The current situation that refugees and forcibly displaced people face across the globe remains a dire and alarming humanitarian challenge, marked by ongoing conflicts, geopolitical instabilities, and the consequences of climate change. Yearly, millions are driven from their homes to seek safety, often facing immense hardships and obstacles in their pursuit of a secure and dignified life. It is within this context that the second Global Refugee Forum (GRF or the Forum) will take place in Geneva from December 13-15, 2023. Co-hosted by Switzerland and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office (UNHCR), five states will co-convene the GRF: Colombia, France, Japan, Jordan, and Uganda.
Held every four years in Geneva, the GRF is the largest meeting of the global refugee system. It provides the opportunity to review the progress made by states and other stakeholders towards implementing the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which focuses on supporting refugee-hosting countries, increasing refugee self-reliance and access to third-country solutions, as well as improving conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity. The 2023 GRF also allows the opportunity to take stock of pledges and initiatives announced since the first Forum in 2019. UNHCR has stipulated that the upcoming Forum will be successful if states and other stakeholders continue sustained engagement through multi-stakeholder pledges, particularly with commitments to high quality pledges (financial, material, or technical), and continue on their implementation of the pledges first announced at the 2019 Forum.
Gatherings such as the GRF at UN headquarters convene a plethora of stakeholders, comprising Member States of the United Nations, humanitarian and development actors, civil society, the private sector, and media. However, opportunities for meaningful participation in high-level meetings are limited for affected populations, in this case refugees, and are often relegated to story-telling and informal advocacy spaces.
Since 2016, prior to the negotiations of the GCR, refugees and refugee-led organizations (RLOs) along with other allies have strengthened the role of refugees and RLOs in the making and implementation of policies that affect them. A concrete example of that is the inclusion of paragraph 34 in the final language of the GCR that reads:
"Responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist. […]”
Meaningful refugee participation is seen as a major area of innovation for the governance of the global refugee regime. It is not only a moral imperative but also an effective approach to enhance global refugee responses. Refugees are often first responders and innovators in addressing the challenges they face, and therefore develop policy and programming expertise. Meaningful refugee participation is evolving to an emerging norm and at this juncture, it is important to shift the discussion from “if” it is relevant, to a discussion of “how” it can be implemented in practice and in policy processes.
At a time in which more than 110 million people are forcibly displaced and the GRF, the world’s largest international gathering on refugees’ issues, is fast approaching, different stakeholders are following closely how meaningful refugee participation will be put in practice. Particularly, at Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), we have been collaborating with various partners and closely following these developments. The upcoming GRF can result in significant advances for refugee participation that could serve as a major stepping stone to future policy processes and shift power by including those directly impacted in decision-making.
The GRF will be inclusive of refugees acting in different capacities. First, several states will include a refugee advisor(s) in their official state delegations to the GRF. States are the ultimate decision-making actors in the system, both through formal deliberations or informal meetings “on the margins” of official events. Therefore, refugees must sit at the table alongside states as expert advisors. The United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have established refugee advisory boards at the national level in order to engage with refugees in a non-tokenistic, sustainable, and effective way. These refugee advisory boards, usually formed by 5-12 refugees and chosen by an independent selection committee, provide states with a pool of refugee advisors who have both lived experience and policy expertise to engage as part of respective state delegations at meetings of the global refugee system. Germany is in the advanced stages of creating a refugee advisory body after piloting the inclusion of a refugee advisor in the German delegation to previous global refugee meetings.
In addition to refugee advisors as part of delegations, UNHCR has established an Advisory Board of 16 organizations led by refugees, internally displaced people’s and stateless people, including those led by women, LGBTIQ+ persons, persons with disabilities, and other diverse groups. All of the members of the Advisory Board are expected to be present in Geneva for the GRF. UNHCR also opened a call earlier in the year to select 70 refugee experts to attend the GRF. Both of these groups have been involved in the preparation leading up to the GRF, including developing side-events and providing technical advice on pledges. In addition, 50 RLOs and their delegations were invited to attend, representing a broad range of skills, policy experience, and geographical coverage. Refugee representatives of the Global Youth Advisory Council, refugee student leaders and journalism mentees, and a representative for Young Champions for Refugees have also been invited.
In comparison to the first GRF in 2019, in which only one state included a refugee advisor (Canada) and overall refugee attendance was just 2.3% (over 3000 delegates attended and only 70 were refugees), the upcoming GRF is expected to mark a significant change. Around 300 refugees are expected to attend this December, increasing projected refugee participation to 10%. Including those with lived experience of forced displacement in multilateral meetings is not a panacea for the numerous gaps, hardships, and challenges faced by refugees around the world. Nonetheless, meaningful refugee participation could help address issues of legitimacy, efficacy, and accountability within the UNHCR system. Including refugee voices in decision-making processes at the UN can indeed shift the power imbalance and result in refugees having tangible influence on how countries respond to issues that directly impact their lives.
Marisa Leon Gomez Sonet has worked on policy and advocacy on migration, refugee, and human rights issues extending from the multilateral sphere to the national, regional, and city levels. She has a master’s degree in Global Affairs, International Peace Studies, from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies, International Development, from Salve Regina University in the United States.