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Key takeaways from the first Global Refugee Forum

‘In order to have a sustainable refugee response, we need to actually include meaningful refugee participation.’

The Global Refugee Forum, co-hosted by UNHCR and the Swiss government, took place on 17 and 18 December and was co-convened by Turkey, Germany, Ethiopia and Costa Rica.
The Global Refugee Forum. (Andrew McConnell/UNHCR)

What does “burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing” look like when it comes to addressing the needs of more than 25 million refugees and their host communities around the world? 

As some 3,000 representatives of governments, the development and aid sectors, and civil society organisations – plus dozens of refugees – who gathered in Geneva this week for the invitation-only Global Refugee Forum discovered, it depends who you ask. 

For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who addressed the gathering on Tuesday, the answer lies in more support from the international community to help some of the 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees living in his country return home. It’s time, he said, to “put into effect formulas that will keep refugees on their own soil and allow those in our country to return”.

For Oxfam GB Chief Executive Danny Sriskandarajah, it’s a focus on resettlement, specifically on encouraging countries to live up to their pledges on the number of refugees they will accept.

And for wealthier governments and the private sector, it can be pledging funds for everything from education to clean energy to better support host countries.

The forum was the first major test of the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by the UN General Assembly one year ago in an effort to improve the international refugee response.

This week’s gathering was a check-up on progress toward the goals of the compact – a tall order at a time when the numbers of displaced are swelling worldwide, fatigue and outright rejection among some donors and host countries is increasing, and some wealthy countries – notably the United States – are dramatically scaling back resettlement and asylum programmes.

“Sharing responsibly, the foundation of our modern system for protecting refugees, is being replaced in countries with more resources by pushing responsibility on those countries less able to cope, and so refugees are pushed aside too,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted in the opening session.

“The language around participation has existed for a long time, but it’s the practice that we need to work more on.”

Steps taken in Geneva this week included pledges of about $3 billion from states, $250 million from the private sector – with companies promising some 15,000 jobs to refugees – and several billion dollars from development banks, officials said. The amounts are relatively modest: 2019 spending by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, will be about $4 billion.

Non-monetary pledges ranged from increased resettlement spots to giving refugee groups more input in policy-making.

Some of the approximately 80 refugees who participated in the forum noted that very little of the pledged funding was going to refugee-led initiatives.  

“In order to have a sustainable refugee response, we need to actually include meaningful refugee participation – we need to include people with lived experience,” Najeeba Wazefadost, a refugee from Afghanistan now living in Australia and an advocate with the Global Refugee-led Network, told The New Humanitarian. “The language around participation has existed for a long time, but it’s the practice that we need to work more on.”

The number of refugee participants was a notable increase over previous high-level events focused on refugee issues, yet as some of the refugee participants pointed out, they still represented a tiny fraction of the total attendees. 

Wazefadost said refugees want to see at least 25 percent participation at the next forum, scheduled to be held in four years. 

In the meantime, she said, they are asking for refugee observer seats to be added to high-level UNHCR committees, and for refugee advisory bodies to work with the regional bureaus.

During the forum, at the request of the refugee network, several states -- including Australia, Canada, and Denmark -- committed to giving refugees a more participatory role in policy-making.

While many attendees indicated that the forum was a hopeful step, others preferred to reserve judgement and see if the commitments come to fruition.

James Munn, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva office, told TNH that he sees some hopeful signs of a move toward greater responsibility-sharing in the international refugee response.

“But it’s not going to happen overnight as a result of the conference – it’s a build-up,” he said. “The accountability mechanism that follows this conference is probably more important than the conference itself.”

A dashboard listing all pledges made during the forum – with entries broken down by donor and category – will be updated by pledging and recipient bodies to reflect implementation status going forward, officials said. Grandi said stakeholder groups might also be formed to track implementation on specific subject areas.

Here are summaries of the discussions around three key issues: the increasingly long-term nature of refugee situations; encouraging resettlement opportunities; and the push for returns.

Clean energy and a long-term approach

In recent years, as the protracted nature of many refugee crises has become more evident, there has been an increasing focus on the “humanitarian-development nexus”, with a focus on longer-term development projects that serve both refugees and host communities.

Among the pledges at the forum were commitments to build infrastructure, such as access to electricity and water for both refugees and host communities. This commitment included clean energy projects – intended both to improve refugees’ access to reliable energy and to mitigate the impacts of climate change, which is predicted by many to be a major driver of displacement in the coming years.

The World Bank Group pledged $2.2 billion over the next three years in concessional financing specifically for refugee-hosting communities under its International Development Association fund – an increase of $200 million from the last funding cycle. 

Other development banks made similar commitments, including the Inter-American Development Bank, which pledged $1 billion.

Axel van Trostenburg, managing director of operations at the World Bank Group, said the development bank gets involved “when a humanitarian crisis has also developed into an acute development crisis.

“It is not about replacing somebody, but seeing how you can be more complementary,” he said. But he added that the World Bank had sometimes run into difficulties in convincing refugee-hosting countries of the usefulness of the long-term approach.

“Some countries have received refugees, but see them as essentially temporary, where in reality they may have to stay much, much longer,” he said.

Reversing the resettlement trend

The three “durable solutions” available to refugees include voluntary return to their home countries, integration in host countries – usually neighbouring countries, often low and middle-income – or resettlement in a third country. Since 2016, international resettlement numbers have plummeted markedly, while some countries have also sought to block asylum seekers arriving at their borders.

Although resettlement has always been available to only a small number of refugees, Oxfam’s Sriskandarajah told TNH that resettlement is important because “it recognises that geography alone should not determine responsibility and that all countries should share responsibility for protection”.

“In some cases – most notably the US – they seem to be going backwards.”

“It’s in that regard that it’s so disappointing that many countries have not lived up to their pledges,” he said. “In some cases – most notably the US – they seem to be going backwards.”

Compared to 2016, when 126,291 refugees were granted resettlement places worldwide, this year there had been 54,102 departures as of the end of October. 

The drop was largely due to the decision by US President Donald Trump’s administration to dramatically cut refugee admissions. Trump has lowered the US cap of 110,000 set by former president Barack Obama in 2016 to just 18,000 for 2020.

US Ambassador to the UN Andrew Bremberg did not address the issue of resettlement or asylum in his speech at the forum. Instead, he called for “political solutions” and more innovation, and touted large US financial contributions to humanitarian response.

Other countries did pledge to create resettlement places, either through UNHCR or through alternatives like private sponsorship programmes. In total, Grandi said, more than 50,000 places were promised.

“I hope it means… a counter-tendency to what we have been seeing in the past few years,” he told reporters after the forum, but added that it was too early to tell.

Turkey, Lebanon, and Syrian returns

The question of return – particularly for Syrian refugees – loomed large in some of the discussions. As the Syrian refugee crisis nears the nine-year mark, with donor and host fatigue setting in, the neighbouring countries hosting the bulk of the refugees have increasingly pushed for them to return to their country.

Apart from the calls for voluntary returns, rights groups have accused both Turkey – which is hosting nearly 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees – and Lebanon, with more than 900,000 registered (and potentially hundreds of thousands of more unregistered) – of violating international standards by deporting Syrian refugees.

Turkey’s Erdoğan – whose country was one of the co-convenors of the forum along with Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, and Pakistan – and Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil both used the forum to call for the international community to help them to return refugees to Syria, with Bassil claiming refugees were partially responsible for the economic crisis in his country.

Erdoğan claimed 371,000 displaced Syrians had already settled in the so-called “safe zone” Turkey has created in northwest Syria after driving out Kurdish-led forces – considered by Ankara to be terrorist groups. He, too, urged the international community to facilitate sending more refugees back by designating more “safe zones” and aiding with reconstruction. Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses against civilians in the "safe zone", cautioned that Erdoğan’s figures were difficult to verify.

Erdoğan’s comments came on the same day as a decision by Denmark’s Refugee Appeals Board to deny asylum requests by three Syrian women from Damascus, arguing that they would not face dangers if they went back.

Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of SAWA for Development & Aid, a small NGO working with refugees in Lebanon, told TNH on the sidelines of the forum that she was “deeply concerned” by the increasing push for return.

“We want to continue saying that Syria is, until today, not safe… Despite talk about safe zones, and despite Europe starting not to accept refugees, Syria is still, based on UNHCR thresholds, not a safe place for people to go back to,” she said.

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