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More equitable burden-sharing in refugee issues: UN General Assembly adopts Refugee Compact

UNHCR: Global Compact on Refugees

UNHCR: Global Compact on Refugees, © Inga Kjer

17.12.2018 - Article

The overwhelming majority of member states of the United Nations adopted the Global Compact on Refugees (GDR) today. In the General Assembly, 181 countries voted in favour of the corresponding Resolution, while two voted against and three abstained. What is in it?

The legally non-binding Compact is intended to enhance international cooperation on refugee issues and to achieve more equitable burden-sharing. Both are urgently needed. The number of refugees around the world has grown to almost 70 million people during the last few years as a result of wars and other conflicts. However, 80% of the world’s refugees live in just ten states. With the exception of Germany, these are developing countries and emerging economies in the direct vicinity of the countries of origin. 
However, major flows of refugees are a challenge for all states. Joint efforts are needed to tackle them. How can the Global Compact on Refugees help achieve this? What is in it?

1. What are the goals of the Global Compact on Refugees?

The Global Compact on Refugees is aimed at achieving a fairer sharing of international responsibility in refugee issues. States which until now have not been engaged in helping refugees, or only to a small degree, are asked to shoulder more responsibility. This also means that the burden on those countries which have already taken in a large number of refugees would be eased. 
Moreover, the Compact is intended to improve the opportunities and possibilities of refugees, for example on the labour market or in the education sphere. For refugees can only make a positive contribution in their host countries if they are given the chance. 
Many refugees want nothing more than to be able to return to their homes one day without fear of persecution. Often, this is hardly possible due to protracted wars and conflicts or the destruction of livelihoods in the countries of origin; one key objective of the Compact is therefore to improve the conditions for a voluntary return to the countries of origin in safety and dignity.
The possibilities to resettle especially vulnerable refugees to safe third countries are also to be improved by the Compact.

2. Why is the Refugee Compact in Germany’s interest?

Major flows of refugees present states with challenges which make international cooperation necessary. Only through joint efforts by the international community can a fair sharing of the responsibility and burden be achieved. The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) is intended to help attain this objective. The GCR provides a political foundation on the basis of which states that accept the Compact must shoulder responsibility. Germany already meets all the key goals of the Compact; in many points it has gone further than the Compact requires. In many countries around the world, however, the situation of refugees and the people who have taken them in would improve as a result of the voluntary commitments contained in the Compact.

3. Is the Global Compact on Refugees legally binding?

No. The Global Compact on Refugees is not legally binding. It stands for the political will and the efforts of the international community to enhance cooperation and solidarity with refugees and host countries. It does not affect the national sovereignty of the member states. The Refugees Compact does not create any new legal obligations and thus talks of voluntary contributions. Germany will therefore continue to decide for itself what contribution to global refugee protection is appropriate and at what point in time. 

4. Why do we need a Refugee Compact? After all, we already have the Compact for Migration.

The two Compacts, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees stem from the New York Declaration of September 2016. However, the Compacts were negotiated separately – in the case of the Refugee Compact under the auspices of UNHCR. The two Compacts have different objectives, are structured differently and have different contents. This is due to the fact that refugees and migrants fall under different legal frameworks which must be seen separately. The Refugee Compact relates solely to refugees, that is to say to people who have a right to protection under existing international law, regional legal frameworks or national law.

5. Will more refugees come to Germany now?

No. Germany already meets all the key goals of the Refugee Compact; in many points it has gone further than the Compact requires. In many other countries, however, the situation of refugees and their host communities would improve with the implementation of the Compact and adherence to the voluntary obligations. One key objective of the Global Compact on Refugees is support for the main host countries. Four out of five refugees around the world live in developing or middle-income countries in their own region. The aim is to single out these countries for support in order to secure aid for refugees and to offer them genuine prospects for the future – for example, access to education or the labour market. This is the only way to ensure that refugees are not forced to move on, for instance to Germany.

6. What will the Global Compact on Refugees cost us?

The Compact will not result in any obligatory direct costs for the German Government. Voluntary contributions by members states of the United Nations are unaffected by it.

7. So what does Germany have to do?

Germany is already making its contribution. Firstly, as the sixth largest host country for refugees. Secondly, as the second largest UNHCR donor, as the world’s second largest humanitarian donor and as the world’s second largest donor of development cooperation, we are helping to ensure that refugees’ needs can be met. The Refugee Compact does not contain any measures which go beyond what Germany is already doing within the scope of what is prescribed by the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or other international agreements.

8. So why do we need the Global Compact on Refugees then?

Until now, there has been an imbalance in the international support for refugees and displaced persons. At present, 80% of the world’s refugees live in ten states. Only 15 states provide the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with at least 20 million US dollars per year (in 2017 Germany made available approx. 477 million US dollars). The remaining approximately 180 states are currently not making any contribution, or only a very small one, in this sphere.
The Refugee Compact formulates concrete measures for a fairer distribution of responsibility for the first time. States are to support UNHCR and other players in the humanitarian and development policy sphere so that they can protect and care for refugees close to their homes. By taking in refugees, all member states are to help ensure that it is not just a few countries that have to take in a disproportionately high number of refugees.

9. What about the security considerations of the host countries?

The Refugee Compact expressly recognises the security considerations of those countries which take in refugees. It contains an offer of support from UNHCR to carry out swift individual security screening and health assessments. Furthermore, international capacities to prevent and combat human trafficking and smuggling are to be strengthened.

10. Would it not be better to combat the root causes of refugee movements?

Yes, definitely. The Global Compact on Refugees places responsibility on countries of origin as well as the international community as a whole for minimising the root causes of refugee movements. Existing legal objectives and principles are to be implemented consistently. It is in Germany’s interests that more stakeholders than previously work to minimise the root causes of refugee movements so that, if possible, refugee flows do not emerge in the first place.

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