Keeping the Promise: Three Proposed Accountability Mechanisms for the Global Refugee Regime



Accountability is lacking at every point in the refugee cycle — from upstream, where refugee flows are triggered violently and with impunity by criminal regimes and non-state actors, to downstream, where governments shirk their treaty commitments and moral obligations for political gain.

The United Nations’ New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants of September 2016 envisions greater international cooperation and responsibility sharing, and calls on the United Nations to develop two “global compacts,” one for refugees and the other for migrants, for presentation at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in the autumn of 2018 (UNGA 2016). The key piece of the refugee compact is the comprehensive refugee response framework (CRRF), which, led by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), aims to establish a “multi-stakeholder approach” to situations of mass influx (ibid., Annex 1, para. 2), and a “programme of action” to help operationalize the CRRF (UNHCR 2017, 1-2). The stakeholders include “national and local authorities, international organizations, international financial institutions, regional organizations, regional coordination and partnership mechanisms, civil society partners, including faith-based organizations and academia, the private sector, media and the refugees themselves” (UNGA 2016).

In early March 2018, the UNHCR released the first draft of the compact (UNHCR 2018). Its contents are currently being negotiated by UN member states.

The global refugee regime lacks a formal accountability mechanism. As a result, the costs of non-compliance with the norms and principles of the UNHCR’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are virtually non-existent.

Nor is there a mechanism to help ensure that states will share responsibility in situations of mass influx. Indeed, the modern refugee regime in many ways represents a classic case of strong standards being undermined through no meaningful enforcement of those standards. There is no institution to bring out, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, the “better angels of our nature” (1861).

The first draft of the compact does call for the creation of a “global mechanism for international cooperation,” which would consist of two components. The first would be regular “global refugee summits,” the inaugural meeting to occur in 2019, with subsequent gatherings to be convened every three years, the primary purposes of which would be to secure and track “pledges and contributions, including financial, material, and technical assistance (including through standby capacity); as well as resettlement places and other pathways for admission including scholarships, labour mobility schemes or private scholarship arrangements” (UNHCR 2018, para. 17). The second proposed component is the “Global Support Platform,” an ad hoc body that would be “activated” by the UNCHR in cases of “a significant refugee situation” (ibid., para. 22) and serve as a tool for mobilizing resources.

The summits and platform are potentially important innovations that could generate more support for the refugee regime and foster a system of better responsibility sharing. But they do not go far enough. The compact makes it clear that contributions are to be voluntary (ibid., para. 6), and the compact itself is explicitly “humanitarian and non-political in nature and outlook” (ibid., para. 8). As such, the compact is unlikely to be able to address states’ bad behaviour or their failures to fulfill their promises. Of course, this absence of meaningful enforcing mechanisms is a problem in no way unique to the global refugee regime.

However, the costs of failing to hold states to account are enormous, both to refugees and to the few states to which the responsibility of caring for refugees has fallen. It does not have to be this way.