Meaningful participation of refugees and stateless people in the Global Refugee Forum 2023 and beyond

Refugee participation

Meaningful participation of refugees and stateless people in the Global Refugee Forum 2023 and beyond

27 November 2023
A group photo of refugee participants and UNHCR staff. Some are sitting in armchairs, others standing behind, all smiling and looking at the camera

Refugee participants at a meeting with the Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Mr. Raouf Mazou, and the UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action, Andrew Harper

Over the past decades, calls for the inclusion of forcibly displaced and stateless people in the decision-making processes that directly impact their lives have increasingly gained momentum. The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) underscores the importance of meaningful participation, emphasizing in paragraph 34 that "responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage" the people UNHCR works for and with. Meaningful participation is not only a moral imperative. It is also a strategic necessity because responses and solutions that are informed and driven by displaced and stateless people are more effective, suitable, and sustainable.

Building upon the achievements of and lessons learned from the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019, UNHCR has significantly increased its efforts to ensure meaningful refugee participation. At the upcoming GRF 2023, there will be higher in-person participation of refugees compared to the first Forum, in which 70 refugees participated. An estimated 100 displaced and stateless leaders and 66 organizations led by displaced and stateless people from all over the world are expected to participate in the GRF and many of them are engaged in relevant GCR initiatives, multi-stakeholder pledges, and side events. On top of that, States and other stakeholders are championing the inclusion of refugees within their delegations, a best practice that UNHCR continues to encourage. In 2019, only one State included a refugee advisor in its delegation. UNHCR is encouraged by the efforts of more Member States, IOs,NGOs, sports actors, media, and others to include refugees in their GRF 2023 delegations.

Beyond personal narratives

A key change in participation in 2023 is that UNHCR is not only increasing the quantity of refugee participants but also enhancing the quality of the event by more closely involving refugees in the entire process – from the planning stages to post-Forum follow-up. Seventy of the refugee experts were identified through a comprehensive and transparent process initiated by UNHCR, with an open call for expressions of interest from November 2022 to January 2023, and shortlisting done in collaboration with the Advisory Board to the UNHCR Task Team on Engagement and Partnership with Organizations led by Displaced and Stateless Persons. Many of these experts are advisors to GCR multi-stakeholder initiatives. Currently, 17 GCR initiatives benefit from the contributions of these refugee experts, leveraging their skills and knowledge to ensure that pledges are needs-driven and inclusive. One of the experts contributing to the multistakeholder pledge on Gender Equality and Protection from Gender-Based Violence aptly remarked: “Our contribution extends beyond personal narratives to encompass valuable expertise. An example of my involvement includes crafting an intervention in the lead-up to the GRF. In this initiative, I underscored the crucial significance of quality pledges supported by tangible resources and well-defined policies.”

Refugees and their organizations are also engaged in regional mechanisms, such as the Support Platforms. Through collaborative efforts with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), 10 GRF refugee invitees participated in the Africa Youth Climate Assembly and African Climate Summit in early September 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya, where they shared their recommendations for refugee inclusion in climate action programmes.

There is nothing to supplant lived experience – the Advisory Board

UNHCR remains committed to amplifying the voices of forcibly displaced and stateless people, from the local to global levels. This is grounded in UNHCR’s history of engaging with the communities it works with and for, building on its comparative advantage of working with them on the ground. This commitment is embedded in its community-based and age, gender and diversity (AGD) approaches. Through these approaches, UNHCR calls for the systematic and active participation of displaced and stateless people in the identification of protection risks, priorities, capacities, and solutions, and ensures that these influence the design and implementation of its programmes.

Central to this endeavour is the global, inter-divisional Task Team on the engagement and partnership with organizations led by forcibly displaced and stateless people. The Task Team is supported by an Advisory Board of 16 organizations led by forcibly displaced and stateless people operating across all seven regions where UNHCR works. It is led by and works for people of different ages, genders, and diverse groups; operates at the grassroots, regional, national, and global levels; and includes refugees, internally displaced, and stateless people. With a tenure spanning from 2022 to 2024, the Advisory Board will continue to play a pivotal role in advising UNHCR at the global level, on meaningful participation and thematic areas.

"Meaningful refugee participation is not optional; it is what guarantees more and better policies in less time; it depends on when States and organizations decide to make this decision and realize that it is the right thing and the most practical way to achieve good results in less time, since there is nothing to supplant lived experience."

Ana María Diez, representative of the Advisory Board member organization Coalición por Venezuela

In addition to members being engaged in ongoing GCR initiatives, the Board is invited to the GRF and actively involved in its preparatory processes, including consultations on the GRF programme, participation in GRF preparatory meetings, the design and implementation of a side event on meaningful participation, and the drafting the Joint Refugee Statement, among others.

Advisory Board member John Jal Dak, representing the Youth Social Advocacy Team, delivering a statement on behalf of the Board during the GRF 3rd Formal Preparatory Meeting, September 1, 2023.

In his statement delivered on behalf of the Board at the third GCR formal preparatory meeting, John Jal Dak called for “ensuring meaningful refugee participation before, during, and post-GRF and across pledges. The displaced people belong here; it’s their space to be heard and be part of the solution!”

The accomplishments of the Task Team further highlight UNHCR’s commitment to fostering meaningful participation. Simplified partnership agreements for organizations led by displaced and stateless people, a definition of "Refugee-led Organization", guidance documents, an information repository, and a tool to map Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and organizations led by displaced and stateless people are just a few examples of the Task Team’s achievements thus far. 

Panel at meeting with a large screen behind them, projecting video of John Jal Dak speaking from the floor.

Other GCR initiatives have also been involving refugees through existing channels, including but not limited to:

  • The UN Common Pledge 2.0, which has been engaging a group of refugee experts since autumn 2022 to ensure meaningful refugee participation from the onset. These experts participated in the innovation lab, which kick-started the co-creation process, and have since engaged in every aspect of the design and promotion of the pledge, including contributing to sessions with UN entities, UN Country Teams, and donors.
  • The 20-member Refugee Advisory Group to the Consultations on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways (CRCP) (formerly, Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR), which was established in 2020 and ensures that refugees influence policy decision-making on resettlement and complementary pathways.
  • The UNHCR and ICVA co-convened multistakeholder pledge on Advancing Localization in Displacement and Statelessness Responses, which is aimed at enhancing the capacity and ownership of local actors, especially civil society organizations, and developing more equitable partnerships. It has been engaging different refugee and stateless-led organizations as part of its reference and working groups. The pledge is currently under review by the Advisory Board to the UNHCR Task Team on Engagement and Partnership with Organizations led by Displaced and Stateless Persons and the NGO Reference Group.

UNHCR continues to learn how to best promote and realize meaningful participation, recognizing that participation is central to finding sustainable solutions to forced displacement and statelessness. As highlighted by the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Ms. Gillian Triggs, during the 74th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, refugees “are agents of change and should have a seat at the table… It is both a moral imperative and the smart thing to do.”