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States are ducking their responsibilities to refugees. This U.N. declaration might just start to change that.

- September 23, 2016
Jewish refugees fled Europe during the period of Nazi rule in Germany. (Courtesy of David Hendell/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants, the very first of its kind, took place this week at U.N. headquarters. The U.N. aimed to make a new international road map for addressing people on the move — refugees and migrants alike — with buy-in from world leaders. And they got one. The “New York Declaration” was signed two days ago. The U.N. Refugee Agency promoted the summit and declaration as a “game-changer” and a “miracle.” But global advocates lament that the declaration was nothing more than window dressing with no concrete commitments.

So who’s right?

States have agreed to help refugees

Today, 60 million people have been displaced from their  homes — the most since the end of World War II. That war was what gave rise to the original set of rules on how to deal with refugees — the Refugee Convention.

This groundbreaking convention defined what a refugee was, and what rights they had. States promised to respect and protect refugee rights and share the burden of helping them. A string of U.N. programs dedicated to postwar refugees coalesced into what we now know as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This agency sets the agenda for efforts to protect the world’s refugees. The UNHCR’s mandate was strictly defined to help refugees — those fleeing home with “a well-founded fear of persecution” — and not ordinary migrants, who have no special protection.

But they are breaking their promises

Today’s refugees and migrants deal with a global system of rules that look, on the face of it, like the rules agreed to after World War II. However, the appearance is only superficial. First, states are not holding up their end of the bargain — they do not equally protect and support refugees. Second, refugees are fleeing conflicts and disasters very unlike those of World War II.

Host states are breaking their commitments because of short-term politics. They do not want to accept responsibilities because refugees are politically toxic in many countries; citizens see generosity to refugees as attacks on their own welfare. This has led to xenophobic sentiments, attacks and policies across the Western world. States pass the buck for responsibility for refugees. For example, Europe’s response to the migrant crisis is fragmented and focused on deterring refugees from entering Europe. Meanwhile, geography entails that neighboring countries absorb the vast majority of refugees.

Furthermore, refugees face complex threats in today’s world. People today aren’t necessarily forced to flee because of a “well-founded fear of persecution,” but because of indiscriminate violence, climate change, food insecurity and countless other harms. Without an international strategy to address displaced migrants, global chaos ensues. Each country has its own immigration policy, and there are no baseline rights and protections for the tens of millions of forced migrants in the world. These migrants cannot get into refugee camps, which are problematic anyway. They see their best bet for a proper life as putting their lives in the hands of a smuggler to cross the Mediterranean. This tells us quite plainly that the existing refugee system is broken.

Advocates wanted big changes to the refugee system

The failure of the old refugee system led global aid and rights organizations to advocate for key changes before the summit. These involved sharing responsibilities rather than shifting them, moving beyond tents and blankets to new solutions such as economic zones that could provide opportunities to work and access tocapital and banking, or matching schemes that could send refugees to countries where their labor is most needed.

Second, global organizations advocated for a framework to address both refugees and migrants, protecting all people on the move, not just refugees. They also pushed for enforcement mechanisms for governments that dodge their responsibility to help refugees and migrants and standards for dealing with such issues as access to education and family reunification.

They didn’t get what they wanted

What advocates got was a statement — the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which proclaims that past ways of addressing migrants and refugees are failing. It aims to standardize global responses and go beyond humanitarian relief by helping refugees get education and find work. This rhetorically expands the set of things that states ought to do for refugees and migrants. However, it does nothing to stop noncompliance and neglect within the existing framework. The declaration also doesn’t mention the new push factors for forced migration — the very serious but short-of-persecution harms caused by climate change, indiscriminate violence and other drivers. It doesn’t specifically urge states to respond more humanely to displaced people who aren’t refugees.

This may seem unsurprising — more short-term politics and little long-term planning. But it is possible, if far from certain, that the statement might be more than a fig leaf. That all U.N. member states signed on to the declaration at all suggests that change could be afoot. Over the next two years, a global compact for refugees and another global compact for migrants will be developed, which might be where concrete action really happens. Moreover, the private sector is joining the conversation in significant ways. Philanthropist George Soros just earmarked a half-billion dollars for migrant needs. Perhaps states and other actors will put together a more specific and substantial response, but they need time. Even if the words were hollow, it is notable that global leaders were in the same room to talk about protecting people on the move for only the second time in history, and that they agreed that something needs to be done.

Jessica Anderson is a PhD candidate at George Washington University.