Reflections - one year on from the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants

19 september 2017

Siobhán McGee, CEO ActionAid Ireland, Dóchas board member and member of Irish Refugee and Migrant Coalition, reflects on where we are one year on from the signing of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants


A year ago today, on 19th September 2016, UN Member States came together around one plan. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants expresses the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale.

The Declaration contains bold commitments both to address the issues we face now and to prepare the world for future challenges. This included commitments to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants and to implement a comprehensive refugee response. UN Member States committed to strengthening the positive contributions made by migrants to economic and social development in their host countries and to preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

The concrete plans to deliver these new commitments include achieving a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees by adopting a global compact on refugees in 2018.

These commitments have not yet been realised. In fact, European member states have further retreated on their responsibilities to upholding the rights of refugees and migrants.

Less than a year after the UN Summit, on Monday 28th August 2017, European leaders meeting at the Paris migration summit presented migration as a threat rather than recognizing its benefits, backtracking on their UN commitment. Directly undermining their UN commitment, as well as ignoring the long term need for continued migration to Europe.

The Paris mini-summit focused on possible solutions to resolve the issue of migrants including a model that outsources borders by entrusting controls to others, misusing aid as a bargaining chip. Through the mini-summit, European leaders effectively moved Europe’s borders to the southern border of Libya. This could trap people in Libya and revoke Europe’s responsibilities to uphold the rights of refugees and migrants, including protecting women from gender based violence and sexual exploitation.

A UNHCR study from July 2017 documents the abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants in Libya. It has been reported by humanitarian organizations and the Libyan authorities are unable to control the traffickers' actions, nor prevent human rights violations that are taking place in detention camps. How can we be reassured that the human rights of refugees and migrants are being realised and that the principles of international law are being adhered to, if trusted international bodies such as UNHCR or OIM are warning of the opposite?

The Paris mini-summit posed a realistic risk that Europe will endorse the possible violations of human rights committed in Libya, without asking what are the conditions for migrants. Those fleeing conflict, the increased hardship posed by climate change, and human rights abuses have the same wishes we all have. And they have rights that must be respected. Why are we in Europe continuing to reject, block, push back refugees and migrants? Safety? Fear? Lack of courage? We cannot do this without sacrificing democratic rights and principles.

In Ireland ActionAid is part of the Irish Refugee and Migrant Coalition, which has set out guidelines for the protection of refugees and migrants and the upholding of human rights. These include address the root causes of displacement, to cease shifting responsibility for protection to outside the EU and ensuring Ireland meets its own commitments on refugees and migrants.

There are real solutions to the increasing number of refugees and migrants. But a year on from The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, Europe is continuing to postpone real solutions for real people.