Prime Minister John Key's presence in the United Nation's Summit for Refugees and Migrants on September 19 at New York demonstrated New Zealand's commitment towards norm-building in addressing the large movements of refugees and migrants around the world.
World leaders came together at the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which expresses the political will of world leaders to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, to save lives, and share responsibility for large movements on a global scale.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, which included 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million migrants. This is too many numbers of people to be uprooted from their natural habitat, either forcefully or willingly, to be considered a global crisis of proportion.
The declaration, although non-binding as of now, plays an important role in constituting a global norm of preserving and protecting people at risk. Scholars recognise the important role of norms in shaping public policy. Norms can influence (state) behaviour in two ways. First, they can constitute actors’ identities and interests, and define what actions are appropriate. Second, norms can influence behaviour through their embodiment in concrete policy programs
Speaking on the occasion, Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen, NZ’s Permanent Representative to the UN, reaffirmed our commitment to the cause, by stating that "the challenges posed are complex and multifaceted, and we have a shared responsibility to manage the irregular migration flows in a collaborative and comprehensive way, with full respect for international law".
Visibly, there was considerable excitement among the world leaders and the United Nations for their success in bringing together everyone on a common global governance platform and expressing a common will to addressing the issue more empathetically.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Member States saying, “Today’s Summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility.”
Undeniably, despite this visible excitement, it is too early to predict any quantifiable impact on the plight of people at risk due to forced displacement. Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty was quick to express his anguish on the perceived shortcoming of the New York declaration. "Instead of sharing responsibility, world leaders shirked it. The UN summit has been sabotaged by states acting in self-interest, leaving millions of refugees in dire situations around the world on the edge of a precipice," he said in the statement.
Nevertheless, the states being driven by their "self-interests" is an inescapable reality of international relations. The accountability of national leaders to their citizens is often in conflict with the need to act in the global public interest.
Although, there is a much wider public receptivity across the entire political spectrum of the New Zealand, than what the current National government is actually committed to sharing the burden of global risk of forced movement of people.
New Zealand is one of around 26 countries that take part in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regular resettlement programme and has a solid refugee intake programme running since 1987 when the government established a formal annual quota for the resettlement of refugees.
The current refugee quota of 750 refugees, which is proposed to be increased to 1,000 in the year 2018, is still significantly short of general expectations, and our comprehensive ability to co-opt people at risk.
Though, Ambassador van Bohemen, in his address at the conference, was quick to restate NZ's traditional preference of addressing the root causes stirring global mobility of people at such massive scale.
"We must look to greater and earlier investment in conflict prevention and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda to address the root causes of the current unprecedented flows of irregular migration," he said.
Despite some perceived shortcomings, there is nothing to take away from this latest attempt of the international community in gathering together and manifesting their collective political will to work collaboratively to address large movements of refugees and migrants.
All major norms associated with the 21st-century international politics, such as human rights, labour standards, the environment etc., have been built upon successful international conferences.
Although, it may be suggested to consider un-clubbing of "refugees" and "asylum seekers" with the category of "migrants," so as to develop more sensitivity and a better-focused response from all stakeholders. The current clubbing together of these categories appear to be reminiscent of the 20th-century international politics than being reflective of a 21st-century world.
A migrant is a person who makes a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere, whereas refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced persecution. Despite many real time perils and tragedy entailed by the migrants in several parts of the world, their situation is relatively far more empowered than those of refugees.
An accurate depiction of their relative situation will ensure a more focused action from the host states, non-government stakeholders, and the international community.