Can the Global Refugee Forum deliver what the UN compact is missing?

Leaders and U.N. officials gather for the opening plenary session of the Global Refugee Forum at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Violaine Martin / UNHCR

GENEVA — As the first Global Refugee Forum gets underway in Geneva, refugee advocates are holding out for concrete commitments and accountability mechanisms to put the Global Compact on Refugees into action.

With global displacement at a record high, the United Nations-led compact was intended to offer a framework to improve the international response to refugee situations. At the time of its 2018 launch, sector professionals criticized the agreement — which is not legally binding — for lacking an implementation plan and clear indicators to hold member states to account.

“The priority seems to be to announce as many pledges as possible in time for the forum, but … how are we going to know if the pledges made ... have actually been delivered?”

— Farida Bena, director of policy and advocacy, International Rescue Committee

“Because it’s nonbinding and voluntary, its implementation depends on governments taking the lead to move forward with it, and that’s why we’re going to see, at the GRF, if governments are really taking this seriously or if it’s really more of an abstract concept,” said Mark Yarnell, senior advocate at Refugees International.

The compact’s four objectives are to ease pressure on host countries, enhance refugee self-reliance, expand access to third-country resettlement, and support conditions in refugees’ countries of origin for a safe return.

At the end of 2018, 70 million people had been displaced by war, conflict, and persecution, with an estimated 26 million refugees worldwide.

As the first meeting since the compact’s adoption, the GRF — set to take place every four years, with this year’s inaugural gathering co-hosted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Switzerland — is designed to showcase pledges, contributions, and best practices.

“We want concrete and tangible commitments, centered around life-changing interventions for refugees and their hosts,” said Farida Bena, International Rescue Committee’s director of policy and advocacy.

She recommended that governments commit to working together to design refugee responses differently, plan for the long term, and become more agile in shifting from emergency responses to approaches that enable refugees to enjoy their rights and fulfill their potential. Member state pledges should also include refugees in national development plans as part of their Sustainable Development Goals efforts, Bena added.

Nijam Uddin, a Rohingya refugee and general secretary of the British Rohingya Community, said that there should also be an emphasis on addressing the root causes of refugee crises and finding solutions that enable people to return to their own countries. “My hope is that world leaders will take appropriate action,” he said.

In the days leading up to the forum, organizations such as UNHCR, UNESCO, the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative, and the International Olympic Committee began announcing pledges of technical expertise, new databases, and access to improved programming. Other pledges are expected to include legal and policy changes to enable greater inclusion of refugees in society, resettlement places, and safe return for refugees.

But financial commitments are also needed to bring real solutions, said Jessie Thomson, CARE Canada’s vice president of partnerships for global change. “While we can change the way we work, resourcing the needs appropriately is a critical piece of the puzzle,” Thomson said, adding that the forum must build political momentum to put the global compact into action.

In 2018, UNHCR’s required budget of more than $8 billion was only 57% financed.

Bena added that there needs to be a shift from the short-term funding cycles of humanitarian projects toward interventions that support long-term, sustainable solutions. This is where the private sector should come in to hire refugees, fund programs that give them opportunities to regain control of their futures, build markets that create economic opportunities for refugees, and advocate for policies that support refugee access and inclusion, she added.

More than 100 private sector companies and foundations are attending the forum and are set to make pledges around jobs, finance, and other assistance.

While many other commitments spanning education, energy, and integration are expected to roll in over the coming days, advocates expressed concern about how to monitor whether governments and organizations follow through on their promises.

“As has been the case with other major conferences of this kind in the past, the priority seems to be to announce as many pledges as possible in time for the forum, but what’s going to happen a year or two or five years from now? How are we going to know if the pledges made ... have actually been delivered?” Bena asked, adding that there is a high chance of ending up with a plethora of disparate pledges that are impossible to track.

While UNHCR has developed a monitoring system to track progress, those who spoke with Devex said the indicators are too broad. “We need a lot more clarity from UNHCR on the tracking mechanism for GRF pledges and contributions. All we know at the moment is that stakeholders who make a pledge can choose when to report on it, but how they will report is still a mystery,” Bena said.

There is also no mechanism to ensure those responding to refugees’ needs are supported, Thomson said. “The forum offers an opportunity to build support for these initiatives, to share knowledge and approaches, and mobilize the support they need to help advance the spirit and aspirations of the Global Compact on Refugees,” she said.

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.