Given the centrality of states in the decision-making structures of the global refugee regime, meaningful refugee participation within state delegations could help ensure that its outcomes are better informed by the daily realities of displacement and seen as more legitimate in the eyes of refugees.
The answer is local
Just as the regime needs to address the asymmetries of power that have historically excluded refugees, it must also deliver on commitments in the Grand Bargain to support and empower local actors.
For nearly two decades, we have known that the structures and approaches of international humanitarian responses tend to erode local capacity, while local actors remain best placed to navigate the everyday politics of refugee responses.
In fact, the combination of refugee perspectives and local actor expertise can, as argued by Asylum Access, create meaningful opportunities for change.
This was clearly on display during the onset of the pandemic as local actors demonstrated the ability to navigate the challenges of closed borders, exclusionary policies, and the disproportionate impact of shuttered economies on refugees forced to survive on the margins of societies.
While desirable, localization is neither easy nor uncontested. It goes well beyond directing additional resources to national non-governmental organizations to deliver services.
The results of collaborative research in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, illustrate the range of interests and factors that need to be overcome to address the power imbalances between local and international actors. In Kenya, localization has led to better training for humanitarian workers and an increase in the number of local staff working with international NGOs and sharing their nuanced understanding of local contexts.
But this did not translate into a transfer of power and decision making, as international NGOs remain the key partners of UNHCR, with national NGOs squarely on the periphery. The relationship between international and national NGOs remains profoundly imbalanced, and a missed opportunity to ensure that the expertise and experience of local NGOs are part of a collective response.
Localization means transferring the power to set agendas and make decisions from the exclusive domain of large, international humanitarian actors to include national and local organizations, many of whom have been on the frontlines of humanitarian responses for decades.
It is only through such a shift that the knowledge and expertise of local actors can fully contribute to better protection and solutions, especially in light of very complex and nuanced local and national political realities.
Better solutions will come from amplifying the perspectives of knowledge producers who work closest to the phenomenon of forced displacement, especially that 85% of the world’s refugees are in the low- and middle-income countries in the global South.
A rare opportunity
But meaningful refugee participation and the localization of research, policy and practice alone cannot address the limitations that have long constrained the global refugee regime. The current regime contains deep flaws: cooperation is discretionary, not reliable; its core institution, the UNHCR, has a non-political mandate, while the dynamics of displacement are deeply political; and the governance of displacement is weak, allowing states to use humanitarian responses as a substitute for addressing root causes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the consequences of these limitations. But it has also highlighted where and how change may be realized, while clearly demonstrating how facile efforts at containment and isolationism really are.
If ever there was a moment to recognize and reinforce the need for collective and inclusive action to address issues of shared concern, that time is now.
Let’s be sure to seize this opportunity that comes in the guise of a terrible pandemic.Print