David Miliband is the president of the International Rescue Committee. He was the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010.
Today’s decision by the UN General Assembly to adopt a Global Compact on Refugees brings into stark relief the mismatch in effort between poor and rich countries in handling the global refugee crisis. The United States was unfortunately one of two nations that voted against adopting this agreement, which was the culmination of a two-year effort to cooperate globally in helping the world’s 25.4 million refugees.
Although there are more refugees and asylum seekers than at any time since World War II, contrary to conventional wisdom, poor and lower middle-income nations like Bangladesh, Uganda and Jordan host 85 percent of the world’s refugees. In fact, if the United States hosted refugees in the same proportion as Uganda, it would house 8.5 million refugees instead of the 3 million resettled since 1980.
America’s abdication of leadership is due in part to the incorrect belief that signing such an accord is attempting to change international legal obligations. This is simply not the case.
International law makes it clear that refugees are limited to those who experience “a well-founded fear of persecution.” Since then, multiple adjudications of asylum claims have incorporated flexibility into that post-World War II definition to include people fleeing gang violence, women fleeing sexual and domestic violence, and others.
But there is a line that should not be crossed, which the refugee compact—and a distinct, separate migration compact adopted last week—makes clear. Refugees have different legal rights than economic migrants, although classifying people into these two categories can be difficult in practice. People fleeing economic collapse, famine or climate change certainly have a claim to international aid and protection, but they are not the same as people for whom religion, ethnicity or political affiliation directly puts their life at risk. All those on the move deserve protection, but despite the increase in “mixed migration,” in which people are fleeing their homes simultaneously for safety and economic wellbeing, opening up the definition of a refugee holds peril for both refugees and would-be immigrants, such as a downgrading of human rights and protection from abuse or exploitation.
The compact shows, however, how hard it is to reach international agreement, especially when wealthier nations are focused primarily on themselves. The compact acknowledges that the limited humanitarian assistance host countries receive is inadequate to the scale of the challenge and that we must consider more durable solutions for refugees and their hosts. The compact also sets out a plan to define clear metrics to measure improvements in refugee well-being and the impact of commitments made by all parties.
But there is nothing onerous in the compact. And that is partly the problem. Countries like the United States are getting something close to a free ride. The Trump administration reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States under its resettlement program from the historic average of 90,000 a year to only 22,000 in the last fiscal year. The cap for the current fiscal year is only 30,000 refugees.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly said we need to “take care of them over there.” But international aid is not keeping pace with the needs of refugee-hosting states. The UN’s study of the financing of crisis-affected states showed a 40 percent shortfall, so the gap between needs and provision is growing every day. That is why the UN’s global compact will only be a game-changer if it galvanizes action in the places and for the people who need help. With governments like the United States in retreat, the private sector and NGOs need to step forward. That needs to take place at three different levels.
First, we need to break the false divide between short-term emergencies and long-term poverty. States consumed by conflict or burdened by hosting refugees face long-term stress. Tackling malnutrition or providing education are long-term investments as well as short-term palliatives. Yet currently 80 to 90 percent of acutely malnourished children fail to get help, in part because of a distinction by the UN between moderate and severe acute malnutrition that results in children with the same condition treated by different UN agencies. In addition, education gets just 2 percent of the global humanitarian budget.
Second, we need to show how refugees can be contributors, not a burden. There needs to be a new deal struck between refugee-hosting states who need economic support and refugees who want to work. The World Bank has recognized this and has become the most dynamic actor on the stage, raising nearly $2.6 billion since 2016 to support refugee-hosting states. Now the private sector needs to follow the example of companies like WeWork, which has set a goal of employing 1,500 refugees over the next five years, and Marriott International, which is investing in and providing job opportunities to refugees in growing sectors like hospitality.
Third, we need to continue to make the case — amplifying the voices of the refugees themselves — that the global displacement crisis is a global responsibility. One disappointing aspect of the negotiations around the global compact was the failure to agree on targets for health, education, income and legal protection for displaced populations. This lack of accountability is a threat to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. According to a recent report, produced by the International Rescue Committee and the Overseas Development Institute, four out of five fragile states are off track to meet their sustainable development goals for tackling poverty.
At a time when refugees are too often demonized, the strengths and limits of the UN’s global compact should serve as a rallying call for all sectors — not just governments — to defend the rights of vulnerable people and help advance the way the world helps them. The preamble of the UN charter starts with the words “We the people.” What happens next depends on all of us.