UN refugee chief seeks renewed focus on the millions who leave their homes

Despite global compacts, the problems of migration and refugees continue to grow

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Italian Filippo Grandi speaks to The Associated Press during an interview at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
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A year after promoting two landmark global compacts on refugees and migration, the UN high commissioner for refugees faces the serious challenge of grabbing back the world's attention at the 2019 UN General Assembly.

As Filippo Grandi prepares to address the Concordia Forum in Manhattan on Monday, the audience will be keen for an update on the initiatives launched at last year's gathering of world leaders.

Mr Grandi will be sharing the stage with the US head of Save the Children just months after his organisation offered some grim statistics on the prevalence of the youngest among the world’s displaced population.

The UNHCR said in June that the number of people displaced had risen by 2.3 million in 2018 to 70.8 million – equivalent to 37,000 a day – and that half of these were children.

Mr Grandi blamed the spread of conflict for the high proportion of children. “What we are seeing in these figures is further confirmation of a longer-term rising trend in the number of people needing safety from war, conflict and persecution,” he said.

Of the total, there were 3.5 million people waiting for asylum at the end of last year. Fewer than 100,000 had been resettled during the year.

The preponderance of children in the figures demonstrated the urgency of doing more to help those forced from their homes. The gap between the overall figure of nearly 71 million and the 3.5 million classed as refugees has led the UN to adopt a dual focus: on refugees and on the wider situation of migration.

Migration does not have the priority on the General Assembly agenda that it held in 2018. Last year the delegates were broadly happy to endorse the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration as well as the separate Global Compact on Refugees.

Yet Mr Grandi also stresses that there are opportunities that must be unlocked in the situation. His view is that refugees need not only to survive their plight but find opportunities to thrive.

Speaking to The National in January following the adoption of the compact on migration, Mr Grandi said it was vital to change perspective at time when people were spending an average of 26 years in refugee camps.

"The global refugee compact is the first ever attempt that we have made to redefine the responses to the refugee crisis by enlisting or including the support of many other actors," he said. "The refugee responses until now have been seen as humanitarian action, which of course it is but it is not only that, because refugees on the move create development needs. The most typical example is education but it includes employment and livelihoods and other needs.”

Much of this year has been taken up dealing with the most pressing crisis regions for migration. This has included the United States after Washington was embroiled in a row with the UNHCR over the conditions imposed on children crossing the border with Mexico.

It was one of three UN organisations that last week invoked the compact on migration to remind countries under pressure over child detention practices. The bodies highlighted the requirement to “protect and respect the rights and best interests of the child at all times, regardless of migration status” in the agreement, which the US stood alone in refusing to sign in Morocco late last year.

“Detention of children based on their migratory status is thus never in their best interests,” the UN Network on Migration said. “Community-based programmes, case management and other human rights-based alternatives have proven highly effective and all governments should work to replace immigration detention for children and families with appropriate reception and care arrangements.”

The other great topic facing Mr Grandi that is delicately poised as the UN meets is the situation of migrants in conflict torn Libya. The UNHCR chief tweeted last week that he welcomed a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Guiseppe Conte, the prime minister of Italy. An overhaul of the Italian government saw the departure of the nationalist deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini. Mr Salvini defied international pressure and refused to allow migrants rescued at sea to land in Italy.

“At this critical time where people are being caught in the escalating conflict inside Libya and many endure appalling conditions in detention, refugees and asylum-seekers need hope and concrete solutions,” Mr Grandi said in a statement condemning the policy.

Paris and Rome are now committed to healing the rift. Meetings in New York could prove critical in providing new mechanisms to resolve the crisis.