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Three tests for the Global Refugee Forum

Speaking ‘frankly about challenges’ may be easier said than done.

Rohingya refugees walk on an embankment of the Naf River, which separates Myanmar and Bangladesh, in November 2017.
Rohingya refugees walk on an embankment of the Naf River, which separates Myanmar and Bangladesh, in November 2017. (Patrick Brown/UNICEF)

Some 2,000 “change-makers” are taking part in an invitation-only Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this week. There will be a strong focus on recent achievements and future contributions in the realm of refugee protection, but can the event also take on the difficult issues?

The GRF is a “unique opportunity to put in place the elements needed to accelerate our transformation of the global response to refugee flows”, according to Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

Scheduled to take place every four years, the gathering, which runs Monday through Wednesday, has two specific objectives.

The first is to provide a platform to announce pledges and contributions of financial, material, or technical support, as well as refugee resettlement places and other safe and legal routes to asylum.

The second is to facilitate the exchange of good practices and lessons learned, focusing particularly on education, jobs and livelihoods, energy and infrastructure, protection capacity, and solutions.

The GRF follows the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees by UN member states a year ago, the culmination of a process initiated in 2016 by the UN secretary-general to address the increasingly thorny issues related to large-scale movements of refugees and migrants. In its own words, the compact “represents the political will and ambition of the international community as a whole for strengthened cooperation and solidarity with refugees and affected host countries”.

UNHCR is evidently pulling out all the stops to make a success of what it enthusiastically calls “the first-ever world meeting on refugees”.

In accordance with the global compact’s “whole of society” approach, attendees include refugees and members of the communities that host them – which has not always been the case in refugee conferences – as well as representatives of governments, international organisations and NGOs, financial institutions and other private-sector groups, regional bodies, and civil society.

As well as formal debates, the gathering will feature a wide array of other activities, including “spotlight sessions”, a speakers’ corner, social media zone, virtual reality exhibits, TedTalks, “Davos-style interviews”, and an indoor football match.

While the GRF has generated an enormous amount of interest within and beyond the humanitarian community, a number of important questions remain. 

First, while UNHCR has an understandable determination to accentuate the positive by focusing on achievements and contributions, it remains to be seen if the meeting will also, in Grandi’s words, “speak frankly about challenges”.

Will the GRF, for example, reflect upon the EU’s role in returning refugees to detention and death in Libya, on the systematic efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to exclude refugees and asylum seekers from the United States, or on the cruelty of Australia’s offshore processing?

And will there really be an open discussion on the pressures being employed to induce the premature repatriation of Burundian refugees in Tanzania, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

Or will diplomatic niceties prevail, as they so often do in the polite environment of Geneva’s Palais des Nations, leading to a sense of complacency about the parlous state of refugee protection in many parts of the world?

Second, while the GRF is a very concerted attempt to take action based on the Global Compact on Refugees, has the transformative potential of that document been exaggerated?

UNHCR, for example, has variously described the compact as “a new model to address refugee crises”, “a milestone for global solidarity and refugee protection”, “a game-changer,” “a paradigm shift”, and even “a minor miracle”.

Are such descriptions really justified, given that the compact has been in existence for only a year, is a non-binding document that makes no specific or measurable demands on states or other stakeholders, and which, in terms of policy and programmes, offers little that is new or that has not been tried before.

According to one of its sternest critics, refugee lawyer James Hathaway, the compact is better described as a "Global Cop-out" – “the clearest output of which will be lots and lots of meetings to chat about how best to respond to ‘large’ refugee movements”. Will the three-day event in Geneva disprove or substantiate that scathing assessment?

In such a context, there is an evident risk that refugee and host community representatives will be confined to fringe events, their voices drowned out in formal sessions by diplomatic dignitaries, some of whom are more eager to defend their governments’ records than to advance the cause of refugee protection and solutions.

Third, will UNHCR’s ambitions to pursue a participatory approach bear fruit, or will the discourse at the GRF be dominated by states, especially major donors and refugee-hosting countries?

As scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill has pointed out, the compact – “a negotiated deal between states with limited input from refugees or host communities themselves” – has “left many dissatisfied.” Is there a risk that such dissatisfaction will be reinforced by the GRF?

There are signs it might be. Attendance is by invitation only, and a number of civil society and refugee-led organisations have had to lobby hard to be represented in Geneva. It will be interesting to see if those who are known to be critical of UNHCR and government policies will find a seat at the GRF table, and whether they will have a full opportunity to articulate their aspirations.

As UNHCR has already acknowledged, “owing to the limited amount of time available, the necessity of following protocol and the presence of a number of heads of government and other high-level ministers, it will likely not be possible to reach all those who have requested a speaking slot during the plenary”.

In such a context, there is an evident risk that refugee and host community representatives will be confined to fringe events, their voices drowned out in formal sessions by diplomatic dignitaries, some of whom are more eager to defend their governments’ records than to advance the cause of refugee protection and solutions.

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