The United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for refugees and Migrants at a historic summit that was held on 19 September 2016. The Declaration reflects political will for to improve the protection of refugees, especially regarding responsibility sharing. However, the Declaration is a product of compromise and therefore it has a large number of shortcomings, especially obvious are the indecisiveness on certain issues and weak proposed solutions and as such the Declaration is largely seen only as the beginning of a new dialogue that should lead to the adoption of a more substantial Global compact on refugee rights in 2018. The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, with support of Oxfam, participated in New York proceedings as part of a group of civil society organizations and it supported the work of the Action Committee, all with the goal of adopting a document that would have strong mechanisms of accountability and control. The Summit was preceded by informal consultations with the CSOs in July.

According to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the “Summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility.” He stated that the adoption of the New York Declaration “more children can attend school; more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home.”. The Secretary General also initiated a “Together – Respect, Safety and Dignity for All” campaign as a response to rising xenophobia in the world.

In his statement the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein pointed out that the Summit was called because we have been largely failing, failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation. High Commissioner also warned that we must not allow for the Summit results to be „speeches and feel-good interviews, a dash of self-congratulation“ in the moment „when millions of people see freedom’s invitation only through the flapping canvas of a tent, when they carry their children and possessions on their backs, walking hundreds, perhaps even thousands of miles, when they and their families risk drowning, and are kept cramped in appalling detention centers – and, once released, risk abuse by racists and xenophobes.“ According to Commissioner Zeid „victims of abominable crimes should be made to suffer further by our failures to give them protection.“ It is abhorrent that desperate women, men and children can be branded as criminals, and detained for months, even years, incurring further damage to their physical and mental health. The situation can be changed by providing respect, safety and dignity for all but now while the defenders of good are outflanked by bigots and racists who, in order to retain power, use prejudice and deceit at the expense of the most vulnerable. „An epidemic of amnesia is at the heart of this moral collapse in some quarters. Many seem to have forgotten the two world wars – what happens when fear and anger are stoked by half-truths and outright lies. A density of hatred builds up. The pin is pulled. The timer, released. And humanity’s rendez-vous with the ‘demon of world history’ beckons again.“ In his concluding remark the High Commissioner warned all those who work to promote backwards ideas and who are involved in deceit in order to avoid the responsibility sharing that they will face the opposition not just at the UN but also from the world’s people.

By adopting the Declaration member states have pledged to uphold the principles of human rights and migrants protection regardless of their legal status, that they should have access to deucation a few months from arrival, prevention and punishment of sexual and gender based violence, support to countries that host the largest number of refugees, work on ending child detention for status determination purposes, condemnation of xenophobia against refugees and migrants and support to campaign against such phenomenons, strengthening positive contributions that migrants give to the economic and social development of countries where they live and work and improvement of humanitarian aid and financial support to countries that are most affected.

The Declaration annex contains the Comprehensive refugee response framework that will be implemented by the UNHCR. Member states have pledged to implement in accordance with the responsibility of member stes, partners from the non-governmental sector and the UN system whenever there are large movements of refugees or in protracted situations. The goal of the Framework is to create a response system that would be applicable in various situations and that would be comprehensive, predictable and sustainable. The Framework is planned to give a quick and well organized reaction in terms of emergency hosting of refugees, support current and ongoing needs (protection, health and education), support to national and local institutions and communities that host refugees and creating opportunities for long term solutions. The new Framework is different to the existing solutions as it includes a wider spectrum of stakeholders including local authorities, international and regional organizations, CSO partnets including churches, academics, media and private sector as well as the refugees themselves.The plan is to begin with implementation as soon as possible with the support of all relevant stakeholders and with long term solutions determination as well as the determination of responsibilities for countries of origin and host countries as well as third countries. The UNHCR will provide an assessment of the Framework implementation in early 2018 when it will also reveal the Global compact proposal.

Another important event that took place during the Summit was the signing of the agreement between the UN and International organization for Migration (IOM). This agreement was signed in order to bring the IOM into the UN system. The New York Declaration for the first time determines issues that are the same for both refugees and migrants. The US president Barack Obama held another summit on the next day where the leaders of 50 countries assembled, countries that have pledged to take concrete measures and not just to adopt the principles.

Member states have agreed to begin consultations in the next period that will lead to the international conference where a Global compact will be adopted in 2018. Main questions that the Global compact will have to answer are taking off the pressure from countries that host the largest number of refugees, enabling the self-reliance of refugees and working on changing the situation in countries of origin in order to make the dignified and safe return of refugees possible.

Response of the civil society organizations

The international non-governmental organizations expressed their dissatisfaction with the adopted document, considering that the Summit did not respond to the expectations of civil society. Unfulfilled expectations are in terms of taking concrete obligations regarding the protection of refugees such as resettlement for 10% of the world’s refugee population that existed in the draft text of the Declaration was removed from the final version at the request of certain European countries or the fact that internally displaced persons are not covered by the Declaration. Also in the national context, many countries are opting to spend more funds to maintain the extraterritorial camps, such as Australia that has one such camp on the territory of the island nation Nauru, than they would need in any case for the integration of refugees in their society. The declaration that was adopted calls for the responsibility sharing but it does not define or determine control mechanisms for its implementation. This means that it is difficult to find a way to assess the success of the Declaration in the future.

As a response to the adoption of the Declaration, the civil society organizations adopted an action plan which appeals to member states to take 7 concrete actions in partnetship with the UN and civil society in order to take the Declaration from words into action. These 7 actions are:

  1. Make an implementation plan by the end of the year and act now
  2. Deliver equitable and predictable responsibilitysharing and refugee protection mechanisms
  3. Review national border policies to uphold the human rights of all people at international borders, and commit to developing and implementing gender- and age-sensitive guidelines to protect migrants in vulnerable situations
  4. Fulfill the commitment to work to end the practice of child immigration detention in accordance with the best interests of the child
  5. Commit to the development of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration
  6. Implement policies and vigorous campaigns at national and local levels to counter xenophobia, discrimination and racism
  7. Agree on concrete measures to improve the protection and assistance for internally displaced people.

In the future period it is necessary to make a fundamental shift in the responsibility sharing, resettlement of refugees and financing assistance programs. Civil society organizations have expressed the hope that a group of countries that are sincerely committed to fulfilling these objectives will be found. Also, all participants praised the uncompromising words of the Declaration against xenophobia, discrimination and racism.

Despite the numerous objections by the civil society ,the Declaration is still seen as a good basis for the adoption of future solutions. By the end of the year the work on the implementation of the Comprehensive framework should start in order to adopt the Global compact in 2018. This process must be more transparent than the process of adopting the New York Declaration, which was largely, done behind closed doors and the United Nations must actively involve civil society in the process of its development.

During the United Nations General Assembly session which adopted the New York Declaration 250,000 signatures for an Oxfam petition calling for solidarity with refugees was handed over. The petition calls for the richest countries to accept far larger  number of refugees than now, refugees who are forced to live in already poor parts of the world without access to basic education and work. According to research done by Oxfam, the six largest economies (the US, China, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom) host only 9% of refugees. On the other side of the Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa and Palestine, host 50% of the world’s refugee population.

The New York Declaration text

Civil society activities regarding the UN Summit

The detailed Action Plan