Where were the refugees at the Global Refugee Forum?

How was refugee representation at the first-ever world meeting on refugees? Photo by: Mark Henley / UNHCR

GENEVA — Refugee representation and how to hold donors accountable to their pledges were at the top of the conversation as the first Global Refugee Forum wrapped up this week.

The event, aimed at transforming the United NationsGlobal Compact on Refugees from a blueprint into action, saw 774 pledges announced.

“The only way we can say this event is successful is when we see what has been discussed here has been put into practice.”

— Robert Hakiza, co-founder, Young African Refugees for Integral Development

But refugees and advocates questioned if and how those pledges can be implemented to bring about some progress in supporting refugees and their host communities before the next forum in four years’ time.

According to the official count, protection capacity received the largest share of pledges with 170, while education received 136 and jobs and livelihoods received 103. The commitments covered everything from employment opportunities for refugees to school places, new government policies, solutions for resettlement, clean energy, infrastructure, and better support for host communities. A range of actors — including governments, civil society, refugee groups, sports associations, faith groups, and the private sector — were behind this set of aspirational commitments.

“The only way we can say this event is successful is when we see what has been discussed here has been put into practice,” said Robert Hakiza, a Congolese refugee living in Uganda and co-founder of Young African Refugees for Integral Development. “My experience tells me sometimes not much is done after these kinds of conferences.”

To ensure the pledges materialize before the next event in 2023, Jessie Thomson, CARE Canada’s vice president of partnerships for global change, recommended that states and organizations review them to see where there is duplication and potential for collaboration.

While this perhaps should have been done beforehand, Thomson said that commitments from many states — including Canada — weren’t approved until just a few days before the forum, limiting their ability to collaborate.

Financial commitments are easier to track, but other, more general commitments — to “strengthen protection capacity,” for example — are harder.

“Identify the [pledges] that aren’t sufficiently concrete and put them aside, and dig into the ones that are concrete and measurable and that we can then create an accountability mechanism around,” she said.

Sasha Chanoff, founder and executive director of RefugePoint, said he hoped the conference would also play a role in drawing funding attention to various partners and projects, which could then help pledges come to fruition.

But the onus isn’t just on states and organizations to make these pledges happen, Hakiza said. Refugees have a responsibility to understand the pledges that have been made and push for them to be rolled out, he told Devex.

For that, though, refugees need to be part of the conversation, and many felt that this year’s representation wasn’t good enough. Of the 3,000 participants attending what UNHCR described as “the first-ever world meeting on refugees,” around 70 were refugees. Thomson said that should be addressed the next time around.

“If we had a conference on women’s rights and 2% of the participants were women, we would not think that was OK, so I’m not sure why we think 2% participation from refugee lived experience is sufficient,” she said.

Of those who were there, very few featured in plenary sessions, Thomson added. “Instead, it was whole panels of statesmen because of the nature of diplomacy … Let’s disrupt that and talk about why that’s the norm and how do we bring states on a journey so that they’re comfy with that being shifted,” she said.

Thomson suggested that nongovernmental organizations, the U.N., and member states should find ways to share space with refugees so that their knowledge and expertise can be tapped into. For example, CARE advocated for a refugee to replace an NGO advocate in the Canadian delegation to the event.

James Munn, director of humanitarian policy at the Geneva office of the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted that there can be logistical issues for organizations trying to bring refugees in from various areas to attend conferences such as this one.

“Maybe instead of having big global conferences, we could have connectivity in different ways,” he said, suggesting that the use of technology be considered next time.

He also highlighted that having so many people fly in following the U.N. conference on climate change in Madrid this month was not well-thought-out.

“The connectivity of when we pledge something in Madrid and something in Geneva should have joined-up thinking. We know that here with the refugees, we’re also focusing on climate,” he said.

About the author

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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.