UN hails 'historic' refugee declaration but aid agencies unimpressed

A Majeed / AFP | Afghan refugees wait for their registration at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation centre on the outskirts of Peshawar on September 7, 2016.

The United Nation's issued what it called a "historic" declaration Monday in which world leaders promised to do more to help millions of the world's refugees and migrants. However, aid agencies said the move would do little to improve the situation.


in New York

As world leaders gathered in New York for the UN's annual General Assembly, the spotlight was on how the organisation would respond to the growing pressure to act over the surging number of refugees and migrants worldwide – estimated at 65.3 million according to the UN's own figures.

Monday's summit – the first UN meeting on the issue involving heads of state – resulted in what has been dubbed the "New York Declaration", a document that outlines how the UN's 193 members intend to address the refugee crisis and standardise the global community's response. However, aid agencies have rounded on the accord pointing out that it is non-binding and contains no concrete measures.

The "New York Declaration" includes includes promises to "protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status", ensure "all refugee and migrant children are receiving education within a few months of arrival" and "work towards ending the practice of detaining children".

Speaking to FRANCE 24 ahead of the meeting, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the UN acknowledged that a new approach was needed.

"We’ve worked for many years with refugees, essentially through humanitarian short term responses," he said. "They’re adequate in the short term but when refugee crises become protracted like the Syria situation or many others, that response is inadequate."

Grandi said the influx to Europe of refugees from war-torn Syria and elsewhere had created "an awareness, a conscience that things have to change, that there has to be a new way to respond – more predictable, longer term, more substantive".

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the summit, saying it "represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility" and that as a result “more children can attend school; more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home”.

Kicking the can down the road

Alongside the issue of the non-binding nature of the accord, aid agencies are also infuriated by the fact that an earlier draft of the declaration called on nations to resettle 10 percent of the world's refugee population every year was scrapped due to objections by a number of countries.

"The United Nations adopted a weak resolution today that doesn’t address the magnitude of the global refugee crisis and only kicks the can down the road," Amnesty International said in a statement. "The motivation behind calling this summit is commendable, but good intentions aren’t enough."

Speaking to the Associated Press, Philippe Bolopion, deputy director of global advocacy for Human Rights Watch, said the declaration "certainly falls short of the mark".

"We're facing an historic crisis and the response is not historic," he said.

However, Grandi told FRANCE 24 that a key facet of the document was that it will lead to further "very concrete, solid commitments by governments", with an international conference and the adoption of a global compact for refugees scheduled for 2018.

"We hope it’s the beginning of a fairly rapid but very important process," he said.

More immediate action may come on Tuesday, when attention will shift to a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly called by US President Barack Obama, where it is expected dozens of countries will make pledges to take in more refugees and increase aid spending.

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