The UNHCR Defends Its Global Compact on Refugees

The United Nations agency responds to a critique of its 2018 compact and affirms its obligation “to protect and assist all people fleeing war and persecution.”

Luisa Gonzalez / Reuters

The World Is Turning Its Back on Refugees

In December, Lama Mourad and Kelsey P. Norman argued that the UN Global Compact on Refugees has failed. “The well-meaning document sought to recast refugees as an economic benefit to nations that receive them,” Mourad and Norman wrote. “But by furthering the premise that refugees should be accepted because of their potential for self-sufficiency—rather than out of a commitment to upholding international norms and the rights of refugees—the global compact may actually worsen their plight.”

It was surprising and disheartening to see Lama Mourad and Kelsey P. Norman get the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) so wrong. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) disagrees with the authors’ assertion that the GCR—adopted by the United Nations just over a year ago—has already failed. Such a verdict is, at best, premature in our view. More troubling, the authors claim that the GCR encourages countries to calibrate their response to refugees using economic, cost-benefit criteria. This notion describes almost precisely the opposite of what the GCR promotes and represents, as the compact itself makes clear. Section IB on “guiding principles” confirms our obligation to protect and assist all people fleeing war and persecution, whether those vulnerable individuals are in a position to boost a society’s economic bottom line or not.

The article also understates the scope of the GCR, which is to establish a foundation for a qualitatively new, whole-of-society approach—to address record refugee flows in the world today by involving not just the traditional humanitarian specialists, but also global development actors, the private sector, and multilateral institutions.

The GCR marks one of the most important advances in refugee protection since the middle of the last century. It is a blueprint for a genuinely new way to think about and respond to refugees with sustainable, predictable, and dignified solutions where both responsibility and, yes, potential economic benefits are shared more equitably. UNHCR agrees entirely with Mourad and Norman’s affirmation that seeing refugees solely through an economic lens is both inhumane and dangerous. That, however, is not what the GCR does and is not a reason to reject the global effort that the document represents: to find better ways of helping refugees and the communities that welcome them improve their shared lives.

Christopher Boian
Spokesperson, Senior Communications Officer, UNHCR
Washington, D.C.

Lama Mourad and Kelsey P. Norman reply:

We agree with Christopher Boian and the UNHCR’s assertion that it may be too soon for a final verdict on the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), but we maintain that the GCR as a whole moves us further in the wrong direction. While Section IB on “guiding principles” may affirm the UN’s commitment to protecting and assisting refugees, which we commend, the guidelines on implementation in Section III either do little to change the existing system of global refugee protection, or place too much emphasis on encouraging states to consider the economic benefits that refugees bring to hosting countries.

We also question whether the GCR, in its implementation, represents a “genuinely new way” to address the global refugee situation. Let us take, for instance, the 2019 Global Refugee Forum as a one-year benchmark on the status of the compact. The GCR established the forum to facilitate international cooperation, pledging to hold it a year after the adoption of the compact and subsequently every four years. In line with the broader goals of the GCR, the forum brought together a wider array of actors than is usually the case in conferences like this. However, reports from the event in Geneva portray the forum as a missed opportunity to take on issues of support, funding, and strategic action for the growing problem.

The concrete outcomes that emerged at the forum concentrated on providing support to local host communities and refugees in situ, which does little to fulfill the GCR’s goal of shifting the balance of responsibility-sharing. Moreover, the 50,000 new resettlement spots pledged at the forum will not mitigate the trend in countries such as the United States of taking drastic steps to minimize resettlement; in fact, even if these pledges were added to 2019 figures on the number of refugees actually resettled (58,874), the total would still remain significantly lower than those resettled only three years earlier (126,291). The total number of refugees worldwide, meanwhile, has increased from 22.5 million in 2016 to nearly 26 million in 2018 (data from 2019 are not yet available, but given global displacement trends over the past year, there is no reason to expect that this figure has decreased).

Finally, we do not oppose the expansion of alternative pathways to resettlement—such as scholarships for asylum seekers and work schemes—but believe that these initiatives should not come at the cost of expanding protection and access to asylum for all refugees, regardless of their economic and educational status or their geographical location. While adopting alternative pathways and involving new private-sector actors may supplement existing refugee-protection systems, this should occur in addition to, rather than in place of, the legal protection, resettlement spaces, and financial support offered by states. We need a reaffirmation of the political will of states to accept and admit refugees regardless of their ability to contribute economically to host countries. We do not need to further enshrine practices that distort what it means to be a refugee.