Achieving Meaningful International Cooperation on Displacement: Can the 2023 Global Refugee Forum Deliver?
The world has been rocked by displacement crises of historic proportions in recent years—from Afghanistan and Venezuela to Ukraine and most recently Sudan. These high-profile crises have come on top of record, and growing, displacement globally, and at a time when forced migration due to climate change is already a reality for many and will only increase. Meanwhile the situation of refugees waiting in protracted displacement in first-asylum countries continues to go largely unaddressed. All signs thus point to the continued, and ever more urgent, need for international cooperation on displacement.
In 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), marking a historic—and desperately needed—step to provide the first comprehensive framework for responsibility sharing, response, and solutions to refugee situations.
Yet in the five years since the compact’s adoption, the political environment in many countries, especially in the high-income world, has cooled towards refugees and asylum seekers. Displacement from Ukraine, together with the ongoing mixed arrivals of refugees and other migrants, has continued to turn the political attention of European countries inward. Increasingly, the policy approaches in wealthy countries in Europe and beyond focus on deterrence, aimed at forestalling the arrivals of forced migrants at their borders, deterring asylum claims, and increasing pressure on countries earlier along the migration route to process or take back people seeking protection.
The Global Refugee Forum (GRF), which will be held in Geneva in December, will test whether global solidarity for refugees and their hosts can be revived. The forum is meant to provide a periodic opportunity for states and other stakeholders to renew their commitment to the GCR, to assess progress towards its objectives, and to generate new pledges to facilitate its implementation. Importantly, the forum is uniquely able to assemble displacement-affected and donor countries, together with a rich diversity of stakeholders from across civil society, refugee-led organizations, the private sector, and UN agencies—all with a singular focus on addressing displacement through responsibility sharing.
But to effectively achieve this objective and ensure the continued relevance of the compact, the forum will need to go beyond a narrow focus on collecting pledges. It must also tackle the thorny political questions that are eroding the global protection system and identify the opportunities and supports necessary to meet these challenges. While the pledging exercises this year have sought to be more ambitious than at the forum four years ago—aiming for “mega-pledges” that coordinate pledging on certain priorities—these have largely focused on traditional priority areas such as resettlement and pathways or assistance. The most challenging questions remain absent from the agenda, and it is unclear whether the pledges made will, in reality, go beyond existing efforts and initiatives that are already underway. Communication on the forum has also been more muted than in 2019, potentially suggesting an effort to manage expectations of what can be accomplished in a challenging political environment.
The Road from the First GRF to Now
At the first GRF in 2019, hopes were high that the forum would spark action on what an overwhelming majority of states agreed to in the refugee compact: more global solidarity with refugees and the developing countries that host the majority of the displaced. To achieve this, the first forum mobilized a diverse network—from private-sector and development actors to state political representation from the highest levels—to make concrete pledges. The forum resulted in 1,690 pledges to advance global solidarity, including commitments to improve the legal rights of refugees in first-asylum countries, offer more opportunities for refugees to access secondary and tertiary education, reduce barriers for refugees to formally participate in their host-state economies, and increase resettlement places and other pathways for refugees.
While the process served as a valuable catalyst for building consensus on key priorities, doubts have arisen whether the first forum has lived up to its potential to effectuate change on the ground. It remains unclear how many of the pledges were new or were merely repackaging of efforts that were already underway. New financial commitments were modest. Implementation has also been slow. At this writing, around 60 percent of pledges made in 2019 are still listed as “in progress,” with just 30 percent fulfilled and the remainder in the planning stage. Ambitions to find sustainable solutions to protracted refugee crises via the forum and compact processes have similarly fallen short to date. Progress has been complicated by the cuts to aid budgets major donor countries made as part of austerity measures after the COVID-19 pandemic or the redirecting of funds to respond to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the GCR and GRF processes have been largely absent in the response to the major displacement crises since 2019. While the compact was meant to create a blueprint to address large-scale emergencies, it has played little role in the response to displacement of more than 6 million people from Ukraine nor has it provided solutions for hundreds of thousands of at-risk Afghans who have sought safe pathways out of their country.
Instead, many of the most impactful responses to these crises have come through tools such as temporary protection or private refugee sponsorship, which have often operated outside the realm of traditional asylum, resettlement, or humanitarian assistance procedures that are at the core of the global compact. The processes surrounding the GRF have similarly been silent when it comes to the shifting politics on refugee protection in many countries or the rapidly emerging deterrence regime that has eroded access to protection in many places in contravention of the GCR’s goals.
Addressing Political Challenges and the Push for Transformative Change in 2023
As the international community moves towards the second GRF, the world looks quite a bit different than it did four years ago. Yet many of the processes and agenda-setting efforts that have driven forum preparations look much the same. Pledging and stock-taking remain the key focal points, with a focus on mega-pledges that are intended to aggregate many promised commitments. Yet mega-pledges are unlikely to address what is tearing the international protection regime at its seams. And unless the forum process can tackle issues such as governments’ accelerating use of deterrence measures or erosion of standards in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers that have chipped away at territorial asylum, there is a risk that the compact, once a celebrated achievement, will become irrelevant.
Preserving the relevancy of the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Refugee Forum, and confronting the forces driving today’s protection challenges, will require going beyond counting pledges. Instead, the forum should capitalize on its assembly of a unique and high-level set of stakeholders to identify and propel forward the deep transformation that the global protection system desperately requires. While several new and promising solutions have emerged in recent years, many remain small-scale and lacking in the serious or coordinated political commitments needed to have real impact. The GRF could be an important platform for moving these innovations to scale. Three areas, in particular, are ripe for action:
Dismantling Barriers to Mobility for Refugees
Lack of mobility opportunities remains a crucial barrier for refugees to access protection, accentuated by visa systems, safe-third country arrangements, border technologies, and sanctions on carriers that transport people who lack prior authorization to enter a country. This lack of mobility concentrates responsibility for displacement on the shoulders of neighboring countries, stifling global solidarity. It also reduces the agency and dignity of refugees.
The European Union’s use of free movement provisions to allow for the mobility of displaced Ukrainians has shown some of the potential benefits of this approach by allowing Ukrainian arrivals to easily travel to join friends, family, or hosts in other countries, thus reducing the pressure on housing and services in frontline states. While several new initiatives, such as the Global Task Force on Refugee Labor Mobility, are aiming to expand the number of options for refugees to pursue specific types of mobility, such as access a job in a third country, the GRF could go further by pushing for system-level changes. Establishing widely accepted travel documents for refugees represents one example; the proposal for a Nansen Passport 2.0 to be launched at the forum is a promising step in this direction. However, more could be done to tackle visa shortages and processing backlogs that are especially prevalent in refugee-hosting and origin regions or address implicit bias that may prevent individuals with displacement backgrounds from accessing mobility opportunities for which they would otherwise be eligible. Those refugees who find themselves in extended limbo may particularly benefit, but also those who are increasingly feeling the impacts of climate change where they currently stay.
Capitalizing on Innovations to Create an Effective Crisis Response Toolkit
Protracted displacement begins, in part, with a failed crisis response that does not adequately share responsibilities or provide for firm access to safe territory and secure legal status from the start. The twin crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, however, have demonstrated and forged innovative, flexible, and efficient ways to protect people in immediate danger and provide safe routes to alternative destinations. Innovative measures include evacuating people to safer locations from where they can permanently relocate to another country or humanitarian visas that are issued at embassies and allow people to eventually file asylum claims in the issuing country. Combined with private sponsorship—connecting refugees with communities that are willing to support them—innovative practices have allowed for the movement of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Afghans out of crisis zones in just a few months. These measures have dwarfed the response of existing resettlement programs, which proved too slow and small-scale to be adequate. Their value might be expanded, however, if they could be applied in a systematic and coordinated way in future crisis situations. The GRF could serve as a catalyst for such coordination. It could also provide a platform for other, even more forward-looking, innovations. What about, for example, the prospect of temporarily lifting carrier sanctions for similar situations in which people face immediate danger? Such measures would entail significant political and practical risk for states acting alone (the dreaded prospect of creating a “pull factor” for migration), but when pursued through joint or coordinated effort, their effect would be magnified and the risks diluted.
Elsewhere, ongoing displacement from Venezuela has shown the value of measures such as the use of group determinations or temporary statuses (when paired with a path to permanence) for reducing pressure on asylum systems and rapidly connecting displaced individuals with status and rights. As with innovative mobility measures, these arrangements are most valuable, and least risky, when paired with a larger regional approach to responsibility sharing.
Increasing Effectiveness through Meaningful Refugee Participation
In an era of humanitarian budgets increasingly incapable of addressing needs, it is essential that interventions in displacement contexts be as effective as possible. The lack of participation of refugees and their organizations in how policies are made and programs are designed and delivered is an important barrier to more effective, efficient, and legitimate solutions, as a recent Migration Policy Institute report argued.
Yet refugee voices have typically been included in international forums in a primarily tokenistic way. At the first GRF, fewer than 3 percent of the 3,000 participants were refugees and they were not systematically engaged in discussions. If the upcoming forum is to have an impact in practice, the right people must have a voice at the table. The forum should also broker consensus and support for models of engaging refugees that go beyond consultation. This can mean including refugees as advisors in government delegations or hiring refugees as staff at varying levels in organizations. It also entails adequately resourcing refugee-led groups. Organizations led by people with experiences of displacement can improve existing programming. Their access to, and intimate knowledge of, their communities make them aware of blind spots and solutions that work.
Thinking Outside the Box
While these and other solutions can begin to move the global protection system towards much-needed transformation, they also require states, UN agencies, and other stakeholders to color outside the lines of the traditional refugee protection architecture. This is an uncomfortable place to be for many actors. But it is also where the Global Refugee Forum can serve a critical role.
The challenges facing the protection system are increasingly existential. While the time for bold measures has long been present, fear of rocking the boat and the inertia of precedent have forestalled any real reinvention.
A GRF agenda that spotlights measures that, even if unorthodox, address real pain points in the system would usher in an era of greater experimentation. Without such innovation, there may not be an international refugee protection system that deserves its name when the next forum rolls around in four years.