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The Illusion of Inclusion: Unpacking the UNHCR Global Refugee Forum Outcomes Report


Hane Alrustm, RRLI Director of Programs (left) having a conversation with Daria Jamil, RRLI coalition representative (right) in the R-Space on the sidelines of the 2023 Global Refugee Forum © Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative

Photo: Hane Alrustm, RRLI Director of Programs (left) having a conversation with Daria Jamil, RRLI coalition representative (right) in the R-Space on the sidelines of the 2023 Global Refugee Forum © Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative.

The recently published Global Refugee Forum (GRF) outcomes report by the UNHCR leaves us disheartened. While the report highlights the quantitative participation of refugees, it overlooks the qualitative aspects that signify genuine inclusion and engagement. The emphasis on numbers, without substantial evidence of meaningful involvement or influence in outcomes, raises concerns about the depth of refugee engagement. The promotion of refugee leadership, critical examination of the forum's structure and atmosphere, and the balance of power between refugee and non-refugee entities require more thorough analysis to disprove the widely-held perception that refugee participation in UNHCR spaces is merely symbolic.


1. Quality and Depth of Refugee Inclusion

The report indicates “substantial” refugee participation; however, meaningful inclusion goes beyond just numbers. The GRF report showcases numerous instances where refugees and RLOs were involved, such as the development and announcement of multi-stakeholder pledges and speaking at high-level events. Despite these instances, the report does not detail the depth of this engagement or how these contributions influenced outcomes, which is crucial for assessing the quality of participation. The emphasis on numbers alone is a concerning aspect of the report.

The report mentions several leadership roles, including refugees delivering the Joint Refugee Statement and engaging as advisors to delegations. However, the effectiveness of these leadership roles in influencing the forum's outcomes is not elaborated upon. Leadership implies having authority and influence over decisions and directions taken, not just the ability to voice concerns or read statements on stages. Without concrete examples of how refugee leaders shaped decisions, it is challenging to assess the promotion of genuine refugee leadership.


While the report describes an inclusive and diverse forum, it lacks a critical examination of the atmosphere from the perspective of refugees themselves. The overall structure is presented as supportive of refugee involvement, but the report does not discuss any potential barriers to participation, such as language, visa requirements, accessibility, or the power dynamics between refugee participants and other stakeholders.


2. Focus and Visibility

Although 19% of speakers were identified as forcibly displaced or stateless, the impact of their contributions, especially in comparison to those of government and UN agencies, remains unclear. This ambiguity extends to the visibility and promotion of refugee leadership roles and refugee-led initiatives, which, while noted for their presence, lack explicit recognition as central elements of the forum.


3. Structural and Systemic Considerations

The GRF report shows a significant presence of UN agencies and other non-refugee entities, with these groups making up a considerable proportion of speakers and pledge-makers. While this is expected at an international forum, the report does not critically assess how the dominance of these entities may have impacted the space available for refugee-led initiatives and leadership. The presence of these entities is crucial, but their role should complement rather than overshadow the contributions and leadership of refugees and RLOs.


4. RLO leaders vis-a-vis Individual refugee experts 

The report makes a loose and interchangeable use of refugees who are institutional leaders and individual refugee experts. This conflation overlooks the distinct roles and contributions of each group. The notable absence in this report of explicit recognition of RLO leaders as institutional and organizational leaders undermines their significance and the structured advocacy they provide. Furthermore, the report does not sufficiently detail the nature of participation these leaders had in the GRF, which is essential for understanding the influence and impact of RLOs at such international forums. It is imperative that future reports and forums distinguish between these roles to ensure that the contributions of RLO leaders are fully acknowledged and leveraged for effective refugee policy and engagement.


5. Conclusion: Moving beyond rhetoric

The GRF outcomes report, while commendable in its ambition, leaves us with lingering questions. As we unpack the numbers, we must remember that true impact lies beyond mere statistics. The GRF’s success hinges not only on quantitative achievements but also on the qualitative transformation it brings to the lives of those it aims to serve. Refugees must be meaningfully engaged and their voices, often silenced by trauma, and bureaucracy must be amplified. Only then can the GRF truly transform statistics into impactful change for displaced individuals worldwide.


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