New plans to help people on the move

Two new global agreements will try, largely in vain, to bring order to flows of refugees and migrants


In 2016, as refugees flocked to Europe, and the public became anxious about high levels of economic migration, governments agreed to act. At a summit in New York, 193 countries promised to produce plans to make global movements of people “safe, regular and orderly”. It was an admirable ambition. It was also, said some, a handy way to kick an awkward issue into the long grass.

An international convention, from 1951, is supposed to protect refugees who flee persecution. But no global agreement exists for guiding much bigger flows of economic migrants. Although sceptics scoffed that the New York declaration amounted to empty words, world leaders gave a specific promise: at a follow-up summit, in September 2018, they would sign two global agreements, “compacts” in diplomatic jargon, defining how countries will manage flows of refugees and migrants, respectively.

More refugees and migrants are on the move. Around the world, over 65m people (equivalent to the population of Britain) are forcibly displaced. That includes 22.5m who qualify more narrowly as refugees, compared with 16m in 2007. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran each host over 1m refugees. But international reaction depends mostly on events in richer countries, notably the numbers of people seeking asylum. In 2012 there were 943,000 registered asylum-seekers globally; the number rose to 3.2m in 2015, before dipping to 2.8m in 2016.

Those who are forcibly displaced are at least, usually, counted. Estimating the size of international migration is trickier because much of it is informal. The UN reckons that 250m people—roughly equal to the population of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous country—are migrants. The inflow of migrants to rich countries has risen in the past couple of years, surpassing a previous peak of a decade ago. The OECD, a think-tank, says 5m people migrated permanently to rich countries in 2016, with an average annual rise in recent years of 7%.

What are the chances of progress thanks to the new agreements? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversees the refugees compact. Its priority is defending the 1951 convention, which obliges countries to accept asylum-seekers with a well-founded fear of persecution. It faces a tough task. America, under President Donald Trump, will be hostile, especially to those arriving from Muslim-majority countries. America will also shrink the world’s biggest programme for resettling refugees (who apply via the UN), from 110,000 places to 45,000 each year.

Australia diverts asylum-seekers who come by sea to camps in poorer third countries, in effect paying Papua New Guinea and others to assume its refugee duties. That is a model European countries also want to adopt. Despite much pious talk of respecting the refugees convention, they will pay Turkey, Libya or Sudan to divert the flow of displaced people who seek to cross the Mediterranean. In compensation, European politicians will talk more in the coming year of taking bigger quotas of refugees for organised resettlement, via the UN. Those efforts are unlikely to get far. Many European Union member states, especially in eastern Europe, object to taking in anyone.

So frustrated poorer countries, which hosts 84% of the world’s refugees, will emulate their rich counterparts. Late in 2017 India, for example, seeing desperate Rohingya people flee persecution in Myanmar, talked of expelling such refugees from its territory. (Bangladesh is more welcoming.) “The issue of responsibility-sharing—who will host the refugees—has come to a head, but I don’t believe the global compact will solve anything,” says Jeff Crisp, formerly of UNHCR. An early challenge might come from Venezuela. Should tens of thousands of people flee chaos or violence following economic collapse, international mettle will be tested.

The refugees compact will at least highlight ways countries can best help those who take flight. Ideas include getting refugees out of temporary camps and placing them among local residents. There will also be a renewed focus on giving more help to such hosts, not only to the refugees. An increased emphasis on economic development and job creation will mean a growing role for agencies such as the World Bank. Such ideas are not new; they are already being tested with 5m displaced Syrians in the Middle East, for example. But the compact would offer a global seal of approval.

Prospects for the second compact, on migration, are murkier still. A consultation process is led by Switzerland and Mexico, plus the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency. Experts’ meetings in 2017 addressed many aspects of migration, from people-smuggling to remittances. Formal talks begin in Guadalajara, in Mexico, in December 2017. A final text is to be signed at a triumphant ceremony in September in New York.

The problem is that countries have profoundly different interests. Migrating workers help poorer countries, which gain from remittances and skills transfers. Although rich ones also get some benefits, many voters are hostile to influxes of foreign workers. Anyone hoping that the compact might create more legal, formal routes for migration will be disappointed, thinks Jorgen Carling, a migration expert at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Lowest common denominator

Rich and poor countries will instead have to find narrower areas of shared interest, such as condemning people-smuggling networks or setting out basic rights for migrants. The compact could offer a global framework of good practice in migration policy—while leaving it to individual countries or regions to decide which bits, if any, to implement. Both the EU and west Africa, for example, will continue to allow internal freedom of movement for workers. But the compact will say little on how to manage migration between such regions.

Critics will grumble that the compacts offer no big gains, because no government will cede meaningful control over management of its borders. Mr Carling responds that just getting governments to talk regularly, and at a high level, about the needs of displaced people counts as a form of progress.

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