Refugees want a real say in decisions shaping their lives: here’s how that could happen…

Anila Noor Humanitarian, Influencing, Refugees and IDPs

Anila Noor on what refugee-led organisations are looking for in the run-up to next year’s crucial Global Refugee Forum – and top of the list is enough seats at the table

Group of people round a table
A group discusses the pandemic’s effects on women during a Diversity Dialogue event convened by the refugee-led organisation New Women Connectors, which co-authored the recent paper on meaningful participation (Picture: Rob Godfried)

The phrase “meaningful participation of refugees” has become an important buzz phrase in the humanitarian sector. But what does it mean in practice? And how can we ensure next year’s landmark Global Refugee Forum supports significant steps towards giving refugees a real say in the decisions that shape their lives?

In this blog we address these crucial questions, drawing on a paper on meaningful participation produced by leading refugee organisations earlier this year. The reflection paper was co-authored  by the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN) – an organisation that unites refugee-led groups and initiatives to boost refugee voice in international policy – with two of its affiliates, the European Coalition of Migrants and Refugees (EU-COMAR) and New Women Connectors (NWC), and supported by GRN partner Oxfam.

The key players who need to platform refugee voices

The Global Compact on Refugees, agreed in December 2018 at the UN General Assembly, gave a huge boost to the demand for participation of refugees. The compact itself set out how nations could and should co-operate to address the humanitarian challenge of millions of displaced people. It was a historic moment, the first ever international consensus document on refugees by the UN General Assembly since the 1951 Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol). And the fact that it made specific reference to “actively and meaningfully” engaging refugees has left a lasting impression on the agenda for reform of global governance of displacement. 

‘A key demand is that, at both the global refugee forum and the associated high-level meetings, 25% of participants should be refugees’

A crucial part of the Compact is how it monitors progress towards better governance. Notably, it established the Global Refugee Forum, where UN Member States and other stakeholders can check on progress. The first forum took place in 2019 and the next one in December 2023 will be a key moment for refugees across the globe. Between each forum, there is another international policy forum, known as the High-Level Officials Meeting, which takes place every two years. Alongside this are the regular meetings of the Executive Committee of the UN refugee agency, UNCHR (the highest global body for refugee governance). It is meaningful participation of refugees in all three of these international forums that is the focus of our paper.

We address key recommendations from the paper below, but a central demand is that, at both the global refugee forum and the associated high-level meetings, 25% of participants should be refugees.

The spectrum of participation – from harmful to transformative

The paper introduces two refugee-focused models of programming, known as the “infinity model of participation” and the “graded model of programming” (on pages 9-10 of the reflection paper). As can be seen in the graphic below taken from the paper, the models spell out the steps towards true participation, which we hope will be helpful in measuring progress.

Graphic with text about graded model
One of the refugee-focused models of programming introduced by the GRN reflection paper, the “graded model of programming for meaningful participation”, which builds on CARE International’s Gender Marker Guidance.

Five recommendations for meaningful participation

Building on these models, the paper makes five concrete recommendations that will help achieve the goal of meaningful participation, covering five areas:

  1. Multilateral processes and agencies Refugees need sustained access to decision-making processes on matters that affect their lives at all levels, especially at the global level which is  currently least accessible. That means empowering refugee-led organisations such as the GRN and proper representation at major events. We therefore need to ensure a 25% participation rate by refugees and refugee-led organisations at the next Global Refugee Forum in 2023 and explore all possible avenues to ensure representation in UNHCR, including an observer seat for the GRN on the UNHCR executive committee.
  2. Donors and funding agencies Refugee advocates and organisations need funding to sustain their programmes and activities. That means resources from donors and funding agencies to facilitate new ways of working in refugee governance, with a focus on refugee agency and empowerment.
  3. National and international NGOs Organisations working in the field of forced displacement need to engage in some deep soul-searching to ensure diversity in their staffing and programming that guarantees the meaningful inclusion of forcibly displaced people. They also need to provide refugees with technical support (in a non-patronising way) to take charge of matters that affect their lives.
  4. Researchers and academic institutions involved in the production of knowledge about forced displacement need to draw on the knowledge and the lived experience of refugees themselves in shaping their processes. The logic is simple: knowledge about forced displacement should be produced primarily by and for the people most affected.
  5. Refugee advocates and refugee-led organisations While the roles of other actors and partners cannot be underestimated, ultimately the change called for in the paper must be led by refugee advocates and organisations. The GRN in particular, building on its proven achievements since its launch in 2018, needs to push for programmes and activities aligned with its guiding motto of “Nothing about us without us”.   

The pivotal role of the Global Refugee-led Network

Underlying the paper is the powerful case made by the GRN itself to take a pivotal role in implementing the above steps to meaningful participation. The GRN, with its broad network of regional chapters across the globe, sees itself as well-placed to advocate on refugee governance and this latest paper builds on its other work, including these guidelines for meaningful participation.

Support for the GRN and its leadership will be an important way to platform refugee voices, with recent initiatives including a one-week GRN leadership retreat facilitated by partners in Australia, including the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, and  ACT for Peace. And the publication of the paper coincides with a key step in GRN’s development, as it has now registered itself as a not-for-profit organisation in the UK.

The road towards the long-term objective of “meaningful refugee participation” may look bumpy, but GRN and its allies, including Oxfam, are already making strides. One sign of success? The 2021 high-level meeting that came two years after the first forum saw a record number of refugees take part, partly as a result of continued advocacy work by GRN and its allies.

Now the task for the network and its allies is to push for all five of the recommendations above to be implemented to deepen participation further. The GRN and its partners will be doing everything they can to ensure refugee voices are heard at the highest levels in the coming months. What’s clear is that the calls for refugees to have a real say over their lives can only grow louder.


Anila Noor

Anila Noor is managing director of New Women Connectors (NWC), a member of the board of the Global Refugee-led Network, and a member of the European Commission’s expert group on the Views of Migrants in the Field of Migration, Asylum & Integration

Want to find out more? Read the full GRN paper: Beyond Consultation: unpacking the most essential components of meaningful participation by refugee leaders
And read this GRN guide: Meaningful Refugee Participation as Transformative Leadership: Guidelines for Concrete Action