Can Obama and world leaders’ refugee pledge change global resettlement policy?
US President Barack Obama recently described the process of screening refugees by religion as "shameful". (AFP/File)
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As the United Nations General Assembly on Refugees and Migrants fast approaches, many commentators have expressed alarm over the considerable recession of international ambitions in the field of resettlement policy, especially since the initial "global compact on responsibility-sharing" was announced earlier this year. In particular, the U.N.'s ambitious proposal to resettle 10 percent of the world's refugees annually has been rejected by most of the leading host regions and countries, including the European Union and the United States. A watered-down version of the draft declaration now merely proposes that discussions be initiated early next year, with hopes of adopting an agreement at a new summit in 2018.
Many observers would say that such a postponement is too costly, given the current rates of arrivals and the number of asylum applicants already in Europe and elsewhere.
Annex One of the draft declaration for the forthcoming UNGA summit makes several references to the need to increase the scope of resettlement measures. It recommends a number of concrete actions, from facilitating the private sector's engagement to expanding the criteria for resettlement. Even more important, it encourages states that have not yet established resettlement programs to do so "at the earliest opportunity," while encouraging those that already implement resettlement measures to increase the size of their programs. At a general level, it calls upon states to facilitate resettlement places and other legal pathways on a scale that could help UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency] meet its set goals.
But the likelihood of the U.N. summit generating any measurable commitments in the field of resettlement is particularly slim.
Responsibility-sharing is a politically sensitive notion that has never been fully endorsed by states, at least in practice. The current trends in major host and destination countries in the E.U. and the U.S. speak for themselves. To date, only slightly over 3,000 people have been relocated within the E.U. under a Relocation Plan that is vested with a legal mandate to relocate 160,000 refugees from one E.U. country to another. About 8,268 people have been resettled under an E.U. program agreed in July 2015 that foresaw the resettlement of 22,504 people within two years.
Does this signal an end to any far-reaching global resettlement policy ambitions? Not quite yet.
The Leaders' Summit on Refugees that President Barack Obama will convene on September 20 on the margins of the General Assembly may still offer cause for optimism. At the so-called "Obama's Pledging Summit," the U.S. will ask member states to formally pledge the number of refugees they are willing to accept, as well as other forms of support they are willing to provide. In particular, the Obama summit will seek: to achieve a 30 percent increase in financing, especially to cover the work of international humanitarian organizations; to double the global number of resettled refugees while affording alternative legal channels of admission; and to increase the number of refugees worldwide in school by one million, and the number of refugees with the legal right to work, also by one million. Whether this can be achieved within the framework of the summit remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that even partial success at President Obama's summit would be a significant step forward in the field of global refugee policy.
Another noteworthy aspect of the leaders' summit is the call on the private sector "to make new, measurable and significant commitments that will have a durable impact on refugees residing in countries on the front lines of the global refugee crisis and in countries of resettlement."
The "Partnership for Refugees," as this initiative has been termed, in which more than 20 global companies such as Accenture, Airbnb, Goldman Sachs, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and J.P.Morgan are participating, has set out to implement an ambitious plan to generate new commitments in the areas of education, employment and overall "enablement."
In particular, the proposal to increase employment opportunities for refugees, support entrepreneurship and assist refugees' re-entry into the workforce must be commended. As an increasing number of policy commentators have pointed out, global resettlement policy cannot reach full momentum in the absence of both private-sector involvement and the inclusion of "employability" as an additional selection criterion.
Although neither the U.N. nor President Obama's Summit makes any explicit reference to this, involving the private sector also means opening up global resettlement policy to private sponsorship. A case in point is the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program that Canada has been implementing for almost 40 years, which relies on community and business organizations and smaller citizen-led groups taking responsibility for the refugees entering the country. Under this program, between 5,000 and 20,000 refugees are privately sponsored each year – that is, of course, additional to the number of refugees resettled by the Canadian government.
A number of other states are now considering such schemes. For example, in July the United Kingdom announced that it was launching its own community sponsorship for refugees, which will enable community bodies including charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to take on the role of supporting resettled refugees in the U.K.
In the U.S., on August 11, 22 Maryland state lawmakers urged Secretary of State John Kerry to launch a privately funded refugee program that would allow the American people to contribute toward increasing refugee resettlement. According to the lawmakers' statement, "American citizens, charities, foundations, faith groups, universities, and businesses should have the right to contribute toward increased refugee resettlement. When it's a life-or-death situation for a refugee family, not utilizing private resettlement will result in thousands of refugees losing their lives."
While "employability" is not an explicit criterion in any of the existing state-led or private resettlement schemes, introducing it would make the very concept of resettlement more attractive to the host states – in particular by enabling employers to fill their labor shortages by tapping into selected segments of the refugee population. Despite the instinctive opposition to such proposals by a number of NGOs, such a scheme need not imply an erosion of the primarily humanitarian nature of refugee resettlement. As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently stressed, displaced persons and refugees have the potential to create or fill jobs and strengthen local markets, and therefore should be offered productive and taxable economic opportunities.
Despite the predictable lowering of ambitions and expectations as the two summits approach, the New York gatherings need not be another "missed opportunity" as some NGOs and commentators have forecast. Even in their revised versions, all of the key summit documents are an advancement in the global refugee policy debate. Regardless of the level of commitments and pledges that will materialize at the Obama Summit, the bar will be raised only from the currently indecisive and largely uncoordinated international community response to the global refugee crisis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply or Al Bawaba News.
By Solon Ardittis
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