The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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End the tokenism. Give refugees a voice on our own futures

‘Acknowledge us as partners, especially in global policymaking processes that impact our lives.’

(Evan Forester/Flickr, Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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Including the voices of refugees in developing an effective response to managing the global refugee system is not yet the norm. It desperately needs to be.

Refugee participation can help transform the global refugee system to be more equitable, effective, responsive, and legitimate. Together, we need to reimagine a system where refugees have a seat at the table and can add our expertise and lived experience to a system we depend on for protection and that we know inside and out.

This week, senior government officials and other stakeholders are convening for a virtual High-Level Officials Meeting (HLOM) to assess progress and maintain momentum toward implementing the objectives of the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees, which outlined a vision for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity with refugees and host countries. 

Yet, only three of the more than 70 country delegations to the meeting – the United States, Canada, and Germany – include a refugee adviser. And it is the first time that the United States and Germany are including refugee advisers in their delegations to any international refugee meeting. 

Symbolic representation will not be enough.

Through Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), the organisation we co-founded and run, we are trying to change the glaringly unacceptable reality of refugees being left out of the conversations about policies that directly affect our lives. We are urging international institutions and countries to include us in the central decision-making bodies of the global refugee response system, such as the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

Symbolic representation will not be enough. We need to be included in the process of imagining new solutions and programmes in ways that are meaningful, not tokenistic. It’s not enough to invite a refugee representative to a meeting, ask them to tell their story, then get to the business of making decisions after they leave – which is what all too often happens. For our participation to be meaningful, it needs to be substantive, sustained, and have the potential to affect outcomes.

As Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN in New York, has said: “We must listen to the voices of refugees, and their victimhood and lack of agency must come to an end. That is the key to the path forward, and it must fuel both national and international policies.”

This is not something refugees can achieve on our own. By definition, refugees lack traditional political power, so we need allies to help create the space for meaningful participation and to demand that our skills, experience, and knowledge is brought into the process of finding solutions. 

The idea of refugee participation is gaining prominence and momentum in some quarters, but there’s still a long way to go. At the UN Global Refugee Forum in 2019 – the first major event following up on the Global Compact on Refugees – there were around 3,000 participants, including heads of state, ministers, and representatives of NGOs and private companies. Meanwhile, only around 70 refugees were in attendance. 

At a more local level, many states have recognized the value of incorporating refugee voices in domestic policy making discussions. In Sweden, an annual refugee-led forum brings together political party leaders with representatives of migrant and refugee organisations, local authorities, private companies, and citizens. Brazil is increasingly consulting with migrant advisory boards and actively encouraging refugee participation at the municipal and regional levels. France hosts l’Académie pour la participation des personnes réfugiées, which supports refugee participation in policy, advocacy, and governance. And, in November 2020, the High Court of Kenya ruled that refugee participation is a constitutional requirement in any policy or programming impacting refugees.

Internationally, according to research by our team and partner organisations, more than 30 governments have spoken in recent years of including refugee participation in global meetings. In reality, however, refugee participation remains largely absent – as is evident at this week’s HLOM.

Refugees are not all passive victims in need of help. Acknowledge us as partners.

Forcibly displaced persons – including refugees – now constitute about one percent of the world’s population. Adding the accelerating climate crisis to the equation, that proportion is expected to grow to close to 15 percent by 2050, with the number of displaced individuals potentially topping one billion.

If the collective international response is failing now – with depressingly low resettlement numbers and ineffective local integration strategies – the situation will only become more desperate in the years to come.

Because we live or have lived through them, refugees are far more aware of the shortcomings of resettlement, local integration, voluntary repatriation, and other segments of the global response system for addressing these issues than anyone else. Our lives are impacted by the flaws in the system every day, from lack of access to services to the slow response to the pandemic, particularly in the Global South, where the majority of refugees are located. Our lived experience and insight is, therefore, invaluable in identifying and addressing the problems.

It’s time for governments, policymakers, the media, and general publics around the world to abandon a stifling stereotype: Refugees are not all passive victims in need of help. Acknowledge us as partners, especially in global policymaking processes that impact our lives.

Now is the time for states to start taking action to ensure that the next international gathering on improving refugee response includes even more official delegates with lived experience and first-hand expertise.

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