The Refugee & Migrants Summits September 2016 : What Was Achieved?

Two important global Summits were held at UN Headquarters in New York last month:

  • The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants
  • The Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis.

Both were called in response to the unprecedented level of large movements of refugees, displaced people and migrants: an estimated 65 million forcibly displaced persons, including over 21 million refugees, 3 million asylum-seekers and over 40 million internally displaced persons. The immensity of these large movements of people escaping trauma presents a crisis unlike anything that has been seen before. Millions of people of goodwill throughout the world have responded with generosity and open-heartedness to the crisis. Yet governments have been hampered by a rise in xenophobic fears from their own citizenry, by an overwhelming preoccupation with national self-interest, and by competing international agendas.

So what did the Summits achieve? Inevitably, those who were hoping for some radical breakthrough that would reform a broken refugee system in the midst of crisis were disappointed. Some countries did argue strongly for an international commitment to resettle 10% of the world’s refugees annually and provide education for refugee children within 30 days. This would still have been an inadequate response to the level of need but at least it would have marked a significant willingness to move beyond national comfort zones, and over time the percentage of refugees offered refuge by states around the world could have been increased. But this proposal did not even make its way into the Summit. It was simply impossible to get all countries to agree to such a limited goal.

But there were significant achievements. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants unanimously agreed at the UN Summit provides a set of principles around which countries can cooperate in developing a more coordinated and comprehensive response to the needs of refugees. It provides the basis for two years of negotiation in preparation for two Global Compacts (one on refugees and one on safe, orderly and regular migration) to be signed in 2018. The Declaration includes commitments to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, to save lives and to achieve a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for protecting and assisting refugees. It guarantees that displaced children will have access to education within a few months of settling in a country, and pledges to increase humanitarian and development assistance to countries bearing the most weight of the crisis.   Save the Children’s Senior Director of Humanitarian Public Policy and Advocacy commented that this is the first step to what could be a meaningful process and action plan.

The Summits focused public attention on the depth of the crisis and the need for a multilateral, cooperative agreement. This is important because only as people of goodwill are informed and aroused to pressure their governments to contribute to the care of refugees and share in the responsibility of providing this care will it be possible for governments to make serious commitments.

As a sign that the human tragedy is being heard, refugees themselves attended and spoke at the Summits for the first time. The Chair of the International Migrants Alliance, speaking at the opening of the UN Summit stated: After years of being voiceless and invisible, we the migrants are finally welcome here to speak. … We are the people who have been denied the future, the rights and the dream we used to imagine.

Finally the International Organization for Migration formally became part of the UN family of organizations at the Summit and that’s important because it brings the voice of migrants and the needs of migrants into the center of negotiations for a new Global Compact.   

The smaller Leaders' Summit hosted by US President Obama and the heads of 6 nations (Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden) was attended by 52 countries and international organizations. It was focused on action. In order to attend the summit governments had to pledge to either take in more refugees or do more to help those who were already in their country or increase their assistance to the countries in the developing world where 86% of refugees live. 

Pledges at the Leaders’ Summit, if fully implemented, would almost double resettlement places for refugees, increase humanitarian aid for refugees by $4.5bn, provide education to 1 million more refugee children and improve access to legal work for a further million adults. The Guardian commented that while there was disappointment after the Monday Summit, the mood changed on Tuesday, with 18 developed countries announcing plans to increase legal access for refugees, 17 developing countries pledging to increase refugees’ access to education, and 15 claiming that they would take various measures that could help to expand refugees’ access to work.

The White House announced that 17 countries that host large numbers of refugees “pledged to help increase refugees’ school enrollment, including by constructing new classrooms, training and hiring new teachers, and certifying and streamlining refugee education programs that previously offered only informal education or education using foreign curricula.” Further, it said, 15 countries also committed to “take concrete action to improve refugees’ ability to work lawfully by adopting policies that permit refugees to start their own businesses.”

The issue now is to ensure that all the pledges are kept – pledges made at a summit in London in February are still to be fulfilled. As with other issues actions by governments depend upon the depth and level of pressure from people of goodwill.

The other important development at the Leaders’ Summit was the involvement of companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn which made financial commitments and also announced plans to engage with refugees and develop programs to assist in education and finding work. 

Rather than marking a final achievement in the development of a cooperative global response to the refugee crisis the two Summits in September at the United Nations marked an important step in the process. As Share The World’s Resources reminds us, the true burden of responsibility lies … heavily on the shoulders of ordinary people of goodwill.


Useful reading:,4IEFB,346SQ9,GOOAB,1 :