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The world’s largest gathering on refugees demonstrates why strong and meaningful refugee participation can’t be the exception to the rule. USA for UNHCR’s Suzanne Ehlers weighs in.
There was a moment during the closing plenary of the Global Refugee Forum last week in Geneva when Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, asked all refugees in the room to stand up. From a crowd of over 3,000, hundreds of people stood up and looked around the vast space. And then the applause began.
Grandi eventually had to quiet the crowd as the strict U.N. timekeeping indicated the forum’s closing, with translators preparing to switch off. But I wondered how long the applause would have continued without the gentle coaxing.
The first and last time this forum was convened was in 2019, in the “before times.” Before COVID-19. Before a systematic reconsideration of the role of equity and inclusion in our global development work. Before a world where a new crisis appears weekly. Before we understood the carrying capacity of headlines — it’s no longer “all the news that’s fit to print.” It’s whether there’s enough room to fit all the news that deserves to be printed.
In 2019, the world was host to almost 80 million forcibly displaced people. Today’s figure is 114 million. That’s a nearly 50% increase in four short years. It is a figure that reflects a crisis of humanity. However, it also represents an unprecedented scale of generosity and hospitality as people across the globe open their hearts and homes to those who have been forced to flee due to violence, conflict, persecution, or harmful impacts of climate change.
So what’s next after such a forum? Pledges were made — $2.2 billion worth — and partnerships were established. Lessons learned were shared, and best practices were disseminated. But is there a secret to ensuring momentum is maintained? Where’s the magic follow-up wand we all so desperately wish to wave?
Strong and meaningful refugee participation is imperative
The answer lies in that closing plenary: strong and meaningful refugee participation. Those who stood up, whether in traditional dress or business suits, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Myanmar, share one label — refugee — that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. But they have multiple other labels — doctor, seamstress, activist, student, farmer — that they wish to carry with them. Yet, their identities and livelihoods are often not fully recognized beyond the borders of their home countries.
As one delegate reminded me, just because someone loses their home doesn’t mean they lose their mind, their skills, or their energy.
We need to transform outdated systems by including refugees in decision-making and seeing refugees as agents of change in every step of our solutions process. This approach should not be the exception to the rule, but the rule for conceptualizing, designing, building, and executing on those $2.2 billion in pledges made in Geneva last week.
3 key approaches
We’ll do this effectively and smartly through three interrelated and mutually reinforcing approaches — accountability, innovation, and integration.
1. First, always accountability, because it matters not what pledge was made, but what has been and will be achieved. The number of refugees in the plenary room doesn’t matter if we don’t take into account their experiences and contributions. An accountability framework that reminds us that low- and middle-income countries host 75% of the world’s refugees, in environments that are already resource-constrained and alongside host communities that are struggling to make ends meet.
2. Second, those pledges to which we are held accountable must be innovative. Not in the “bells and whistles” sort of way that innovation tends to get covered, at least in the United States. I like a bell and whistle as much as the next person, but I’m also excited by a livelihood program that uses local ingredients to make soap, such as in Ethiopia. Or the International Finance Corporation bringing basic internet connectivity to the camps in Kenya by investing in refugee entrepreneurs, such as the Wi-Fi boys, and thereby unlocking dynamic community spaces.
What about good, old-fashioned innovative loans for small and medium business enterprises, so refugee-led and powered beauty salons and cafés can get their footing and scale with proper tools and adequate capital?
3. Third, integration is itself a form of innovation — just look to more inclusive regulatory structures in a country like Mexico. Refugees and asylum seekers from Venezuela and Central America are finding homes and jobs in the factory belt of northern Mexico, through what the UN Refugee Agency calls a “durable solutions” program. What will it take for aging societies to recognize the workforce shortages of the present and future and seek a lasting solution for these new arrivals?
There are positive examples. One is my hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where Mayor Ron Nirenberg is a signatory to the Charter for Compassion. San Antonio is a city whose residents have shown time again that they will choose acceptance over fear and unity over division. Having hosted almost 600,000 asylum seekers since 2021 and resettled thousands of refugees, including many from Afghanistan, San Antonio is an example of one city showcasing innovation through integration, and embodying accountability.
What about Ireland, where every child who comes to the country receives enrollment in school? Their parents receive access to work, and they all receive access to health care. Ireland, as a result, is a better country for it. Yes, the sound-bite really is true: When refugees are integrated, society as a whole benefits.
As my colleague Mohammed Naeem of the United States Refugee Advisory Board reminded us over dinner last week, the current system was created post-World War II — over 70 years ago — without space for refugees to participate. We cannot continue in this manner if we want to meet the challenges of today.
The energy for such a re-imagining can come from many places, but it will certainly come from strong and meaningful refugee participation. This year’s Global Refugee Forum re-confirmed such participation as an essential strategy to advance positive change in what can be a difficult and often heart-breaking context.