Refugees and migrants carry their luggage as they arrive on a passenger ferry from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, Greece. Photo by: REUTERS / Giorgos Moutafis

The refugee crisis of 2015 on Europe’s southern shores thrust migration into the media spotlight. But away from the media glare, the issue has been pervasive around the globe and the subject of ongoing policy developments, with differing opinions on how best to aid refugees.  

This week, refugee-hosting governments, donors, and agencies will convene for the first-ever Global Refugee Forum. Whether this transpires into major milestone for the United Nations’ Global Compact on Refugees, which set out a “blueprint” for enabling refugees to live productive lives and integrate with host communities, still hangs in the balance — with fears that it risks becoming another missed opportunity for meaningful change.

Drawing on Humanitarian Policy Group research on the application of the global compact in four countries across East Africa and in Bangladesh, here are five indicators of success.

1. Action, not rhetoric, on refugee rights

While the compact emphasizes refugee self-reliance, this is highly contingent on the legal and policy environment and access to markets.

Refugees often lack the employment, mobility, and land rights that are the first step toward self-reliance. In Ethiopia, a key achievement of the compact has been a refugee law promising greater rights, but it is unclear whether this will provide full freedom of movement or employment. In Uganda, where refugees benefit from most of these rights, they still face practical constraints in moving to markets or jobs.

A real test of the forum will be its ability to go beyond the usual lofty, diplomatic statements on refugee rights to secure concrete commitments on work permits and freedom of movement. Recognition that investing in this, rather than the many sophisticated market interventions that will be showcased at the forum, holds the key to refugees’ economic independence.

2. Figure out what self-reliance means in refugee-hosting areas — and how to achieve it

A lynchpin of refugee self-reliance in the four countries reviewed is the belief that a vibrant private sector will emerge to drive economic development. Although there are efforts to promote private enterprise in Kenya, the private sector is generally under-developed in refugee-hosting areas. A seven-year investment in Dollo Ado in Ethiopia has resulted in new livelihoods and entrepreneurship opportunities, but most refugees remain dependent on aid.

In Kalobeyei, Kenya, a market-based approach is resulting in better food security, but not greater self-reliance.

Economic independence is integral to refugees’ sense of dignity. To get there, we need context-specific, costed plans for increasing self-reliance — plans that consider the capacities, skills, and vulnerabilities of refugees; the wider political and social barriers to unlocking refugees’ rights; and how to encourage the engagement of the private sector and other actors.

3. Put urban refugees on the map

Strategies for achieving self-reliance in East Africa emphasize agricultural livelihoods; urban refugees are largely ignored by the compact and neglected in practice, and in the analysis of the four East African countries, funding for urban self-reliance is almost nonexistent.

Privileging rural over urban livelihoods may be consistent with containing refugees in remote camps close to their countries of origin, but it flies in the face of demography — in 2018, at least 61% of refugees globally were in cities. It also runs counter to the objective of refugee self-reliance: urban refugees have better socioeconomic outcomes than refugees in camps.

4. Secure and track development financing, but don’t forget humanitarian support  

The success of the forum will ultimately hinge on the scale and type of funding pledged and committed. Except for the World Bank, most donors are re-purposing current funding toward development objectives rather than “closing all funding gaps,” as called for under the compact. New development funding cannot come at the expense of life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Without predictable, long-term development funding, host governments won’t have the confidence to take politically unpopular steps toward refugee inclusion. An effective, transparent system to track development support is urgently required.

Our research highlights a catch 22 in the global compact: due to concerns about weak capacity and corruption, donors are reluctant to provide direct budget support to host governments’ service delivery systems. But the new way of working for refugees depends on these very same systems including refugees, so that costly, parallel delivery by aid actors can be reduced.

There is a need for much more politically informed financing that considers what scale and type of funding can incentivize host governments to move forward on refugee rights, inclusion, and self-reliance.

5. Make the Global Compact on Refugees truly global

The fifth and final test for the forum is whether it can reverse the decline in refugee resettlement places and extend the application of the compact to situations of refugee return.

Despite provisions on both return and resettlement in third countries, there has been little or no progress in these areas. Our research analyzing the application of the global compact in Bangladesh shows that it’s having minimal impact in a country where the host government’s policy priority is refugee return, rather than inclusion.

So far, high-income countries are largely failing in their commitment to share responsibility for refugees. Without addressing refugee rights, the desired transformation for refugees is illusive. Current systems of containment of refugees in remote areas where they rely on aid will continue. Fixing these five areas will mean that the Global Refugee Forum can set the compact back on track.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Sorcha O'Callaghan

    Sorcha O’Callaghan is the head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, where she leads research into humanitarian system reform, inclusion and gender, displacement and humanitarian financing. A specialist in displacement, civilian protection and humanitarian action in protracted crises, she has worked extensively in East Africa.