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Migration, refugees and the need for global governance reforms (December 2017)

by Lloyd Axworthy, currently Chairperson, World Refugee Council; member of the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance; and international Co-President of the World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of forcibly displaced persons – over 65 million in 2016 – is higher now than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Of this
total, the number seeking safety across international borders as refugees topped 22.5 million.

The causes are numerous. Some people move in search of new economic opportunities. Others move to escape armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations and abuses. Still others do so in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters (some of which may be linked to climate change), or other environmental factors. Many move for a combination of these reasons.

The geographic distribution of refugees places unequal burdens on UN member states. 90 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by 10 neighbouring states, most of which have scarcely the resources to look after their own people, let alone the needs of destitute refugees. Furthermore, countries hosting some of the largest concentrations of refugees are also heavily reliant for their internal security on UN peace operations. Examples include South Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consider for example the pitiful plight of the half-million Rohingya refugees who have now fled
Myanmar for Bangladesh. Unprotected and largely unprovided for, they represent a powerful rebuke to the flawed international framework for dealing with refugees and internally displaced persons.

The way the world comes to grips with the rising number of refugees needs a major re-set. The institutions, practices and conventions on refugees and migration are still rooted in the post-World War II era
and are inadequate to meet the demands of today. For example, the whole system of funding refugees, based primarily on donor government pledging, is really kind of archaic. Furthermore, many of the legal
instruments, like the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in a peacekeeping context the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, are weak and/or out of date. We need a new, much more coherent multilateralism.

On 19 September 2016, the UN General Assembly held a one-day summit on “Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants” and set a new agenda for responding to large movements of people
crossing frontiers. The ensuing “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” included a plan of action, “Towards a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” that sets out a
framework for positive responses. A new “Global Compact” is expected to be discussed and adopted at the UN in 2018.

But while the UN appears to demonstrate a growing awareness of the cross-cutting nature of these challenges, there is not always the will to make the changes necessary.

As Canada’s Foreign Minister, I was involved in efforts like the Landmines Treaty and the International Criminal Court, which made me realize that there are limitations within UN structures to the degree of freedom to think and act outside the box. A lot of interests are at stake. Ultimately the UN needs to be the place where change happens, but it’s not the place where the best thinking is going to be done on the kinds of normative and institutional changes that are necessary.

The World Refugee Council (WRC) that I am chairing — supported by Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the government of Canada – hopes to come up with recommendations for significant reforms, as well as mobilizing the political will needed to implement them.

The WRC brings together an independent group of global leaders and innovators to advance new solutions to the global refugee crisis. The Council is presently conducting regional consultations around
the world, with a view to developing research and recommendations on structural reform, including how best to manage refugee movements, deploy emerging technologies for improved protection, promote
innovative financing models and identify opportunities for strengthening the international legal regime on refugees.

Our report, expected in 2019, will build on the UN’s Global Compact. But we also want to move beyond declaratory statements and exhortations to governments and agencies. We aim to generate a multistakeholder, politically participatory base for working on, and hopefully implementing, much needed reforms.

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