where states can either take in refugees or they can sell this protection responsibility to other states. Others have immediately criticised the idea of monetising the protection responsibility by arguing that humanitarian financing is not replaceable with resettling refugees.

However, a commonly accepted method should be promoted by UNHCR in the Global Refugee Forums to at least start calculating the size of the ‘contributions’ to and ‘pressures’ on host countries. This also applies to the indicators for the success of the Compact, promised to be developed in the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019 (paragraph 102). It is important that such indicators bring a common universal understanding of what defines a ‘good (and sufficient) contribution’ to start making better judgments on responsibility-sharing.

Concluding remarks

Taken together, the Global Compact on Refugees does have some potential towards alleviating some pressures created by the huge workload of refugee arrivals in neighbouring (host) countries. New platforms and comprehensive review initiatives manifest themselves as tools for naming and shaming in the international domain. Even though the Compact falls short of being a legal document, it does take a step towards tackling the imbalance of refugee protection work in the world. What is needed for an actual ‘easing’ of pressures on host states, however, is a clear-cut guideline that allows benchmarking in responsibility- and burden-sharing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

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