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Lessons from Bangladesh: six actions to take forward the Global Compact on Refugees

The Global Compact on Refugees was a step forward on paper. Now we have to make it work.

Karen Hargrave Veronique Barbelet
12 December 2019
Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
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Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Over 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the summer of 2017, prompting global concerns about the humanitarian situation. Against this backdrop, last December the United Nations’ Global Compact on Refugees was endorsed, providing a blueprint for host communities to get the support they need, and for refugees to lead productive lives. Despite the compact being billed as a game-changer, almost a year later it appears to feature little in the response.

The first-ever Global Refugee Forum will take place in Geneva next week. To contribute to those discussions, the Humanitarian Policy Group and the British Red Cross have just released new research that sheds light on how the compact could better inform the response. This same research also reveals six key lessons for improving implementation of the compact globally.

1. Clarify the refugee compact’s scope and purpose

Interviewees repeatedly raised questions about the lack of defined scope and clarity around the compact, in particular how it can be used in contexts like Bangladesh that are not part of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. Some respondents felt that the compact was simply a means to mobilise resources. Others referred to it as a diplomatic or accountability tool. Some flexibility can be good, but the compact cannot be all things to all people. Clarity is needed on its primary goals.

2. Support national implementation strategies for the compact

Evidence from Bangladesh suggests that the compact must be adapted to each context in order to be relevant and useful. This means supporting the development of crisis-specific implementation strategies. Without losing sight of the compact’s aspirational goals, this should reflect what is realistic and possible in a given context, informed by evidence and a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities.

Host states will question the compact’s responsibility-sharing spirit as long as donor countries refuse to implement its principles at home.

3. Amend global indicators and develop country-level indictors

Research in Bangladesh made clear that the proposed global indicator framework for the compact lacks key metrics. For example, there are no metrics for non-financial contributions to host countries, the impact of contributions, support towards conditions for safe, voluntary and dignified return, and adherence to non-refoulement. There was also a prevailing sense that in a context like the Rohingya crisis, the aspirations of the indicator framework are too far out of reach and could discourage progress. More could be done to recognise and welcome incremental steps, such as the Bangladesh government’s approval of an informal learning curriculum for refugee children, through additional country-level indicators.

4. Convene a global discussion on innovative approaches to responsibility-sharing

It is widely assumed that easing the pressure on host countries is mainly about mobilising financial contributions. This assumption rests on an overly simplistic understanding of what ‘easing pressure’ involves. Pressure comes from a variety of sources, including negative public opinion, environmental pressure and security concerns. Sometimes money is the solution but not always. In particular, the case of Bangladesh highlights the importance of diplomatic efforts to support conditions for durable solutions as a form of easing pressure.

5. Develop new tools to expand third-country solutions and support conditions for voluntary return in safety and dignity

The compact is weighted towards local integration and refugee self-reliance, and proposes few concrete tools in terms of significantly expanding access to third-country solutions or advancing conditions to support safe, voluntary and dignified return. There was a stark contrast in Bangladesh between the importance of safe, voluntary and dignified return, both for the government and for refugees themselves, and the lack of concrete tools in the compact to facilitate progress on this front.

6. Encourage high-income countries to meet their commitments to the compact

Finally, interviews revealed a perception in Bangladesh of an inconsistency among donor governments: on the one hand pushing for significant reforms in Bangladesh, for example on self-reliance, and on the other implementing policy restrictions domestically. This is not a new trend, but without progress on implementing the compact’s principles domestically in donor countries, it is likely that host states will continue to question the compact’s responsibility-sharing spirit.

Looking forward

This first Global Refugee Forum is an opportunity to take stock of progress and credit success where it is due. However, this and future forums also need to take a critical look at lessons so far from large-scale crises, and take action so that these inform the future of the Compact. This is crucial if it is to live up to its promise as a game-changer for refugee responses, and move from words on paper to making a meaningful difference in the lives of refugees and the communities hosting them.

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