The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and its annex, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) adopted at the September 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, call for a new way of working on refugee response. It is about engaging a wide array of stakeholders through a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to initiate long-term planning for solutions early on in an emergency, integrate refugees into national development plans, and build on refugee inclusion and self-reliance while benefitting host communities. In a world where the scale and duration of displacement continue to rise, where the refugee protection regime is regularly violated with impunity, and where the quality of protection and the availability of solutions are declining, the need for change is inevitable. Yet, as in any change process, it is important to be conscious of the opportunities and aware of the risks.
There are inherent risks in using an existing system to support a change process, and the biggest of these is that of no change happening at all. The refugee protection regime carefully built after World War II is under unprecedented strain due to States’ violations of their international obligations, and the lack of any formal accountability mechanism. No change would imply that accountability for compliance with international obligations for refugee protection and solutions remains weak, and that actors simply continue to do lip service to the inclusion and participation of refugees and host communities, resulting in solutions that do not reflect their preference, exacerbated vulnerabilities, and further and repeated displacement. The fact that there is no true accountability for refugee protection in the current system is precisely where the most significant opportunity with the CRRF process lies.
The whole-of-society approach can potentially address a regulation gap by allowing for actors to collectively solve problems; it can address a participation gap by including hereto un- or under-represented actors; and it can tackle an implementation gap by ensuring the execution of mutually agreed strategic goals. If well worded, the Global Compact on Refugees can be used by civil society actors to advocate for States to uphold their obligations at the international, regional, and country level. In terms of durable solutions, there is a potential in the whole-of-society approach to include the three options of voluntary repatriation, resettlement, and local integration on an equal standing, although bigger gains could be achieved on local integration with the involvement of development actors, and the World Bank’s incentives and/or conditionalities.
The whole-of-society approach does not necessarily imply a shift from a top-down response modality, with institutionalised lines of accountability, to a horizontal, multi-stakeholder response, where the lines of accountability are more blurred. It is not an either/or discussion, and it should not be. The whole-of-society approach should be about understanding and making the best of one another’s comparative advantages. But it should not be conceived as a replacement for the existing legal framework for refugee protection and solutions. Rather, it should complement and strengthen it, and thereby allow for its realisation in practice.