The Global Compact on Refugees and the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum: The ripples of responsibility-sharing

Forum on the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum in light of the UN GCR

Contribution by Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria, Senior Research Officer, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

23 October 2020

The lack of recognition of the relevance of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in the European context – notably missing in the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum – undermines the viability of the GCR as a whole. An affirmation of the GCR should translate into a commitment to and respect for the underlying principles of more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing in policies and practices globally. Migration management is not a substitute for international protection.

What does ‘fair and equitable responsibility- and burden-sharing’ look like today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global recession and an ongoing climate crisis? One could argue that it has not yet manifested as envisioned in the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), and is certainly not what the New Pact on Migration and Asylum appears to be.

Both the GCR and the new EU Pact have roots in the 2015-2016 so-called European refugee crisis, yet represent different aspirations surrounding migration. The affirmation of the GCR in December 2018 demonstrated a powerful commitment to refugee protection and cooperation in refugee responses by the international community. While the new EU Pact overall frames migration positively, it has been criticized as being based on border containment, with increased solidarity premised on increasing the returns of rejected asylum seekers.

Recent research on the impacts of COVID-19 on the GCR, commissioned by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), shows that the ways Europe embraces the GCR – or doesn’t – pose real risks of negative domino effects in terms of global responsibility-sharing. The new EU Pact becomes embedded in this if it ends up promoting the rejection rather than the redistribution of asylum seekers, and exercises ‘flexible solidarity’ rather than true solidarity. Migration management is no substitute for international protection, which in turn should not be framed through the lens of EU interests. When main donors such as the EU continue to reject asylum seekers and instead present refugee-hosting as a task for others to undertake – often without providing the necessary resources for it to occur sustainably or fairly – the GCR and indeed the entire refugee regime is undermined.

A false perception that the GCR is not ‘relevant’ for the EU

Despite the fact that 27 out of the 28 EU Member States at the time affirmed the GCR (only Hungary opposed it), many informants expressed the reality that it is rarely discussed or implemented within the EU. Many had the sense that for European States the GCR is an instrument to ‘implement elsewhere’ or ‘out there’. A local government official in Germany engaged in a national programme for the local integration and empowerment of refugees (conceivably highly relevant to the GCR) put it bluntly: ‘It is very easy to answer your question, because the Global Compact on Refugees is not relevant for our work.’

Others referenced the binding legal standards embodied in the EU legal order and the Convention regime, as well as at national levels, which are preferred over the GCR when advocating for refugees’ rights and States’ responsibilities. As an example, one head of a legal network on refugees and asylum seekers explained, ‘Germany has lightly embraced the Compact. Their approach will be to support other countries to support standards in the Compact. We would argue that Germany should implement all these elements of the Compact, as well.’

Protection risks in the EU

Limited asylum space and a related waning of interest in responsibility-sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic were main protection issues raised in the research pertaining to the EU and beyond. Lack of political will and leadership were discussed as key concerns driving these protection challenges. These were seen as both short-term and longer-term problems, with immediate impacts already apparent, such as asylum seekers being refused entry into potential host countries. As one head of a European legal NGO shared regarding protection issues caused by COVID-19, 

From our perspective [in Europe] the biggest challenge we have is access to territory. This was a challenge before, and COVID-19 has exacerbated it. Using legal advocacy methods to try to stop Covid accelerating is bolstering the EU’s tendency to prevent people from actually accessing territory. Currently it is not even a question of access to procedure (though that is also a challenge but less complicated) – it’s actually physical legal access to territory that we’re struggling to obtain.

One issue raised in the research regarding the EU and the GCR was how the pandemic might accelerate the EU’s externalisation agenda and in fact use the GCR to deflect responsibilities. This fear appears to be well-founded, as critics of the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum point out that it disregards the protection needs of arrivals (and the consequences of doing so), as an ongoing EU strategy of preventing arrivals. The focus on externalisation remains, along with borders, detention and deportation.

The domino effect of restricted EU responsibility-sharing

The limited uptake of the GCR in the EU and the limitations of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum do not go unnoticed elsewhere in the world. Instead, a lack of fair and equitable responsibility-sharing in the European context – and in a context of current policies of externalising protection responsibilities – undermines the viability of the GCR as a whole.

Informants across sectors are concerned that the current dearth of resettlement to EU and other Western countries and ongoing border restrictions are setting a new norm of asylum that will have a problematic ripple effect. There is a risk of fatigue in hosting countries and an associated disinterest or disillusionment with the GCR process if GCR commitments are not realized. As one member of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) Secretariat in Uganda stated, 

Countries around the world are turning inwards but this is an issue that must be looked at more holistically because we all know that refugees are an international obligation – 1.5 million refugees are not an obligation for Uganda. More refugees continue to come from DRC and South Sudan, but the international community has decided to keep quiet and say that Uganda has solutions for refugees. But now we are saying that we are confronted with a challenge. We are a poor country and it is time for the international community to wake up…this is a puzzle for the global community to think about. 

A member of an INGO in East Africa further explained: 

I don’t see these essentially Western constructed mechanisms or protocols having any practical significance to governments in the region. Especially if they’re not funded. While countries have signed on to the Compact, what we’re seeing is that at the end of the day, they are reverting to focusing internally. I don’t think governments in East Africa and the Horn will respond well to Western countries telling them to do otherwise when the West itself isn’t…if that continues, governments here will likely say: Don’t talk to us about solidarity when you are not thinking globally yourselves. 

Need for increased funding – and increased political will

Reflecting on the issue of European countries closing their borders through often violent means, one NGO informant stated that it is ‘not an accident that this action is taking place now’, citing COVID-19 as providing permission for restrictive measures to become even further ingrained. It was noted by a researcher on asylum that in addition to combating such blatant disregard for the principle of responsibility-sharing, the revitalization of global commitments to serve and protect refugees (what is in theory the GCR) must also reimagine how the Global North, including the EU, uses the individual process of seeking and granting asylum. This unequal employment of responsibility-sharing must be systemically addressed. It is hard to see how the EU New Pact on Migration and Asylum makes great strides in this direction.

Not only does there appear to be limited uptake of the GCR tenets and mechanisms within the EU, but the pandemic has also resulted in significant funding shortfalls to address both COVID-19-related and other needs – thereby demonstrating that many donor states are not upholding their end of the responsibility-sharing bargain. At the time of writing, the 2020 humanitarian appeals are 33.5% funded, with the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan just 31% funded. Other long-term solutions-oriented responses are markedly lower, such as a 95% shortfall in the funding of the 2020 South Sudan Regional Refugee Response Plan. The lack of funding allocated to refugee response plans (RRPs) hinders the progress of the GCR as, ‘In the spirit of the GCR, the 2020 RRPs seek to integrate a solutions approach placing greater emphasis on self-reliance and resilience and aligning the refugee response with other humanitarian and development country programmes.’ Plans left unfunded also do nothing to support those forcibly displaced people remaining in or returning to their region of origin –arguably a key end goal of the new EU Pact.

Where does the GCR fit in?

While the EU Pact does make note of the 2019 Global Refugee Forum (broadly seen as a key means to further the implementation of the GCR) and calls on Member States to support the implementation of UNHCR’s three-year strategy (2019-2021) on resettlement and complementary pathways, as laid out in the GCR (para 91), several informants voiced the need for a clearer implementation of the GCR – including within the EU. One member of an international humanitarian agency stated, 

Of course we have more tools if it [the GCR] is binding, but most important at this point is that the GCR gets anchored in what countries do, in national legislation, inter-ministerial operations, and internal UNHCR uptake. This work is the most critical: like the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], how do we get it mainstreamed at the country level… 

Even in the lead-up to the affirmation of the GCR, the importance of implementing it within the EU was recognised by the EU Parliament, which in April 2018 stated, ‘the need to reinforce the follow-up dimension of the implementation of both Global Compacts in the near future, particularly on account of their non-binding nature, in order to avoid à la carte approaches by the different states involved.’ Concrete suggestions included the establishment of benchmarks and indicators to enable close monitoring of implementation, and the provision of resources to the UN and its relevant agencies to enable the implementation and follow-up of both the GCR and the Global Compact on Migration. However, even before the formal affirmation of the GCR there were fears that ‘the EU’s commitment to the GCR is undermined by the different measures currently used or proposed to shirk rather than share responsibility for refugees.’ Unfortunately this statement remains relevant today.

At the same time, some research informants saw value in invoking the GCR in advocacy surrounding asylum seekers’ access to EU territory. This is sorely needed today, particularly given that the EU Pact does not present a roadmap for legal migration. One informant stated:

The GCR could be useful in this. In general what we need is a strong statement and strong work from UNHCR and IOM, and then also from the European Commission, the courts, anybody with any power to not allow states to use Covid to limit access to territory with impunity. To either insist, put pressure, use whatever tool available to remove the barriers to access – and also make it so problematic that States decide not to continue it. 

Indeed, it could be argued that one of the most significant contributions the EU could make to implementing, and indeed upholding, the GCR is through expanding safe and legal routes to the EU. One of the tensions apparent between the EU Pact and the GCR in this regard is that ‘migration management’ risks becoming a means to offer substitutes to asylum through dangerous third country arrangements rather than truly creating access to it.

While it has been posited that with the new EU Pact ‘Commission officials have put forward a bold strategy that responds to the political demands and constraints of the present day’, it is hard to not also perceive the shift from the so-called harmonization of the Bloc to the differentiation of it as representing troubling advances in isolationism that do not bode well for other international agreements such as the GCR.


At the end of the day, an affirmation of the GCR should translate into a commitment to and respect for the underlying principles of more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing in policies and practices, including those in the EU. It thus follows that the New Pact on Migration and Asylum should uphold the tenets of global responsibility-sharing and respect such fundamental rights enshrined in the EU Charter as the right to asylum (Article 18) – and the EU should also remain deeply cognizant of the importance of its role within the global protection regime.

Ultimately the GCR is one tool out of many to advocate for refugee protection and responsibility-sharing, but not one that should be disregarded within the EU or within the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Today, in the face of rising border restrictions, disappointing political outcomes and ongoing xenophobia, we need to make use of all the tools we have.


Read the full DRC report here: A restriction of responsibility-sharing: Exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the Global Compact on Refugees’.

Note: Some sections of this piece have been adapted from the report