UNITED NATIONS – With more people forced to flee their homes than at any time since World War II, global leaders on Monday approved a declaration aimed at providing a more coordinated and humane response to the refugee crisis that has strained resources and stoked divisions from Africa to Europe.
The issue of what to do about the world's 65.3 million displaced people will take center stage at the General Assembly with leaders from the United Nations' 193-member states converging on New York for the first-ever summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.
"Today's summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling on leaders to commit to "upholding the rights and dignity of everyone force by circumstance to flee their homes in search of a better life."
The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants contains no concrete commitments and is not legally binding but rather calls on countries to protect refugees' human rights, boost humanitarian aid and increase resettlement of refugees.
"If we are able to translate that paper into a response in which many actors are going to participate, we will solve a lot of problems in emergency responses and in long-term refugee situations like the Syrian situation," Fillipo Grandi, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees told The Associated Press.
The declaration seeks to standardize responses to refugee situations and provide better education and jobs to refugees. It also encourages resettlement and includes plans for a campaign to combat xenophobia.
That may prove an uphill struggle, however, as the declaration comes at a time that refugees and migrants have become a divisive issue in Europe and the United States.
A number of countries rejected an earlier draft of the agreement that called on nations to resettle 10 percent 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.
"Instead of sharing responsibility, world leaders shirked it. The U.N. 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," Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said in a statement.
Shetty said the declaration merely kicks the can down the road by calling for separate global compacts for refugees and migrants to be adopted within two years.
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.
"You hear all around the world the U.N. hasn't handled the refugee crisis. The way the U.N. will handle the refugee crisis is if all of us countries within the U.N. step up and dig deep and face those political headwinds that we all face, to do more, to give more, to take on a greater share of the resettlement challenge," said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
Prior to the pledging summit with world leaders, Obama will host a meeting with top executives from 50 companies to discuss what the private sector can do to help address the problem, Power said.
According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an "unprecedented" 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, an increase of more than 5 million from a year earlier. They include 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million migrants.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, refugees are people forced to flee due to armed conflict or persecution, while migrants choose to move in search of a better life.