The Global Compact on Refugees: Towards a Theory of Change?

Alexander Betts

International Journal of Refugee Law, 2019


This article argues that the Refugee Compact must have a clear-sighted theory of change on how to translate text into practice. The author distinguishes between obligations to refugees within a State’s jurisdiction as defined by law (‘asylum’), and commitments to refugees on the territory of another State that are shaped by politics (‘responsibility sharing’). He notes that this disjuncture has led to a power asymmetry within the refugee system in which geography and proximity to crisis de facto define State responsibility. He contends that the Refugee Compact addresses this problem by establishing an intergovernmental consensus around a set of principles and practices relating to responsibility sharing, specifically by: (1) offering a summary of the actors who can contribute to responsibility sharing; (2) identifying areas in which they can contribute and some of the mechanisms for financial or in-kind contributions; and (3) proposing new structures to elicit contributions. The author argues that rather than change the international refugee regime, the compact’s basic aim is to get more resources into the system. He suggests that the success of the compact with be judged on whether States and others increase their commitments, and whether this makes a difference in the lives of displaced persons. The compact envisages two mechanisms of change: (i) the rollout of the CRRF adapted to refugee-hosting contexts, focused on self-reliance, economic inclusion, the creation of enabling environments, support for both refugees and host communities, and engagement with development actors; and (ii) political facilitation. The author contends that new structures, like the Global Refugee Forum and Support Platforms, are a necessary but insufficient condition for the success of the Refugee Compact. He argues that the key success factor for the Refugee Compact is UNHCR’s organizational capacity for political leadership, and the ability to understand States’ political interests and to propose principled yet pragmatic agreements based on reciprocity