World leaders on Monday approved a declaration aimed at providing a more co-ordinated and humane response to the refugee crisis that has strained resources and sparked divisions from Africa to Europe.
The issue of what to do about the world's 65.3 million displaced people took centre stage at the U.N. General Assembly with leaders from the 193 member states taking part in the first-ever summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.
Advocacy groups worried that the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees — an outcome document which contains no concrete commitments and is not legally binding — falls short of what is needed, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, himself a refugee during the Korean War, hailed it as historic.
"Today's summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility," Ban said.
Around the world, there are currently about 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million migrants, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. The agency defines refugees as people forced to flee due to armed conflict or persecution, while migrants choose to move in search of a better life.
Philippe Bolopion, deputy director of global advocacy for Human Rights Watch, said the international community still had a long way to go in dealing with the crisis.
"I would say if you measure this document by what is at stake here, it certainly falls short of the mark. We're facing an historic crisis and the response is not historic," Bolopion said on the sidelines of the meeting. He added that in many areas refugee protections were backsliding with a growing number of countries trying to turn back refugees in violation of international law.
"Is the outcome document up to the challenge? No, unquestionably it's not. Does that mean the summit is pointless? No, because it's precisely at moments like this that you need to regroup," Bolopion added.
The declaration seeks to standardize responses to refugee situations and provide better education prospects for the children who make up over half of the world's refugees.
It also looks to improve working opportunities for refugees who are now spending nearly 20 years in exile on average.
There are also plans for a campaign to combat xenophobia.
All of this may prove an uphill struggle at a time when refugees and migrants have become a divisive issue in Europe and the United States.
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said xenophobia has been a major factor contributing to the failure of the international response thus far.
"Defenders of what is right and good are being outflanked in too many countries by race-baiting bigots, who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit, at the expense of those most vulnerable," Zeid told the meeting.
Several countries shot down an earlier draft of the declaration that called on nations to resettle 10 per cent of the refugee population each year, something that has led several human rights groups to criticize the document as a missed opportunity. The U.S. and a number of other countries also objected to language in the original draft that said children should never be detained, so the agreement now says children should seldom, if ever, be detained.
Zeid praised the political consensus reached in approving the declaration, but warned against self-congratulation.
"The bitter truth is this summit was called because we have been largely failing. Failing the long-suffering people of Syria, in not ending the war in its infancy. Failing others in now chronic conflict zones, for the same reason. Failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation," said Zeid.
More concrete progress is expected at a follow-up summit on Tuesday called by President Barack Obama, where at least 45 countries are expected to make pledges that are in line with U.S. goals of increasing humanitarian aid by $3 billion, doubling resettlement and increasing access to education for 1 million youngsters and access to employment for another million of the displaced.