Renewed International Solidarity: The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants

(Disponible en français : Une nouvelle solidarité internationale : la Déclaration de New York pour les réfugiés et les migrants)

The United Nations (UN) reports that, between 2000 and 2017, the total number of people moving internationally and living in a country other than their country of birth rose from 173 to 258 million, a 49% increase in just 18 years. These 258 million people made up approximately 3.4% of the world’s population in 2017 and 48% were women.

This new reality has prompted the international community to act. In September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) issued a declaration calling for greater international cooperation on migration. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (New York Declaration), unanimously adopted by the UNGA, led to development of the Global Compact for Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which were widely endorsed by the UNGA in December 2018.

An Increase in Migration Flows

As part of the increase in migration flows, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also noted a substantial growth in the number of individuals displaced because of persecution, conflict or generalized violence. In 2007, there were 42.7 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Over the last 10 years, this figure has increased by over 50% to reach 68.5 million at the end of 2017. In 2018, 70.8 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, an unprecedented number in UNHCR’s history. As seen in Figure 1, among those forcibly displaced, 25.9 million people, over half of whom are under the age of 18, fled their homes and received refugee protection in another country. A further 3.5 million are seeking asylum in another country. In addition, 41.3 million internally displaced persons fled their home but have remained in their country of origin.

Figure 1: Forcibly Displaced People in the World in 2018

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Figures at a Glance, 19 June 2019.

More and more countries are grappling with global flows of people, either as migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or as internally displaced persons. States faced with obligations and important challenges associated with migration are also beginning to understand its opportunities, all of which call for global approaches and solutions.

As highlighted by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, no state can address this global issue alone. Individuals governments “cannot unilaterally override the economic, demographic, environmental and other factors that shape migration and will continue to do so, including in ways we don’t yet fully anticipate.” He adds that “member states must act together to protect the human rights of migrants and expand pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration, while safeguarding their borders, laws and the interests of their societies.”

Sustainable Development and Migration

Responding to these migration flows, the New York Declaration also builds on the United Nation’s efforts to reduce inequalities and insecurities, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to empower vulnerable people, such as migrants and refugees. It also recognizes “the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development.”

“We also recognize that international migration is a multi-dimensional reality of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, which requires coherent and comprehensive responses. We will cooperate internationally to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status, of refugees and of displaced persons. Such cooperation should also strengthen the resilience of communities hosting refugees, particularly in developing countries. We underline the right of migrants to return to their country of citizenship, and recall that States must ensure that their returning nationals are duly received.”

Three of the 17 SDGs have specific targets that deal with migration-related issues, which, as reported by the UN Secretary-General, highlight “the importance of migration in reducing inequalities within and between states.”

SDG 8 calls for the promotion of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all. This includes, under target 8.8, the protection of labour rights and the promotion of “safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.”

SDG 10 aims to reduce inequality within and among countries by facilitating “orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

For the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development under SDG 17, it is important to “enhance capacity-building support to developing countries, including for least developed countries and small island developing states, to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location, and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.”

While SDG 5 on gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment does not have specific targets that deal with migration related issues, it also applies in the migration context. For instance, target 5.2 seeks to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls, which is relevant to migrant and refugee women and girls who often experience violence throughout their migration journey.

The New York Declaration and Further Efforts to Strengthen the Global Governance of Migration

UN member states recognize the need for a comprehensive approach to human mobility and enhanced cooperation at the global level to protect refugees and migrants. On 19 September 2016, the UNGA unanimously adopted the New York Declaration at the UN High-level Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

Member states set out a series of commitments in the New York Declaration that aim to encapsulate all aspects of international migration, including humanitarian, human rights and labour rights issues. Some commitments apply both to refugees and migrants, while others are specific to each group. Among objectives, the New York Declaration:

  • calls for countries to fully respect and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people on the move;
  • recognizes “the special needs of all people in vulnerable situations who are travelling within large movements of refugees and migrants, including women at risk, children, especially those who are unaccompanied or separated from their families, members of ethnic and religious minorities, victims of violence, older persons, persons with disabilities, persons who are discriminated against on any basis, indigenous peoples, victims of human trafficking, and victims of exploitation and abuse in the context of the smuggling of migrants;”
  • acknowledges that states have sovereign rights and responsibilities to manage and control their borders, but also obligations under international law, including international human rights law and international refugee law, to respect the right for individuals to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement (or non-return to a situation of persecution);
  • aims to combat human trafficking and migrant smuggling as well as xenophobia, racism and discrimination towards all migrants; and
  • encourages the integration of refugees and migrants by addressing their needs and capacities as well as those of receiving communities in humanitarian and development assistance frameworks and planning.

The New York Declaration initiated an almost two year process of intergovernmental consultations with the purpose of adopting two Global Compacts for refugees and migrants. Both the Global Compact for Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration recognize the need to share the responsibility and burden for hosting migrants while also mitigating the root causes that compel people to seek a future outside their country of origin.

While the Global Compacts aim to strengthen norms, principles and processes to allow for more effective international cooperation in managing migration, they are non-binding international documents. [A forthcoming Library of Parliament research publication further explains the Global Compacts.]

To further strengthen the global governance of migration, the UNGA unanimously adopted that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) be brought into the UN structure. IOM now acts in tandem with the UNHCR, since both organizations have a mandate to ensure the protection of people on the move.

While the UNHCR focuses mainly on refugees, asylum seekers and people in refugee like situations, IOM has a broader mandate that encapsulates all migrants, regardless of their status or their migration journey. As part of the larger migration management framework, IOM works on addressing the root causes of migration, regulating migration pathways, ensuring safe pathways for people on the move, and working towards a more sustainable world.

While the international community is now better equipped to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration, challenges remain. Although migration is a global phenomenon, most people move within a limited number of countries. Certain countries have disproportionate responsibilities as transit or host states, while others act as financial contributors to the international protection regime. These international efforts reaffirm the importance of states continuing to work together, ensuring shared responsibility throughout the migration continuum.

Additional resources

Author: Madalina Chesoi, Library of Parliament