by Vaughan Jones
The United Nations first ever special Assembly on refugees and migrants was held in New York yesterday 19 September. Whilst many of the planned events by civil society were disrupted by the discovery of explosive devices, leaders of the 197 countries met to endorse a non-binding international agreement on the treatment of those who need international protection or are vulnerable as migrants.
The Assembly was the conclusion of a process initiated by the UN Secretary-General in response to the burgeoning refugee crises on Europe’s borders and in the Pacific and the start of a process leading to a new international compact on refugee and migrants. This will come to another Assembly in two years’ time.
The UK approach is based on three core principles:
Refugees should seek asylum in the first safe country they reach. This places the main burden of responsibility on developing countries. The Prime Minister argues that it would prevent onward movement facilitated by criminal smugglers. However, some of the evidence demonstrates that it is precisely when refugees feel trapped in camps with no prospect of improving their lot that they fall prey to smugglers.
There should be a better distinction between refugees and economic migrants. This is already the case in international law. However, both climate change and the nature of modern conflict blurs boundaries.
The right of all countries to control their borders and the responsibility to reduce onward flows of illegal and uncontrolled migration. Of course, there is no responsible argument being made that borders should not be controlled. But if application processes were dealt with effectively and international conventions fairly and effectively applied then there would be a massive improvement in the management of flows.
The Assembly was called because of the unprecedented numbers of refugees in the world today and the failure of the international community to manage this. The burden remains on the shoulders of the poorest countries and the suffering of the refugee continues even when they have escaped from the horrors of their own countries.