By, Reshad Jalali, Senior Policy Officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)

In 2016, the United Nations’ (UN) member states convened in New York and collectively recognised that addressing refugee issues should be a shared responsibility among all states. This was mainly triggered by the political crisis that ensued in Europe following the increase in the number of refugees in 2015, mostly Syrians fleeing the war. They issued the “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants“, and building upon this, the UN developed the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), taking 18 months of extensive consultations involving Member States, Civil Society Organisations, refugees and other experts. While not legally binding, the GCR aims to enhance and improve the international response to large-scale displacement in a more equitable and predictable manner.

In December 2018, the GCR was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in New York. Among the two countries voting against the GCR, one was a European Union (EU) Member State (Hungary), while the other was the United States.

To maintain the momentum and facilitate GCR implementation, the Compact introduced the Global Refugee Forum (GRF), scheduled to take place every four years. The first GRF was held in December 2019. The Forum resulted in over 1,600 pledges, including policy changes, financial contributions to host countries, integration efforts for refugees within societies, and enhanced access to third-country solutions. During the GRF 2019, the EU announced several commitments to strengthen its support for refugees and host communities. The next GRF is taking place in Geneva from 13 to 15 December 2023.

Five years following the adoption of the GCR and four years after the first GRF in 2019, the objectives set by the GCR are not met.

One of the core objectives of the GCR is the need for a more equitable sharing of responsibilities among countries, particularly with the large refugee-hosting countries. It also encourages states, among others, to keep their borders open to people in need of protection as a way of easing pressure on countries faced with a large number of refugee arrivals.

The majority of the world’s displaced people reside in developing countries and often in protracted situations and without adequate support from developed countries, which illustrates an imbalance in sharing responsibility for protecting refugees. At a time when the global number of displaced individuals surpassed 200 million in 2022, many due to violence, conflicts, persecution, climate change, etc. and the situations of refugees become protracted (23.3 million refugees in 2022, 7.1 million more than the previous year), the need for greater solidarity and responsibility sharing has never been acute and more urgent than ever. Europe must play an active role in improving refugee protection in countries hosting large numbers of refugees without shifting its responsibilities to other countries and undermining the right to seek asylum on its territories.

Countries from the global south criticise the inadequate achievement of the GCR’s objectives, particularly regarding more equitable responsibility sharing.

Many of these refugee-hosting countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Jordan, Uganda and others, expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of responsibility-sharing and perceived a failure by countries in the global north to fulfil their commitments and pledges announced during the first GRF in 2019. These countries are urging UNHCR to follow up on the pledges made in the first GRF and ensure their implementation by MS.

Application of GCR standards mainly or only outside Europe?

In the meanwhile, the EU’s view on the GCR highlights the double standards. While the EU is very keen on the implementation of the GCR outside Europe, it is reluctant about its implementation in Europe. In reality, the EU utilises the GCR as a tool to shift responsibilities for refugees outside Europe rather than actively participating in shared responsibility with refugee-hosting countries. Paradoxically, the EU and its MS are increasingly changing their asylum policies to avoid most of the obligations that come with the admission of people in need of international protection. This is evident in the way that the Pact on Migration and Asylum has been developed and negotiated over the years with the main objective of preventing people in search of protection from coming to Europe. In addition, the prevalent practice of increased pushbacks, containment at the borders and shifting responsibilities to third countries by reaching un-transparent deals and agreements with countries in transit and countries of origin of asylum seekers like the recent deal reached between the EU and Tunisia, contradicts and undermines the spirit of the GCR.

In fact, the GCR was hardly referenced in the development of the Pact proposals; the EU’s MS have huge disparities among themselves on the issue of solidarity and responsibility sharing, let alone showing solidarity with large refugee-hosting countries outside Europe. In place of attempting to prevent people in need of international protection towards coming to Europe, the EU should focus on tackling the root causes of migration, supporting long-term solutions and taking on its fair role in sharing global responsibilities.

Are the GCR and the GRF appropriate tools to improve responsibility sharing at the international level?

The GCR bears some responsibility for its inability to establish effective measures and obligations for Member States to adequately share responsibilities with countries hosting a large number of refugees. Rather than imposing strict guidelines, it granted countries the discretion to demonstrate solidarity in their own ways. Countries’ contribution to the GCR is limited to the pledges they announce in the GRF and based on a self-reporting mechanism, making it challenging to monitor the implementation and progress of those pledges.

In the first GRF, the EU made a series of commitments on a range of topics, such as policy improvements, among others. According to the GCR dashboard, as of December 2022, the EU has reported that all of its pledges have been fulfilled. However, assessing the progress and outcomes of these commitments poses a significant challenge due to the report’s lack of specificity and its limited provision of concrete information. Instead of offering a detailed update, the EU’s report contains a general update, which hampers the ability to measure the extent of progress achieved accurately. For instance, the EU, in reporting on the progress of their pledge on responsibility sharing arrangements, gives an example of financial support under the EU-Turkey deal, which was established in 2016 prior to the GCR and GRF and, importantly, offers financial assistance to third countries already hosting a large number of refugees as a means of deterring departures goes against the principle of global responsibility sharing.

Easing pressure on large refugee-hosting countries yes but no migration control

While it is magnificent that the EU has increased its financial support to non-European countries on asylum and migration-related issues rising from 52 billion during the 2014 -2020 Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) to over 79 billion in the 2021- 2027 MFF, there are concerns regarding the allocations of these funds. In some instances, The EU’s funding priorities have shifted away from alignment with the host countries’ needs and priorities. Moreover, the current NDICI funding instrument has introduced a 10% earmark funding specifically on migration and forced displacement coupled with the conditionality of funding in exchange for cooperation on migration, which is counterproductive and unhelpful. Instead of improving the situation of refugees in host countries and addressing the root causes of displacement, they are spent on migration management and border controls.

Limited progress on resettlement and complementary pathways

Expanding access to third-country solutions via resettlement and complementary pathways is one of the four objectives of the GCR. During the first GRF in 2019, ‘Solutions’ was one of the eight areas of focus, urging governments and other stakeholders to pledge commitment to resettlement and other complementary pathways. Yet, access to third-country solutions received the lowest number of pledges, only 6% of total pledges. In Europe, access to third-country solutions remains very limited, with people in need of international protection often taking risky journeys to reach Europe. Despite the EU and its Member States making ambitious promises at the GRF 2019 to significantly increase access to third-country solutions, little effort has been made to fulfil those commitments. In fact, the EU’s pledge of 29,500 resettlement places for the year 2020, announced at the Forum, was carried over for two years due in part to the travel restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic.

Aimed at enhancing the availability of third-country solutions for refugees, UNHCR developed the ‘Three-year Strategy (2019-2021) on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways’ under the GCR. Its objective is to increase the number of resettlement admissions to one million and the number of complementary pathways admissions to two million by 2028, as well as expand the number of resettling countries. However, the UNHCR’s report on the ‘Three-year strategy’ in 2022 revealed that these objectives were not achieved yet. Instead, there has been a decline in the availability of third-country solutions, and the number of countries involved in resettlement decreased (from 34 countries in 2017 to 23 countries in 2021).

Specifically, the number of EU MS taking part in the resettlement scheme decreased from 19 MS in 2017 to 11 MS in 2022. More importantly, the UNHCR’s quota recommendations to the EU to resettle a specific amount have never been materialised by the EU’s MS, and this is despite the availability of funding by the European Commission to support its MS resettlement programmes. In October 2022, 16 European countries committed to resettling 15897 people in 2023, where 60% of these pledges were only from two countries, namely Germany and France.

Furthermore, access to other complementary pathways for people in search of regular pathways for protection remains limited, and many MS lack established safe pathways like humanitarian admissions. The evacuation of at-risk individuals in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover highlighted the absence of structured humanitarian admission schemes in Europe, with most MS’ evacuation efforts remaining limited until August 2021.

Despite its shortcomings, the GRF in December 2023 is an opportunity:

  • for asylum in Europe

First and foremost, the EU’s assistance to large refugee hosting countries should not serve as a means to shift or outsource the responsibility from Europe to third countries. Instead, the EU should pledge to strengthen legal frameworks that protect the rights of refugees and ensure their access to a fair and functioning asylum procedure in Europe through compliance with international and EU human rights laws and standards.

  • for resettlement

In order to align with the objectives set forth by the GCR and in light of the unprecedented scale of individuals requiring resettlement, the forthcoming GRF presents a significant opportunity for the EU to re-establish its leadership role in this area. It is vital for the EU to seize this moment and demonstrate its commitment by pledging ambitious quotas in line with the recommendations put forth by the UNHCR. Specifically, the EU should consider pledging a minimum of 44,000 resettlement places in 2024 and 48,000 places in 2025, in addition to the 42.500 places requested for Afghan refugees over the course of the next five years.

  • for championing inclusion of refugee advocates in decision making

When developing and designing pledges for the GRF, the EU should consult CSOs including refugee-led organisations and include their views and recommendations. The EU should also involve refugees in the designing stages of its pledges and include refugee experts in their delegation to the GRF 2023 to represent a diverse Europe and ensure meaningful refugee participation.

  • for providing sustainable support to countries hosting large numbers of refugees

The EU should continue supporting countries hosting large number of refugees by considering their priorities and needs. This support should focus on improving the living conditions, access to education and healthcare, and livelihood opportunities in host communities rather than migration management objectives.

  • for improving accountability and inclusivity for pledges

The EU should make pledges and commitments that are qualitative, measurable and time-bound. The EU should support initiatives and activities proposed by host countries, CSOs and refugee communities through matching and mega-pledging exercises. UNHCR should facilitate meaningful dialogue to ensure that the upcoming GRF should serve as a genuine platform for realising global responsibility sharing of the world’s refugees among states.