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beyond pledges & platitudes: a refugee-led insight into the 2023 Global Refugee Forum



Participants during a discussion in the R-Space


The second Global Refugee Forum (GRF), held in Geneva in December 2023, brought together over 4,200 participants from various sectors and backgrounds to make pledges and contributions towards the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees. The Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative (RRLI) gathered feedback and insights from refugee leaders who attended the forum. These leaders, representing their refugee-led organizations (RLOs) both within the RRLI coalition and among our grantee partners, shared their perspectives on the event. In general, the GRF fell short of meeting the expectations of the RRLI cohort. Despite some positive experiences, challenges were present. Travel issues, including visa denials and residency or legal restrictions, hindered a lot of refugee leaders from attending. The limited support from UNHCR in travel documentation and delayed invitation letters posed significant obstacles. Furthermore, the GRF's allocation of only 5% of its seats to refugee leaders underscored the ongoing struggle for adequate and meaningful representation. 

This feedback is our initial reflection on the GRF, and we are currently undertaking an in-depth analysis of the entire event, which we will publish soon.


STRUCTURE OF THE 2023 GRF


The 2023 Global Refugee Forum was a three-day event, and it was the second edition of the forum, which is held every four years to support the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees. The 2023 forum featured thematic discussions, spotlight sessions, and side events on various topics related to refugee situations convened by UNHCR at Palexpo. In addition to the main event, refugee leaders created their own space (R-Space) to engage with donors, allies, and other stakeholders, and to showcase their initiatives and aspirations beyond the confines and formalities of the main event. The space brought together refugee leaders, RLOs, donors, and other stakeholders and hosted various discussions and events that were organized by refugee leaders, RLOs, and other stakeholders on the sidelines of the GRF.


GENERAL IMPRESSION OF THE 2023 GRF


The general impression among our delegation was mixed. Participants appreciated the increased role and visibility of refugee delegates, especially in the R-Space, where they could participate actively in side events and panels. The GRF was also seen as an essential opportunity for advocacy, networking, and dialogue. However, critiques emerged about the overall structure and atmosphere of the event. The official proceedings were felt to be too formal and rigid, and not allowing for much meaningful engagement or input from refugees. For example, all comments and questions had to be submitted beforehand so there was really no room for participation from anyone who hadn’t been pre-selected. Marginalization and tokenization were also felt outside the R-Space at the Palexpo, where the main sessions took place. One delegate summed up the GRF as having a split personality: lively and inclusive in the R-Space, but cold and impersonal at the Palexpo.


“Everything felt very controlled – it was like everything was planned and decided beforehand, and they didn’t want people veering away from these designated talking points.”

CONTENT EXPECTATIONS


Feedback indicated that expectations around content were met to varying degrees. The R-Space was lauded as a positive environment where open discussions and meaningful conversations on critical issues were had. Participants also felt their experiences were enhanced through access to GRF preparation materials created specifically for refugee leaders. Nonetheless, there were calls for more involvement of refugee leaders in main event panels, and criticism emerged regarding the dominance of large actors and decision-makers in formal events who took up space to showcase their perceived successes rather than as an opportunity to listen and learn directly from refugee leaders and RLOs.


LEVEL OF PARTICIPATION FROM VARIOUS STAKEHOLDERS


The level of participation was seen as robust in the R-Space but varied across the Forum, with concerns about the tokenistic use of refugee leaders and a reluctance among some non-refugee stakeholders to engage in meaningful conversations. This indicates a need for more inclusive practices and genuine engagement across all Forum spaces, such as having more refugee leaders be part of the decision-making committees and co-chair or co-facilitate the main sessions.


REPRESENTATION AND INCLUSION OF REFUGEE VOICES


Participants highlighted inadequate representation and inclusion of refugee voices in discussions, pointing out instances of tokenism and the late provision of essential information that prevented meaningful refugee attendance and participation. Some felt that the Forum did not center refugees or their voices effectively, as only a handful of refugee leaders were given the platform to speak, but only for a very limited amount of time. While the R-Space offered a platform for excellent inclusion, the broader Forum still needs significant work to ensure meaningful participation of refugee voices.


OPPORTUNITIES FOR NETWORKING AND FORMING NEW COLLABORATIONS


Though the occasion of the GRF was a good place to meet and dialogue, the forum in and of itself did not offer much support for networking and collaboration, it was up to the individual RLOs to create their own opportunities and connections. Networking was only impactful in so far as individual organisations were able to organise it themselves. Challenges were also noted in the Palexpo’s less conducive environment for meaningful discussions, it was cited as being too formal, crowded, and noisy.


CHALLENGES REGARDING THE FORUM'S STRUCTURE


Participants pointed out the dominance of INGOs and a controlled environment that limited open dialogue. One participant said: “Everything felt very controlled – it was like everything was planned and decided beforehand, and they didn’t want people veering away from these designated talking points.” Suggestions for improvement include giving leading roles to RLOs at the Palexpo (main event), in terms of planning and participation in events.


AREAS NEEDING MORE ATTENTION IN FUTURE FORUMS


Participants called for more honest conversations, meaningful participation, inclusion, and an increased focus on gender and diversity. There was a desire for more candid and rigorous discussions paying attention to the needs of refugee-led initiatives. It was also suggested that future forms be held in countries easily accessible to refugees rather than centralizing them to countries in the Global North with restrictive visa regimes. 


IMPACT ON PERCEPTIONS OF GLOBAL REFUGEE AFFAIRS


The GRF left participants with mixed feelings on the state of global refugee affairs, from encouragement at the increased number of refugee leaders to sadness and frustration over the persistent exclusion and superficial engagement with refugee issues, the slow pace of meaningful change in the sector, and the power dynamics at play. The dominance of INGOs and State interests continues to overshadow grassroots refugee leadership despite calls for equal footing. This reflects the complex emotional impact of global refugee policy discussions on those with lived experience of forced displacement and working directly with displaced communities.


EMOTIONAL MOMENTS AND ADDITIONAL REFLECTIONS


Emotional and moving moments were reported, ranging from feelings of exhaustion and intensive learning to positive experiences in organizing and participating in the R-Space events. Stringent security measures and cumbersome processes to access the Forum at Palexpo were cited as distressing experiences. The Playback Theatre session at the R-Space was highlighted as a particularly moving experience. Participants were grateful to be part of refugee-led movements that enabled their participation, emphasizing the importance of such spaces for learning, discussion, and connection among RLOs.


OVERALL REVIEW


The 2023 GRF presented a platform with significant potential for advocacy, networking, and dialogue for refugee communities, leaders, and allies. The Forum offered some learning experiences, but it also left many participants with mixed emotions, ranging from hope to frustration. While the R-Space was a highlight for meaningful engagement and participation, the broader Forum dynamics, particularly at Palexpo, faced criticism for formality, tokenism, and a lack of inclusivity. The GRF needs to rethink its structure and culture to respect and value refugee leadership, participation, and representation. It also needs to encourage and cultivate more honest and critical conversations that go beyond pledges and platitudes.


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