The New York Declaration: What Next for Refugees and Migrants?

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  • 2016•10•24

    Parvati Nair

    UN Photo / Amanda Voisard

    World leaders gathered in New York on 19 September 2016 for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. Through this blog series the United Nations University Migration Network (UNU MN) has reflected on the challenges and opportunities of the summit from various critical perspectives: migration governance and policy; forced migration; migration and environment; migration and health; migration and culture; and migration and development. The series culminates with this summary post.


    The New York Declaration, pledging commitments to address large movements of refugees and migrants, was adopted unanimously on 19 September 2016 by 193 Member States at the United Nations High Level Summit Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. The Summit emerged from a process set in motion both by the adoption in 2015 of the Sustainable Development Goals for the 2015-2030 Development Agenda (most specifically from the overarching intents of the goals to ‘leave no one behind’) and by the fact that the number of international refugees and migrants has reached unprecedented levels – and is set to mount further over coming decades.

    The adoption of the New York Declaration marked an unprecedented turn whereby mass human mobility in its plural facets entered the realm of international relations. To date, the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its Protocol of 1967 form the principal legal instruments that protect and validate human mobility. This convention does not address the needs or contexts of international migrants, i.e., for the displaced who migrate for economic or ‘voluntary’ reasons, or for those on the move who do not fit within its legal framework.

    While the New York Declaration is not legally binding in any way, but an expression of political will, rather than political action or obligation, it nevertheless breaks new ground as the deliberate expression of international engagement: paving the way towards two global compacts, one on a comprehensive refugee response framework and another on safe, orderly and regular migration. Most importantly, it contains the pledge to achieve these compacts by 2018 and to start negotiations towards them right away. As such, it launches an interlinked, but forked, set of processes.

    Mixing commitments?

    While the achievement of these compacts would signal a political breakthrough for both refugees and migrants, what is particularly significant in the New York Declaration and its proposed follow-up is the unprecedented focus on international migrants. What is also significant is the fact that it confirms commitments that apply equally to refugees and migrants alike, marking the many overlaps and shared challenges faced by both groups, thereby acknowledging the increasingly mixed nature of migratory flows across the globe.

    This is what makes the New York Declaration notable, because international migration (when not forced or related to the seeking of refuge from conflict, disaster or oppression) had not until now been an issue of international focus or responsibility. The vast majority of people on the move do not fall into the legally recognised category of ‘refugee,’ and hence, by default, are migrants. Also worth noting was the symbolically significant confirmation of migrants as an issue of global concern and responsibility, at the Summit of the International Organization of Migration’s entry into the UN system.

    Few would doubt that a trigger for this Summit, and the processes that led to it and should lead from it, is the largest influx of refugees and migrants to Europe since the end of the Second World War, i.e., since the formation of the UN system. Furthermore, the pledge by UN Member States to work toward the two global compacts stands in stark contrast to the inability within the European Union to agree a common policy in light of this mass mobility. It also brings fresh hope that working towards the two global compacts may also help shape and determine regional responses.

    While the New York Declaration breaks new ground in its scope and inclusion of the needs and concerns of migrants, it is far less innovative with regard to refugees. In reality, it proposes little more than a reiteration of the work already underway by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In light of the fact that many states that have signed up to the Refugee Convention of 1951 and its Protocol of 1967 have repeatedly flouted their legal obligations to refugees, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework does not open new ground that would force states to observe their obligations. However, the focus on the notion of ‘shared’ responsibility is important here, though more details will be needed on whether this could take the form of financial support (aid for countries carrying heavy burdens) or actions of welcome for refugees. In any case, it may be safe to assume that the follow-up on the compact for responsibility sharing for refugees will require less efforts and novel thinking / inter-state collaboration than the compact on safe, orderly and regular migration.

    Misguided critiques?

    Criticism was prompt in the wake of the adoption of the New York Declaration. Some asked: What does it actually achieve? Is it more a game of words than a plan of action? What is important to note is that the Summit was never intended as an end in itself: rather, it aimed to launch a two-year process. The Summit and New York Declaration did not seek to force immediate action, but to open political pathways to global compacts.

    The road ahead may well be long and winding. At the same time, the agreed deadline of 2018 puts pressure on international negotiations. Statements made by Member States at the Summit already differed in their focus on financial assistance versus pledges for action. The more industrialised countries engaged with the question of refugees, but fell short of offering to work together with sender and transit countries to establish safe and orderly routes to asylum and migration. The question of migrants, and hence the global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, clearly remains thorny.

    The New York Declaration certainly achieved its planned outcome with regard to launching the processes towards the two compacts, but the way forward has yet to be mapped and the time frame is short. Meanwhile, the stakes are high for human mobility. Will 2017-18 bring about radical change for the world’s 247 million cross-border migrants? Will they finally have their rights, welfare and dignity protected through better global migration governance?


    Summit Series #1: What Will be the Legacy of Alan Kurdi’s Death?
    Summit Series #2: How to Walk the Talk to End Forced Migration?
    Summit Series #3: Migration and the Power of Culture
    Summit Series #4: Why Migrant Vulnerability Is a Community Health Issue
    Summit Series #5: Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments
    Summit Series #6: Why It’s Time to Get Serious about Migration and Development
    Summit Series #7: The New York Declaration: What Next for Refugees & Migrants?