Much Ado about Summits: What do the recent refugee summits actually mean for refugees?

2016 will go down as an historic year in global humanitarian affairs. One in which not one, but three major summits were held in response to displacement levels not seen since the Second World War and the feeling that humanitarian need around the world is outstripping the international community’s attempts to respond.

The latter two of these summits — the United Nations (UN) Summit for Refugees and Migrants and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees — were held last week in New York around the opening of the UN General Assembly. As the dust settles after a week of speeches, photo ops and side events, the question remains — what do these Summits mean for refugees and the communities and countries that host them?

Responsibility Sharing

The frame of both Summits was the correct one — one of collective responsibility by all countries to help those fleeing conflict and disasters regardless of their geographic proximity to a given crisis. There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide and hosting them has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of a few “frontline” states which are by and large poor. A full 80% of refugees end up in developing countries, ones which struggle themselves to provide for their own citizens. Only 9% end up in the six wealthiest countries in the world, ones that have much better footing to provide for and integrate refugees into their own societies.

The UN Summit produced the New York Declaration, which outlines a vision for a better global response to the needs of refugees and their host communities and countries. It explicitly states:

“we commit to a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees.”

It should not be lost that 193 UN member states adopted this Declaration, no small feat given the toxic political climate that has gripped many countries — including in Europe and the United States — fueling a backlash against migrants and refugees. While the importance of this statement of intent should not be underestimated, there is no formula prescribed in the Declaration on how responsibility for the global public good of hosting refugees should be more equally shared. There are no clear targets set, leaving this commitment open to interpretation by each country and accountability elusive.

President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit the following day did make clear what responsibility states have for refugees by setting specific goals in core responsibility sharing areas. These included increasing humanitarian aid by 30%, doubling the number of resettlement places around the world for refugees and increasing refugee self-reliance through education and work opportunities (both by one million each) in refugee-hosting countries. By adopting a “pay to play” model, one in which states were not invited to attend the Summit if they did not produce solid commitments in these categories, the President was able to extract tangible responsibility sharing steps from key countries. This was a significant move by President Obama at his final UN General Assembly, however the true impact of the effort the US and Summit co-chairs made will be in the delivery of those commitments. It behooves the current US administration to put a great deal of effort into ensuring this happens in its remaining months and to pass the baton to the incoming one to ensure follow through.

More than Humanitarian Response

It’s common in the face of major humanitarian crisis to call pledging conferences and to see donor countries announce big contributions. After all, providing assistance to refugees is one of the most critical ways non-hosting countries can help. However, the duration of recent refugee crises — which more often than not last for decades, not years — has forced the question “is humanitarian assistance the best tool the international community can use to respond?”

Traditional humanitarian assistance is still necessary, especially at the outset of a refugee crisis, but the approach must then shift toward one that supports not only refugees, but the communities and countries that host them. This means helping strengthen national service systems — like those for education and health — so that refuges can use them without host communities feeling the pinch. This requires working more with governments and communities to integrate refugees into their economic plans and for international donors to provide more comprehensive support, rather than simply targeting refugees for assistance over short time frames.

This is where development actors and international financial institutions — which have not normally been involved in refugee response — are critical. One of the least heralded announcements at the Summits last week was that the World Bank would be providing concessional loans to middle-income countries hosting refugees. Many of these countries struggle to find the financing needed to buttress their systems as they weather the impact; this Global Concessional Financing Facility will help fill that void. Only by identifying gaps in the current ability to host and provide for refugees — particularly over the long-term — can the international community break past a status quo that has underserved not only refugees, but those on the frontlines who open their doors to them.

Where to from here?

One solid conclusion of the New York Declaration was the call for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to develop a Refugee Compact for consideration by the General Assembly in 2018. This should be built on the experience of moving beyond refugee assistance “as usual” to one that involves development actors, financial institutions, the private sector — and above all the communities and countries that host refugees.

The next year — 2017 — will be a real test as UNHCR attempts to convene this broader set of actors to respond to several refugee situations. Will those actors step up to the plate? Will everyone approach the problem as one they have a collective responsibility to tackle? And will this add up to a greater sum total than its individual parts? Only time and experience will tell. What can be said is that a great deal is riding on the rhetoric of responsibility sharing becoming something practiced in reality.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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