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Populists attack UN refugee pact

Richard A. Fuchs
November 22, 2018

The UN migration pact continues to be at the center of political debate in Germany. A second UN agreement on refugees is also now under fire, with the far right saying it will facilitate an unregulated refugee influx.

A group of migrants wait to be transferred from the Spanish war ship Santa Maria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Scoppa

There are currently around 68 million displaced people worldwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those are internally displaced, still in their own country but driven from their homes. But some 25 million have fled across borders and entered neighboring countries, or to countries further afield.

Nearly 70 years after the passing of the Geneva convention on refugees in 1951, these figures are at a record high. To combat this suffering, the UN Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) intends to bundle international efforts. Its aim is to improve living conditions for refugees and provide relief to host countries.

"We owe it to millions of uprooted and displaced people and we owe it to their generous hosts," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in September.

Two accords, two target groups

The GCR, however, is not to be confused with UN's Global Compact for Migration. Whereas the UN migration pact calls for global minimum standards when it comes to dealing with economic migrants, the second pact is designed for refugees who seek protection from war and persecution and who can invoke the Geneva convention on refugees.

Dr. Steffen Angenendt of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
'Confusion is used for political aims, to stir things up': AngenendtImage: SWP

"In the public debate, the two get mixed up completely, partially due to lack of knowledge. Partially, however, that confusion is used for political aims, in order to stir things up," Steffen Angenendt, head of the Global Issues Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told DW.

Both agreements have a long history. In September 2016, the UN's signatory states reached agreement on the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. It was the starting point of a debate that has lasted more than two years. Although both agreements are markedly different, they have one thing in common: they are not legally binding, which is stressed a number of times in the draft treaties.

Between June and October, an agreement was reached at the UN on a joint text for the refugee accord. "Negotiations took place in public, the texts were freely available, so this is the exact opposite of the 'secretiveness' as it is now interpreted in populist circles," said Angenendt.

Representatives of 176 countries, including Germany, have approved the draft treaty. Only the US voted against it, because the GCR's worldwide approach was not in accordance with the country's sovereignty, in the words of the current US administration. Speaking before the German parliament on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel defended both the UN refugee and migration pacts, saying they were in Germany's national interest.  

More global solidarity necessary

A glimpse at the 20-page draft treaty gives insights into the priorities of the future UN refugee pact. The text provides recommendations for international standards with respect to registration and accommodation of refugees, or with regard to arranging educational and health opportunities. Conditions for permanent admission of refugees are also discussed.

First and foremost, however, the draft treaty deals with ways to ensure a safe and voluntary return for refugees to their home countries. "UNHCR will provide a digital platform to share good practices," the text states. And twice a year, a World Refugee Forum is to take stock of the situation.

In response to a DW inquiry, the Foreign Office in Berlin confirmed that Germany meets most of the requirements, sometimes even overachieving. That was not the case in many first host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, said Angenendt. The pact's response to this is the establishment of a voluntary network of international support and burden-sharing.

"Those who oppose this objective and, thereby, the compact must answer the question what happens when those countries collapse under their burden," said Angenendt.

The current figures reveal that more global solidarity is necessary, with several countries doing the heavy lifting. Currently, 10 countries, including Germany, are providing shelter for 80 percent of all refugees worldwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) receives funds from a mere 15 countries. In 2017, Germany provided some $480 million (€421 million), which made it the second largest donor nation after the United States.

Living in fear - Refugees in Chemnitz

Political attacks, ignorance influence debate

In Germany, it's one aspect in particular that has sparked criticism of the compact, which has mostly been spread by politicians of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and their supporters. Included in this group is AfD parliamentarian Gottfried Curio, who has identified the compact as an instrument that facilitates unregulated influx of refugees. He refers to the "resettlement" programs mentioned in the draft treaty, which provide the opportunity for countries to exchange, on a voluntary basis, fixed contingents of refugees. By calling Germany a "settlement area," Curio has deliberately played on people's fears.

A brief look at the draft treaty reveals that the Global Compact on Refugees mentions a number of tools which can be used by countries on a voluntary basis in order to show solidarity with overwhelmed first host countries. One of five possible tools is the implementation of contingent programs.

"This is a best practice which has been used by countries time and again over the past decades if it was considered adequate and feasible," said Angenendt. The host country's sovereignty remained unaffected, he added, because it made an independent decision if refugees were accepted at all, and how many. 

In April, the German government agreed to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey within the framework of such a program. The process provides those affected with legal access to refugee status and prevents them from taking the life-threatening route across the Mediterranean Sea.

Refugees turn to child labor

'Campaign of disinformation'

According to Angenendt, the aggressive criticism of the migration pact and the Global Compact on Refugees is part of a "politically motivated campaign of disinformation." It's no surprise to him that the compact has come under attack. 

"The compact offers everything a fully-fledged conspiracy theory needs," he said. This, he added, was about refugees, about the alleged "globalists" at the UN and about international solidarity, which in the age of US President Donald Trump has come under abuse by many. The greater the number of people familiar with the actual content of the treaty, the quicker unsubstantiated criticism can be debunked, Angenendt believes.

The UN is set to formally adopt the Global Compact for Migration in December.