James MilnerAssociate Professor, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, and Project Director, LERRN: The Local Engagement Refugee Research Network

Amanda Klassen, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, and Project Officer, LERRN: The Local Engagement Refugee Research Network

Executive summary:

Civil society actors have been central to the provision of protection, assistance and solutions to the displaced throughout human history. For thousands of years, religious organizations, guilds, and community networks have led responses to displacement, either through the direct provision of support or by advocating to higher authorities for the inclusion of displaced populations within political communities (Loescher 2021). The role of civil society accelerated in the 17th Century and the development of the Westphalian state system and as noted by Ferris (2003), civil society continued to play a critical role in refugee responses right through the 20th Century.

Given this long history, it may come as no surprise that civil society actors are a key feature of more recent efforts to enhance and innovate in ensuring more reliable and effective responses to instances of displacement. The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) notes in Paragraph 3 that it “intends to provide a basis for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing among all United Nations Member States, together with other relevant stakeholders as appropriate, including but not limited to: international organizations within and outside the United Nations system, including those forming part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; other humanitarian and development actors; international and regional financial institutions; regional organizations; local authorities; civil society, including faith-based organizations; academics and other experts; the private sector; media; host community members and refugees themselves (hereinafter “relevant stakeholders”)” (UNHCR 2018). In fact, the GCR includes civil society in the range of “relevant stakeholders” to be included in its two key mechanisms: the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) and in national arrangements including Support Platforms, such as those implemented through the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF).

Despite this long history and central role – from the 17th Century to the GCR – there is very limited research on the diverse forms of engagement of civil society in the functioning of the norms and institutions intended to ensure protection and solutions for refugees: the global refugee regime. There is also limited analysis of the wide diversity of actors within contemporary civil society, the means and mechanisms through which civil society actors are able to influence outcomes within the refugee regime, and the means by which the contribution of civil society can be enhanced. In response, this paper provides an overview and analysis of the role of civil society actors – including national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), refugee-led organizations (RLOs) and academic actors – in the politics of the global refugee regime. Drawing on historical examples, the paper also provides an analysis of the mechanisms and means through which civil society demonstrates influence in the provision of protection, assistance, and solutions for refugees. Overall, the paper argues that the impact of civil society is best understood in the context of the politics of the global refugee regime. It concludes with recommendations on how the impact of civil society actors can be enhanced.

Read the full working paper here: