Refugee Voices Matter - Nothing about Us, Without Us

  • Opinion by Anila Noor - Eliasib Amet Herrera - Shaza Alrihawi (displaced)
  • Inter Press Service

Decades of sideling refugees in discussions around migration and policies that impact their lives and futures has resulted in many failed policies. Refugees have been deprived of civil and political rights - and are therefore regularly excluded from multilateral arenas by their host country and/or their country of origin. The exclusive structures of international diplomacy exacerbate this culture of exclusion. Thanks to the work of the Global Refugee-Led Network (GRN), other refugee-led organizations and their allies, we are achieving more meaningful participation. Yet the fact that UNHCR’s highest-level meeting this year only includes 2% refugee representation indicates that we have considerable work to do to realize the GCR’s commitment to meaningfully engage refugees in policy processes. For us at the GRN, meaningful engagement requires active participation and inclusion in international and domestic conversations and policy decisions to account for a fuller range of the refugee experience and identities.

We urge the international community to raise the bar. UNHCR should commit to 25% refugee participation in the 2023 Global Refugee Forum and create a refugee seat in UNHCR’s governing body, EXCOM, by 2023. As representatives of affected populations, refugees add a unique perspective to the global debate on refugee policy that is not represented by Member States, UNHCR, or NGOs. By increasing our representation fully and meaningfully in these high-level discussions and bodies, we can help to shape policies that are informed by our lived experiences and drive systemic changes. Inclusive refugee policies and meaningful participation must span gender and sexual identities, religion, ethnicity, those with disabilities, youth and elders, those affected by sexual and gender-based violence, among other identities.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that the best way to implement lasting solutions is to include and address the needs of the most vulnerable. Refugee policy is no exception. The conditions of forced displacement provide a perfect incubator for COVID-19, leading to a devastating impact on the refugee population. For this reason, we are calling for secure, equal, quality health treatment for forcibly displaced people, including access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

While COVID-19 made improving the global response to the refugee crisis more urgent, it also demonstrated the importance of refugee-led organizations (RLOs) in the refugee response. There is documented success in the power of including RLOs in the global vaccine rollout for refugees. In Uganda, the Refugee-Led Organisations Network, which brings together 34 RLOs in Africa, is on the frontlines of the COVID response, providing life-saving support to refugees and helping them to access vaccines. In the absence of specific government campaigns targeting refugee access to the vaccine, these groups have kept their community informed and protected - challenging vaccine misinformation, to translating crucial information about COVID-19 into refugees’ native languages. These kinds of refugee-led initiatives around the world are vital to fighting vaccine hesitancy and making sure refugees are protected.

Refugee engagement in the Afghanistan response once again demonstrated in real-time how including refugees can lead to better-informed policies. The Taliban’s recent seizure of Afghanistan put thousands of Afghans in grave danger, many of whom scrambled to flee the country to seek asylum abroad. This crisis is an existential test of the GCR, as the UN projects that up to half of a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year, which will require a global, coordinated refugee response. RLOs, like GRN’s Asia chapter, Asia Pacific network of Refugees (APNOR), have been using their personal experience and professional expertise to support Afghan refugees. APNOR was a first responder - coordinating legal aid, facilitating a hotline for psychological counseling, and supporting evacuation efforts for Afghans in danger. Having fled Afghanistan in the 90s, the refugee leaders had vital information from the ground about how the situation is progressing, as well as a unique understanding of the danger Afghans face under Taliban rule, and in the journey to seek asylum.

However, it is groups like ours, formed within and profoundly committed to serving each other, that are most underfunded and under consulted. We need a global commitment to quickly alter systemic barriers and end the exclusion of affected communities from the spaces where their present and future are being debated. In global and regional fora, travel and visa issues are creating divisions in which only refugees resettled in the Global North are able to participate in decisive meetings held in Geneva, New York and the like. At local levels, safety issues also exclude girls, women, LGBTIQ+ persons, and other members of the refugee population. To promote inclusion across demographics, decision-makers must provide RLOs with flexible and direct funding to support women, youth, LGBTQI and other excluded refugee groups.

Until we are included in all decisions about the lives we lead, policies will continue to fail. Our request for broad-based inclusion of refugees and resources to meet the full range of our experiences and identities is the only form of participation that will create sustainable change and enable a more effective global refugee response.

Anila Noor, Eliasib Amet Herrera and Shaza Alrihawi are steering committee members of the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN), a Refugee-Led Organization (RLO) composed of refugees groups in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, MENA, and the Asia Pacific.

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