UN Updates

UN High Level Meeting on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants September 18-19, 2016 by Olivia Dawson, IPA Volunteer

Reading over the past six months of IPA reports, it dawned on me that I always seem to begin with the statement that the past week at the United Nations had been the biggest or most exciting/profoundly moving one yet. And yet again, I am inclined to make the same statement, however all previous pale in comparison to the excitement of the past fortnight. Before I begin with the annual General Assembly Debate which opened this year with the High Level Meeting on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, here is a video which encapsulates the feeling and atmosphere of New York and the UN during this time, in a manner far better than I could describe in words alone. The atmosphere is electric; you can almost smell the scent of diplomacy and suit collar starch in the air. Now that you have a bit of an insight into the madness of the GA week, where half of midtown is completely blocked off, (providing a daily challenge for the millions of New Yorkers trying to get to work), and where there are more armed security personnel on the streets than civilians, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about, or whether any real outcomes are had? Regardless of one’s own feelings as to the efficacy of the UN, the fact that 193 world leaders gather in the same place to discuss international problems and solutions, shows real progress and is something humanity can be very proud of.

As the above video of last year’s GA Debate demonstrated, the 70th GA marked the launch of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. While the SDG’s were still very much the center of this year’s discussions, the focus this year was on how to deal with the largest movement of people since the end of WWII. World leaders some time ago decided a High Level Meeting was required in 2016 to discuss the 244 million people displaced and how to protect the dignity and human rights of refugees and migrants (see my earlier report on this here). This report will discuss the major events in the lead up to this meeting, otherwise referred to as the High Level Summit, as well as the day of the Summit which I was lucky enough to gain access to, and the various events that transpired as part of the Summit. To conclude, a brief analysis of the outcomes of these events as well as what can be expected moving forward in terms of the refugee and migration issue and IPA involvement.

18 September: Meeting for and by civil society on advocacy for refugees and migrants after the 19 September UN Summit

The Sunday before the big Summit, Civil Society representatives from various fields including NGO’s and academics, met to discuss the details of the Meeting, how it would be all playing out, and how best to prepare. After months of intensive negotiations, an outcome document achieved consensus on August 2, a document which would be adopted by heads of state and government leaders.  Entitled the ‘New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants’, it outlines commitments for refugees and migrants and contains two appendices; 1. Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and 2. Towards a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This compact will be developed through an intergovernmental process over the next two years. Having followed the negotiations of the text closely, sitting in the various informal meetings, the main concern of civil society was regarding the watering down of the language through the process, and whether it would actually have any real immediate impact for refugees and migrants on the ground. Many believe there is not enough urgency in the document, and that action will simply be delayed for another two years while the intergovernmental process plays out. Many of the 90 paragraphs in the outcome document may not even be considered as commitments, with language such as ‘we will consider’ and to be implemented ‘as appropriate’. The concern was raised that commitments in the past have not necessarily translated into concrete action; one needs only to look at the 1951 Refugee Convention to wonder whether this new document will indeed deliver the necessary changes. However, some NGO representatives were more optimistic, maintaining that the very fact world leaders have come together to work on this problem in the face of rampant xenophobia and anti-immigration attitudes, is commendable. To have, at the very least, a document that agrees to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants and ensuring a more equitable sharing of responsibility for hosting and supporting refugees is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

19 September: High Level Meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and Migrants

Once we made it past the numerous security checkpoints (with so many world leaders in the one spot, security was understandably tight), we headed straight to the Opening Ceremony, at which the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke of the importance of respecting the safety and dignity of all, and not giving into fear and the often toxic rhetoric surrounding immigration. A major highlight of the opening ceremony was the powerful speech made by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, one met by thunderous applause from the gallery;

“The bitter truth is this Summit was called because we have been largely failing… Failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation. We can change this, but not when defenders of what is right and good are being outflanked, in many countries, by race-baiting bigots. To the deceivers in this room today, we will continue to name you publicly. You may soon walk away from this hall, but not from the broader judgement of ‘we the people,’ all the world’s people – not from us.”

This statement resonated with many, made even more powerful by the ensuing speech made by UNODC Goodwill Ambassador and human trafficking survivor Nadia Murad. Her vehement and emotional pleas to world leaders would not be forgotten easily, ‘ you decide whether it is to be war or peace…hope or suffering….the world has only one border, it is called humanity’. This really brought home the significance of the Summit and the scope of what it hoped to achieve; for many, these policies are the difference between life and death. And when it sometimes seems that inaction is the only thing the international community can agree on, the voices of those directly impacted ring the loudest and truest.

The role that Faith Based Organizations (FBO’s) have to play in the migration issue took prominence in a Side Event entitled The Role of Religious Organizations in Responding to Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. Secretary of state to His Holiness, Cardinal Parolin, and International Catholic Migration Charities (ICMC) were some of the speakers at the event, which outlined the huge role FBO’s currently play in the migration and refugee process. Some ⅓ of the 70 000 refugees in the United States are resettled by Catholic Charity Agencies, an astonishing figure. Omar Al-Musqdad, a journalist and Syrian refugee who was helped to settle in America by ICMC provided testament to the amazing work of FBO’s and their unique advantage in humanitarian situations. They often enjoy the trust of the local communities where they are embedded, are often the first to respond and the last to leave. He joined the others speakers in calling for better access to and support from UN Agencies and UN funds in continuing their vital work.

Due to high demand and limited seating for the Summit, each NGO representative was permitted to attend one roundtable session (of which there were six), three running concurrently in the morning and three in the afternoon. I was fortunate to attend my first preference entitled, Roundtable 5: Global Compact for safe, regular and orderly migration: towards realizing the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the full respect for the human rights of migrants. A lengthy title (but what else is new at the UN), for a broad discussion on how best to protect the rights of migrants, who tend to live and work in the shadows, afraid to complain and vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation. Chaired by the President of Mexico, countries including Panama and the Philippines outlined their successes and challenges in protecting migrant rights. When states fail to govern effectively, this creates a vacuum that is filled by actors including smugglers, traffickers and organized crime. The speaker for the EU noted that without global governance institutions and legal frameworks to guide international cooperation, most countries resort to unilateral management; what we need is constructive cooperation, not destructive unilateralism. And the stakes are high; this year alone, more than 4300 migrants have died trying to reach their destinations, 3200 in the Mediterranean alone. The representative stated that while it took a while, Europe is finally starting to take responsibility and their vessels have contributed to the saving of more than 400 000.

In looking back over the past months, the lead up and preparations for the Summit, the drafting of the outcome document and its adoption by member states, I truly hope that what has transpired in NYC will have a real and lasting impact on the lives of people in transit all over the world, both voluntarily and involuntarily, and that it enables their human rights to be protected at every stage of the process. As the speaker for ICMC Gregory Maniatis stated, migration tests both our privileges and our generosities, a statement that perfectly encapsulates the migration issue. Most of the burden for hosting is upon the less developed nations, with many wealthier countries preferring their commitments on paper than in policy. Yet we must remember that mobility is a natural part of human existence- migration is not a crime, not a problem in and of itself. If regulated in a safe and responsible manner, one that ensures the dignity of the person and human rights are upheld, migration has positive benefits for all countries involved. And after following this process, with lengthy discussions and debates on language, diplomacy, compromise and politics, it is helpful to remind ourselves that at the very heart of this issue is one simple concept. Compassion. Putting aside the politics, if we have compassion and recognize that freedom is a lottery and your life is not more precious or important than anyone else’s, then we stand a chance. The six year old boy who wrote to president Obama (watch the video here) seems to have grasped the heart of this issue better than most. Our humanity binds us- I hope that when it comes to implementing this new document for refugees and migrants, our policy makers may see the world through this child’s eyes and realize how simple the concept of compassion truly is. 


Photo below taken from the Balcony of the General Assembly at the Opening Ceremony of the High Level Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants




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