UN Assembly adopts refugee pact, without US and Hungary

The United Nations logo is displayed on a door at U.N. headquarters in New York. (File photo: Reuters)
Updated 17 December 2018
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UN Assembly adopts refugee pact, without US and Hungary

  • The refugee pact was approved by 181 countries
  • Only two voted no — the US and Hungary. Three others abstained — the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya

UNITED NATIONS: The UN General Assembly on Monday adopted by a wide majority a Global Compact on Refugees aimed at improving efforts to manage large refugee movements — but without the support of the United States and Hungary.
The refugee pact, which did not provoke the controversy unleashed over a similar pact on migration, was approved by 181 countries.
Only two voted no — the US and Hungary. Three others abstained — the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya.
Much like the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — the refugee pact is not legally binding.
The two global agreements stem from the so-called New York Declaration adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in September 2016, with the goal of better handling migrant and refugee flows worldwide.
The compact — written under the auspices of the Geneva-based UN refugee agency (UNHCR) — hopes to ensure an adequate international response to large-scale refugee movements and extended displacement of refugees.
General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa told AFP the pact would help “strengthen the assistance to and protection of the 25 million refugees globally” and was based on burden — and responsibility-sharing.
“Refugee-hosting countries continue to show extraordinary levels of generosity and commitment to refugee protection,” said Espinosa, who is from Ecuador.
“It’s a known fact that low and middle-income countries host over 85 percent of all refugees. I believe that we must support the communities and states that host refugees.”
In voting no, Hungary said no new agreement was needed. The US said recently that it backed most of the refugee pact, but not the part aimed at limiting detentions of asylum seekers.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, two countries facing massive population flight addressed the assembly.
Syria said the debate should not be politicized and asked the UNHCR to do more to help Syrian refugees return to their war-wracked country.
Crisis-hit Venezuela, which has seen massive flight as its economic quagmire has deepened, urged the assembly to ensure that the new pact did not become a way for other countries to intervene in internal matters.
The document has four key objectives: ease pressure on refugee-hosting nations; improve refugee self-reliance; expand access to third countries for refugees via resettlement; and, support conditions for refugees to go home.
The compact is meant to set up a framework; national and regional solutions are supported, and it discusses financing and possible partnerships, as well as data sharing among nations.
It also includes systems to monitor progress, including a Global Refugee Forum held at ministerial level every four years.
Unlike the talks on the migration pact, the United States remained in the negotiations for the refugee pact.
The final text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Legal Migration was agreed on in July, and it is to be formally ratified by the General Assembly on Wednesday.
Since July, a number of countries have either quit the pact or expressed serious reservations, including Hungary, Australia, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Latvia and Italy.
In Belgium, the migration pact sparked the collapse of the country’s coalition government.
About 165 countries reaffirmed their commitment to the migration pact earlier this month in Morocco.


’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan

Updated 6 min 16 sec ago
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’Naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in war-torn Afghanistan

  • Despite the country’s decaying security nearly 2,000 Afghans have signed up to host guests on the Couchsurfing website
  • Couchsurfing’s concept is like a modern-day version of Afghanistan’s tradition of hospitality, which obliges Afghans to provide food and shelter to strangers

KABUL: Seeking an “authentic” experience as he backpacked through war-torn Afghanistan, Dutch tourist Ciaran Barr searched the Couchsurfing website for locals to stay with. He found an astonishing number of potential hosts.
Despite the country’s decaying security nearly 2,000 Afghans — the vast majority of them men — have signed up to host guests on the social networking platform, which connects travelers around the world with locals who are willing to put them up for free.
“You feel like you get a more authentic feel for the city so you don’t get trapped in tourist hotspots,” Barr, 24, tells AFP in heavily-militarised Kabul, where he spent several nights sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor of his Afghan host’s bedroom.
“Not that there are any in Afghanistan,” he adds wryly.
Once a popular stop on the well-worn hippy trail between Europe and South Asia in the 1970s, Afghanistan has seen the number of foreign travelers crossing its borders dwindle in the past four decades of almost non-stop conflict.
But dozens still make the dangerous journey every year, ignoring clear warnings from their own governments to stay away from a country infested with suicide attackers, kidnappers and armed robbers, and which by some estimates is now the world’s deadliest conflict zone.
Many take their chances by staying with Afghan strangers they find through the Couchsurfing network, rather than paying for a room in a hotel protected by armed guards and bullet-proof doors.
“Staying with people and dressing to blend in a bit makes it possible to travel in Afghanistan with not too big of a risk,” says Barr, who — with his dark hair and beard, and dressed in the baggy pyjama-style shalwar kameez favored by most Afghan men — stands out less than most foreigners.
Couchsurfing’s concept is like a modern-day version of Afghanistan’s tradition of hospitality, which obliges Afghans to provide food and shelter to strangers.
But it is risky. Couchsurfers only have their host’s online profile and references to judge their character.
In a country where kidnappings remain common and foreigners are highly-prized targets, they have no way of knowing if their host is connected to criminals, who may see a chance to get rich by abducting them or giving them up to militants.
“You can end up with the Taliban,” says a diplomat in Kabul, who has been involved in negotiations to rescue kidnap victims.
“It’s naive and reckless.”
That is what happened to North American couple Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, who were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012.
They were freed from the Taliban in 2017, along with their three children who were born in captivity.
But Norwegian tourist Jorn Bjorn Augestad, who has couchsurfed in Iraq and the Central African Republic, tells AFP in Kabul that government warnings exaggerate the dangers.
“They are too careful. You have to be smart about a lot of things, having contact with a local is the best way to stay safe,” says Augestad, who is on a mission to visit every country in the world, including Syria, before his 30th birthday this year.
He adds: “This is part of the cultural experience, seeing how people live and hearing people’s life story and getting an understanding of the country that you are in.”
Barr and Augestad began their week-long Afghan odyssey in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for its ancient Blue Mosque and buzkashi, a savage version of polo played with a goat carcass.
The pair met through a local travel agent, who found them a taxi driver to take them more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the Afghan capital.
After reaching Kabul, the deadliest place in Afghanistan for civilians, Barr and Augestad stayed with Couchsurfing host Naser Majidi, 27, who works as a technical adviser for a water utility company.
For Afghans consumed by wanderlust, hosting a foreigner is a chance to travel vicariously through their experiences, as more and more countries make it all but impossible for Afghan passport holders to obtain a visa.
“I can make it easier for them to see the beauty of this country,” says Majidi, who has hosted six guests since signing up to Couchsurfing in 2016.
“It’s a good experience for me — I get more friends and I know the world better.”
But his family worry that he is putting himself in danger.
“They have advised me many times that this is very risky for you and for them (guests),” Majidi says.
Elyas Yari, who became a host in 2017 despite the objections of loved ones, says he enjoys listening to his guests’ travel “experiences and their ideas.”
“It’s fun for me,” says Yari, 19, who has received visitors from Canada, Russia, Mexico and Taiwan.
Afghanistan is “not as dangerous as it looks,” he says.
But Barr and Augestad are not oblivious to the potential pitfalls of traveling independently in Afghanistan where the Taliban and the Daesh group terrorize much of the country.
“Things can go well nine out of 10 times,” says Barr, adding: “It just takes that one time when things go wrong and so far nothing has gone wrong.
He concedes: “We also have been lucky.”