Government officials, NGOs and activists will meet in Geneva this week to take stock of the international community’s progress towards supporting refugees and the communities that host them. However, humanitarian organisations ahead of the conference have warned that countries remain “dangerously off track”.
The first High-Level Officials meeting (HLOM) convened by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from 14-15 December will assess what progress has been made in reaching the goals set out in the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), a milestone pact agreed in 2018.
It comes at a critical moment for refugees around the world, as the Covid-19 pandemic, widespread conflicts, and climate change pushes record numbers of people to leave their homes. Will countries rally in support, or shirk their pledges to leave no one behind?
What is the Global Compact on Refugees? UNHCR describes the GCR as a “framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing”, providing a blueprint for governments, international organisations and other stakeholders to support refugees and the communities and countries which host them.
Success under the GCR is assessed on its four objectives; easing pressure on host countries, enhancing refugee’s self-reliance and livelihoods, expanding access to third-country solutions, and working towards the possibility of refugees being able to return to their home countries voluntarily and safely.
Officials will also be assessing countries’ progress on initiatives launched and pledges made at the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019, and look at how they can step-up action as needs and challenges escalate for refugees around the world.
“What we would like to do is reflect on progress that's been made, but also use the meeting and its outcomes to chart the directions for the next Global Refugee Forum in 2023,” explained Perveen Ali, UNHCR senior policy adviser, speaking to Geneva Solutions.
“We’ll be looking at how we are advancing on the implementation of pledges and initiatives that were announced at the first forum,” she added, “take stock of how we're doing, how we're taking them forward, and also reflect on not only what's been achieved but what hasn't been achieved and why.”
Roadblocks to progress. Unsurprisingly, one of the major challenges set to be discussed is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on refugees’ lives, protection and country’s responses.
“A lot of the roadblocks that we faced were related to the pandemic, because resettlement really came to a halt, solutions came to a halt with border closures, and people were not able to return home easily,” explained Ali.
She said much of the discussion at the HLOM will be informed by UNHCR’s Global Indicator Report released ahead of the meeting last month, which also assesses progress towards the GCR.
The report highlighted that the international community has indeed made significant progress since the GCR was agreed on increasing support for low-income countries hosting refugees and expanding refugees’ access to work and education.
It states that there has been an upward trend in bilateral development assistance to low-income refugee host countries since 2016, although with some major caveats.
“The report showed that over the past five years we have made good progress,” said Ali. “The funding for host countries has increased, but the needs have also increased. And the vast majority of the funding was only for short term humanitarian emergency responses.”
It also outlined some improvements in access to work and education, although major barriers still exist in both areas.
“There have been some positive gains in education but also huge challenges with the pandemic,” explained Ali.
“There are huge difficulties for many refugees to access secondary education and we hope that there will be more investment there, and also more investment in connected learning and opportunities for higher education for refugees. There's also still a disparity between refugee girls and boys enrolled in primary and secondary education that we would want to address.”
She also noted that while many governments have provided new opportunities for refugees to access jobs and livelihoods there are still a number of factors that make it difficult for refugees to participate in the labour market.
“Sometimes there are costs associated with work permits or really complicated bureaucratic procedures or lack of knowledge by government officials about what refugees have rights to,” Ali explained.
“Sometimes not having freedom of movement if they're living in camps and not allowed to come and go from them easily, that can also hinder their access to getting jobs and participating in the economy.”
Much more evidently needs to be done. Almost half of all refugee students are out of school, and two-thirds of refugees face poverty – situations compounded by the pandemic. The number of refugees returning home decreased from three per cent in 2016 to one per cent in 2020, with ongoing and new conflicts making safe returns virtually impossible.
Responsibility sharing. The gulf between resettlement needs and countries taking in refugees has continued to widen as many nations across Europe and the United Kingdom adopt increasingly hostile stances towards taking in refugees.
Around nine out of 10 refugees are currently hosted in developing regions – a far cry from the “responsibility sharing” agreed to by wealthier nations.
“We see that countries with the fewest resources continue to bear the most responsibility for both new and protracted refugee situations,”said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, in the report. “At the same time, we are seeing some good indications of progress by states, the private sector, civil society, and development banks in helping to try and bridge the gap.”
Ali explained the HLOM would be a chance for states to address these gaps and formulate more long-term solutions, following their pledges with action rather than just words.
“We've seen a huge drop in resettlement and complementary pathways, with the number of countries that have resettlement programs decreasing significantly over the past five years, which is not encouraging. So we really need more countries to come to the table and more resettlement places, ”she said.
“We also know that for every one refugee who's resettled there are another four refugees who get access through a complementary pathway like a labour mobility scheme or family reunification, educational scholarships,” she continued. “So if there can be more work by other actors, universities, governments and the private sector to create complementary pathway opportunities for refugees, I think there's a lot of promise there.”
Humanitarian organisations warned ahead of the meeting that countries were “dangerously off track” in terms of responsibility sharing, with high-income countries the lowest percentage of countries to host refugees.
“Time is running out to get the Global Compact for Refugees back on track, and the pandemic has only made the need for progress more urgent - especially for women and girls,” warned Farida Bena, director of policy and advocacy at the IRC, calling on the international community to “rapidly reprioritise and recommend to global responsibility sharing, increase resettlement levels and the number of resettlement countries”.
Looking to the future. Ali said that despite many countries across the world seemingly shirking their responsibilities under the pact, others were showing political will to step up, citing the United States which has increased its resettlement engagement recently.
She also said that while the pandemic has indeed set back progress towards achieving the goals of the GCR, it also shed new light on its importance.
“The pandemic did put up obstacles but it also demonstrated to us that the GCR is needed now more than ever, because that's exactly the kind of toolbox we need to have on hand to respond to these kinds of crises so that stakeholders can come together and figure out how to work together better in the face of a crisis.”