Our world is facing an unprecedented crisis of forced displacement, with about 68.5 million people having been forced from their homes last year. With a projection of that figure exceeding 70 million displaced people by the end of this year, the level of forced displacement is higher than at any other time since the end of the Second World War. It keeps rising, year on year, as new conflicts ignite and old conflicts refuse to die, as weather patterns become more erratic and climate change threatens our environment, and as international politics becomes more fractious and durable solutions become harder to achieve.
However, there is cause for optimism: on December 17, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed on a new international framework that will transform the way the world responds to mass displacement, benefiting both refugees and the communities that host them.
In 2016, as tens of thousands of refugees risked their lives travelling to Europe in search of safety, shelter and better opportunities, UNGA agreed that protecting those forced to flee and supporting communities that shelter them are shared international responsibilities that must be borne equitably and with more guarantees. The general assembly recognised that it was no longer enough to provide refugees with basic shelter, food and lifesaving support, then to leave them in camps, often for decades, cut off from society and dependent on international humanitarian aid for survival.
Member states also agreed that, with a large majority of refugees living in countries where basic services were already strained, it was no longer an option to expect them to shoulder those responsibilities without increased support. Rather, UNGA set out a vision for a more comprehensive and sustainable response to the displacement crisis, where refugees had more access to countries where they could be safe, where they were given opportunities to become active participants within local host communities, and where they could contribute positively and help fuel the development of local economies.
After two years of extensive consultations led by the UN's refugee agency UNHCR together with member states, partner international organisations, the private sector, civil society and refugees themselves, UNGA has now agreed to a new global compact on refugees. The compact translates this vision into a set of concrete and practical measures to strengthen the shared responsibility for refugees, provide them with opportunities to be self-reliant and to lead productive lives while in exile, and to ensure more robust support and investment for host countries. Importantly, it also aims to address the environmental impact of hosting refugee populations and includes promotion of the use of alternative energy.
We are already seeing positive results. Bilateral and multilateral development actors such as the World Bank, the European Union, international development agencies – including those run by the UAE government and the Emirates Red Crescent – are giving greater priority to the development consequences of forced displacement in host countries through supporting capacity-building, education, health, livelihoods, environment and sustainable water supply projects, benefiting both refugees and host communities.
For their part, host countries are working to enhance refugee inclusion and self-reliance through changing laws and policies, guaranteeing rights and expanding access to national systems and services. Djibouti and Ethiopia recently reversed encampment policies and are granting refugees access to education, employment and national justice systems. Jordan is expanding work opportunities for refugees. Zambia now allows refugees to open bank accounts and possess mobile wallets. Uganda, Zambia, Kenya and Djibouti have included refugees in their national health systems.
And despite domestic political pressures in some areas, a number of European, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries have been developing new ways for refugees to access their countries – through family reunification, student scholarships or humanitarian visas – allowing them the chance to hope for a better future and the opportunity to achieve it. Canada has led the way in establishing private and community sponsorship programmes for refugees, which have now been taken up by other countries. The UAE’s amnesty has given thousands of persons from conflict-affected countries who overstayed their visas the chance to make their status official and seek employment.
In discussions leading to the global compact, member states and other partners reiterated their determination to work together to better understand and address the root causes of forced displacement, including through new efforts in conflict prevention and resolution, upholding international humanitarian law, promotion of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as poverty alleviation and development assistance in line with the 2030 agenda. For it is only through progress in these areas that refugees will return home. The global compact will not solve the crisis of forced displacement but it does offer a more comprehensive, more equitable and more sustainable way to manage it. It offers a better deal for refugees and the communities that host them and provides new hope and opportunity for a brighter future for all.
Toby Harward is head of the UNHCR in Abu Dhabi