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Global vows to millions of migrants and refugees still largely unfulfilled

The latest figures show the vast majority of the world's 8 billion inhabitants prefer to stay within their nation of birth. But almost 1-in-20 are on the move away from their home.

The U.N. approved two global treaties in Dec. 2018 intended to help refugees and migrants.
The U.N. approved two global treaties in Dec. 2018 intended to help refugees and migrants. (AN/Julie Ricard/Unsplash)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) – In the four years since the U.N. General Assembly approved back-to-back treaties to ensure the humane movement of people, just 46% of the U.N.'s 193 member nations pledged more help for migrants and only 15% of the promises to refugees have been fulfilled.

That’s according to the United Nations’ latest dashboards with figures on the status of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees, both of which were overwhelmingly approved by the assembly during two separate votes in December 2018.

Neither of the treaties are legally binding, but together they establish important principles that people on the move deserve to receive more dignity and support.

The latest figures show the vast majority of the world's 8 billion inhabitants prefer to stay within their nation of birth. But almost 1-in-20 are on the move away from their home.

Only 89 nations pledged more support in line with the new global compact for migrants, and 30% of those offered financial or material aid. Slightly more than half promised policy or legal measures; the rest are processes and principles, according to the U.N. Network on Migration's database.

Governments and organizations fulfilled 255 of their 1,681 pledges of financial, material or policy aid for refugees, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' database. Another 672 are in progress; 58 are planned. But for 41%, UNHCR says nothing is reported.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized at a press conference that greater international efforts are needed so "the dramatic human rights situation that migrants suffer in the hands of smugglers and traffickers ends."

Guterres, a former head of UNHCR and ex-prime minister of Portugal, also told a forum on the migration compact that the COVID-19 pandemic "has painfully demonstrated how far we still are from realizing rights-based, child-sensitive, and gender-responsive governance of international migration for all."

António Vitorino, director general of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, recalled the urgency that nations expressed four years when they committed to reduce suffering and death during dangerous migration journeys when they approved the new global compact.

"While progress has been made to strengthen cooperation and realize the power of migration, more than 20,000 persons have lost their lives while migrating since the adoption of the Global Compact," he said on International Migrants Day. "Thousands more are missing. We are failing in one of our most fundamental tasks to protect those most vulnerable."

Pandemic-influenced global movement of people

Migrants, including refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are all people facing challenges away from their home region or country. And with their lives disrupted, it's hard for all of them to get their basic needs met.

Migrants usually leave to find a better future elsewhere. Refugees, who are all initially asylum seekers seeking international protection, flee across a border to find safety. But not every asylum seeker gains recognition as a refugee. IDPs are on the run at home.

Along with the lagging progress in alleviating hardships and trauma suffered by millions of people worldwide, particularly those who are stateless or need protection, education or jobs, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered mobility globally, adding complexity and anxiety.

Around 3.6% of the world's population, or 281 million people, are international migrants, IOM's annual report shows. That's up 45% from 153 million people three decades ago. About 48% are women and girls; 15% are younger than 20.

The number would have risen to 283 million, IOM estimates, if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't greatly reduced international mobility.

Another 1.2%, or 103 million people, are forcibly displaced worldwide, UNHCR reports. Among those, 53.2 million are IDPs; 32.5 million are refugees; and 4.9 million are asylum seekers. The other 5.3 million need international protection.

Filippo Grandi, head of UNHCR, told the U.N. Security Council that Russia's invasion of Ukraine drove the fastest, largest displacement seen in decades with 14 million people forced from their homes since Feb. 24. The focus on Ukraine also has been straining global efforts to help others in places such as Afghanistan, Congo, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria, he said.

“In the past 12 months alone, UNHCR has responded to 37 emergencies around the world," Grandi said. "Yet, the other crises are failing to capture the same international attention, outrage, resources and action."

Almost 1-in-20 in the world are on the move away from their home.
Almost 1-in-20 in the world are on the move away from their home. (AN/Andrew Schultz/Unsplash

Two new global compacts win approval

The General Assembly approved a new global treaty on Dec. 17, 2018, that spreads responsibility for those helping refugees flee from war and persecution. The Global Compact on Refugees passed by a vote of 181-2, with the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya abstaining. Only the United States and Hungary were opposed.

The new treaty, adopted after two years of negotiations, does not create new legal obligations or change UNHCR's mandate. Instead, it was intended to address the severe stresses that unequal burden-sharing puts on some nations.

For years the world's developing countries have complained they shoulder the brunt of the global refugee crisis when their conflict-ridden neighbors come apart at the seams. Lebanon, for example, has been pushed to the brink taking in Syrian refugees.

In response, the General Assembly approved the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first U.N. migration pact worldwide, on Dec. 19, 2018.

Nations approved the pact on a vote of 152-5, with 12 nations abstaining. Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and the United States voted against it. Another 24 nations were not present for the vote.

It also won approval after two years of hard-fought negotiations and opposition from the United States and a few other nations. As a soft-law instrument, the treaty is non-binding and sets up a voluntary system of global governance for migration.

It establishes that migrants have rights – and the most vulnerable need protections – but it lacks the legal teeth to enforce those rights and protections.

This is a deserted refugee camp in Calais, France. This remained.
(AN/Radek Homola/Unsplash)

Progress reviews urge more ambition

Despite the former Trump administration's opposition to the refugee compact, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration announced a public-private partnership earlier this month between the U.S. State Department and Tent Partnership for Refugees to create jobs for refugees and people forcibly displaced worldwide.

Tent, founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, is a business coalition involving more than than 300 multinationals that committed to supporting refugees through hiring, training, and mentorship. "This will help many more refugees find work and thrive in their new communities, said Gideon Maltz, Tent's executive director.

Yet the refugees compact has made limited progress, as evidenced by the 15% fulfillment of 1,681 pledges by governments and organizations to do more.

One big problem is the lack of standardized data for policymakers to figure out a better system for international burden-sharing. A new report from UNHCR this month "calls for improving data and evidence in support of solutions for refugees."

At a nearly week-long review of the migration compact in May, the pandemic and climate change weighed heavily on the halting progress seen in the past four years.

The General Assembly's final "declaration" finds not enough is being done to help migrant children and to counter racism, xenophobia and intolerance, or to fight the organized crime networks for trafficking and smuggling migrant workers.

“We are concerned that progress achieved in facilitating and harnessing the benefits of safe, orderly and regular migration is slow and uneven in many areas," the assembly says, "and that the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped many aspects of international migration and negatively impacted progress, and created new, and exacerbated existing situations of vulnerability for migrants."

Some progress was seen in labor agreements, inspections and simplified administrative procedures for migrant workers, it says, but "the availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration remains limited in many cases."

The Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, which represents 200 million workers in 168 countries and territories, says too few governmenets adhere to the standards set by the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

Rather than focus on "regularization, humanitarian resettlement and sustainable development" policies over the long-term, too many governments turn to "circular migration programs" for seasonal workers, according to Mamadou Diallo, ITUC's deputy general secretary.

The upshot, advocacy groups say, is that governments aren't showing enough commitment to the aims of the migration compact.

"Some governments made final statements clarifying and limiting their endorsement, which is very worrisome,” said Stéphane Jaquemet, CEO of the International Catholic Migration Commission in Geneva. "Indirectly, they’re saying, 'We’ve signed it, but we don’t feel obliged to implement it fully.' "

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