Nothing About Us, Without Us: 7 ways you can promote refugee leadership

Refugee participation

Nothing About Us, Without Us: 7 ways you can promote refugee leadership

02 March 2022

Ahead of the High-level Officials Meeting (HLOM) in 2021, UNHCR’s Task Team on meaningful participation and the Interim Advisory Group of Organizations led by People of Concern organised a side event on meaningful refugee participation. It brought together close to 450 participants, including refugee-led organisations (RLOs), States, NGOs, academics, and other stakeholders to take stock of the implementation of pledges made in 2019, share good practices on meaningful refugee participation and leadership that enhance the effectiveness of refugee responses, and make recommendations for the next Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in 2023.


Recording of the side event

Out of 1600+ GRF pledges made, only 69 pledges - less than 5 per cent - have a focus on meaningful participation, with 63 of these pledges made by forcibly displaced persons and RLOs themselves. The side event demonstrated that the international community needs to do more to ensure that refugees are leading and supporting responses that concern them, beyond being consulted during or after actions have been taken.

The refugee statement delivered at the HLOM on behalf of 30 RLOs included a clear call to States, NGOs, the private sector, UNHCR, and other actors to practice responsibility sharing for refugees by addressing barriers to access to quality education at all levels, economic opportunities, basic services, and resources, such as internet access, legal registration, and funding, which pose additional challenges to meaningful participation.

Here are seven ways in which the international community can promote refugee participation:

1. Provide inclusive, direct, and flexible funding to refugee-led organisations

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how RLOs fill important gaps in humanitarian responses, particularly in protracted and emergency situations. Refugee leaders deserve greater recognition and support for their work.

Mr. Hannes Einsporn, Senior Project Manager Migration, Robert Bosch Stiftung GmbH Foundation, emphasized that the Foundation invests resources where they can be most effective and efficient: refugee-led organisations. While recognizing the challenging environments where RLOs work, the Bosch Foundation works with RLOs to support them to meet legal registration criteria and establish equitable partnerships.

In Lebanon, where every sixth resident is a refugee, RLOs have proven to address needs and problems with a high degree of innovation, effectiveness, and efficiency. RLOs in Lebanon intimately know the needs of the communities in which they work and can build on well-established support structures to employ effective forms of support.

The Funders for Refugee Leadership in Lebanon Initiative, a collaboration of nonprofit organisations and foundations (Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The Global Whole Being Fund, Choose Love, Open Society Foundations and the Robert Bosch Stiftung) aims to strengthen systematically the role and impact of RLOs in Lebanon. To this end, the initiative pursues a coordinated and participatory funding programme in Lebanon. According to Mr. Einsporn, private funders can play a vanguard role in inspiring others to support RLOs.

2. Facilitate and advocate for legal registration of refugee-led organisations

Mr. Mohamed Ahmed, Programs Director, St. Andrew's Refugee Services (StARS), member of the Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI), highlighted the important role played by International Non-Governmental Organisations and States in advocating and promoting legal registration of RLOs in host countries.

The aim of RRLI is to strengthen the technical capacity of RLOs by ensuring they are properly resourced, and capable of promoting fundamental policy and systematic changes, to become truly self-reliant. The RRLI is a coalition of local refugee-led organisations that, together with ally and convening organisation Asylum Access, raised over USD12.5 million, committed USD 8.3 million to highly impactful RLOs, and plans to reach 10 new RLOs by June 2022.

Ms. Marriet Schuurman, Director of Humanitarian Aid, the Netherlands, reaffirmed that meaningful participation should be an integral piece of policy design, despite challenges such as representativity, accountability, and tokenism. To that end, the Humanitarian Aid Department of the Netherlands held an unconscious bias training for all staff in the Department, plans to include systematically refugees in design of programs, and works in its localization efforts to promote resilience and agency of RLOs and host communities. Ms. Schuurman invited the international community, as a whole, to get creative in overcoming the representation conundrum and stop using it as an excuse not to build the agency of refugees.

3. Establish simplified and transparent partnerships with RLOs that are co-designed, co-led, and adaptable to the complexities of their contexts

Currently, refugees are not systematically included in many coordination structures for humanitarian and development action, which hinders the establishment of genuinely equitable collaboration with RLOs.

The 2020 UNHCR Innovation Award acknowledged RLOs and their importance by granting USD 15,000 to seven RLOs providing support to refugees and host communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, UNHCR launched a refugee-led innovation fund co-designed with RLOs, and created a flexible and simplified grant agreement tool to facilitate partnerships with organisations led by persons of concern in the context of localization. The tool was piloted in over 15 countries in 2021.

4. Co-design solutions, humanitarian, and development responses with refugees, in the context of localization and policymaking

The international community should support the leadership of RLOs in responses and invest in participatory approaches. This can only be done by ensuring RLOs and host communities are resourced and technically equipped to deliver their services and programmes.

Ms. Alix Devilliers, Executive Director of Urban Refugees, part of the Xavier Project, highlighted that the Xavier Project has been working with a network of RLOs across East Africa, by strengthening their capacity to further elevate RLOs’ role in the humanitarian response and, by extension, the funds they receive. Xavier Project’s capacity strengthening and sharing course was co-designed with and for RLOs and includes resource mapping, governance, and proving impact. This model is available online. It is centred on equitable partnerships with RLOs and designed to reduce Xavier Project’s role over time, shifting power and funds to RLOs.

Activities with RLOs are implemented in two phases: phase one is led by Xavier Project, while phase two is led by successful RLOs from the first cohort with their own ideas for coordination, control of resources, good practices, and better results. The project has already partnered with 20 RLOs.

Screenshot of side event panel meaningful participation speakers on Zoom

5. Support refugee-led organisations in data collection and analysis

Quality data is essential to ensure RLOs are well-equipped to report on their real needs. It is also important in making sure that participation and leadership are inclusive and fair, with participation of refugees of different ages, genders, and other forms of diversity.

Ms. Andira Kara, Kenya Lead Researcher, Project on Refugee-Led Organizations in East Africa, shared an innovative and fully participatory research led by researchers with lived experience of forced displacement, supported by the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN), the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford, and the Centre for Lebanese Studies (CLS).

The research aims to understand the factors that influence the impact of RLOs as service-delivery providers in humanitarian settings in East Africa and the Middle East. Three months into the research, a comprehensive mapping of refugee-led organisations East Africa has been conducted. The project strengthens the capacity of refugee researchers to collect and analyze data, while also ensuring their agency in building evidence around the power and impact of RLOs in providing assistance to host communities and persons forced to flee. Contact LERRN and learn more about the project.

6. Invest in refugee women, youth leadership, and tailored opportunities for women-led and youth-led organisations

The international community should pay attention to the diversity amongst refugees. Practical and effective responses can only be achieved through multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary, and intersectional responses that are tailored to the needs of different groups.

Ms. Liliane Mukudi, Founder of UMOJA FOR AFRICA in South Africa noted that, historically, women have been put in the backseat, leading to illiteracy and lack of education among women. While there are challenges related to access to documentation and lack of digital literacy for women, UMOJA aims to support women in changing this narrative by bringing together women from both refugee and host communities to develop women-led training and income-generating activities in South Africa. During the pandemic, UMOJA strengthened the role of women in responding to COVID-19 by producing face masks and sharing accurate information about the virus among vulnerable refugee and host community members.

Ms. Noella Bidikukeba Ilunga, President of DAFI Club in Zambia and member of the Tertiary Refugee Student Network (TRSN) also emphasized the strong role played by education in capacitating refugee youth and students in decision-making. In 2020, the DAFI clubs in Zambia conducted a series of meetings to discuss persistence, problem-solving, and self-preservation in the time of COVID-19, World Refugee Day participation, employment preparation, CVs and entrepreneurship, community engagement, and DAFI Annual Workshop planning. Ms. Ilunga noted that education opportunities must be linked to employment pathways and address specific barriers faced by refugees, such as lack of documentation, language skills, and trauma from the outset.

7. Increase refugee participation in global and regional processes

The international community has already acknowledged in the Global Compact on Refugees and at the Global Refugee Forum that responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist.

With this in mind, refugees called upon the international community to increase refugee participation at the 2023 GRF, reflecting an integration of age, gender, and diversity; and securing refugee representation in UNHCR’s Executive Committee (EXCOM) by including refugees as members of State delegations (as Canada has done) or establishing an RLO-seat.

With a view to supporting States to cultivate refugee leadership, Ms. Rez Gardi, Co-Managing Director of Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), shared how the organisation is working to enhance the effectiveness of global refugee responses, by co-designing mechanisms to amplify refugee leadership ecosystems and increase the participation of refugees at State levels in a meaningful, sustainable, and transformative way. R-SEAT conducted a mapping and is closely liaising with 20 States to formalize refugee participation in their respective national delegations. The aim is to build capacity within the global refugee leadership ecosystem by connecting refugee leaders with relevant stakeholders (including policy makers, foundations, and other non-profit organisations).

Ms. Seyran Khalili, member of the Reference Group of the Refugee Re-connect Conference, reported on a refugee-led conference in Europe that brought together 175 persons of concern with the aim of showcasing their work and establishing meaningful and continued exchanges between them. The report features regionally tailored key recommendations for diverse stakeholders on civic engagement, access to the labour market, and refugee leadership and participation.

Ms. Shaza Alrihawi, co-founder, Steering committee member and Chairwoman of Global Refugee-led Network (GRN) also shared the guidance developed by the GRN on how to foster transformative refugee leadership and invited stakeholders to join and report on the meaningful refugee participation pledge to which 17 entities have already signed.


There is a clear call to the international community to move from discourse to practice, and find creative ways to implement meaningful refugee participation and leadership from now until the Global Refugee Forum in 2023:

Refugee situations have increased in scope, scale and complexity, and this necessitates new and innovative methods for protection, assistance and solutions. While the status quo continues to work for some issues, large scale refugee movements and protracted refugee situations persist around the world, indicating that things must change. Meaningful refugee participation is not just the end in itself; it is a means to achieve an end, which is a better and more efficient global refugee response system

Rez Gardi, Co-Managing Director, R-SEAT

The next GRF is an opportunity for all actors to share what they have achieved since 2019 and come together to submit new pledges to advance meaningful participation and leadership of refugees in the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees.