On 21 January 2021, the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) co-hosted the second webinar panel for the North American component of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) virtual conference: 70 Years Protecting People Forced to Flee, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UNHCR. It focused on the role of North American states within the global refugee regime: the international institutions and structures set up to respond to refugee issues around the world. A total of 249 viewers tuned in to the panels from 18 countries, spanning from North and South America to as far as Europe and East Africa. The second panel featured distinguished speakers: the Honourable Ambassador Bob Rae, Mustafa Alio, Jennifer Bond, Elizabeth Ferris, Ana Macouzet and Leah Zamore. It was co-moderated by James Milner, Project Director of LERRN, and Julie Crowley, IDRC’s Regional Director for Central and West Africa.
Each of the panelists reflected on important issues about power relations and political contexts, which significantly impact how the refugee regime is able to respond to refugees. The panelists considered how North American states (Canada, the US, and Mexico) can work with other actors to think about important questions and challenges facing the refugee regime today. Some of these actors include refugee representatives, the private sector, academics, NGOs, and local or regional governments. The panel considered a variety of bold questions: how to promote refugee inclusion and leadership, how to respond to displacement caused by climate change, and how to address gaps in protecting people displaced within their own countries (IDPs). The panelists proposed innovative ideas that link humanitarian assistance, international development, and peacebuilding.
A key recommendation was the need to address the root causes of forced displacement, particularly the political factors that are at the heart of conflict and longstanding refugee crises. The Honourable Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, remarked that “no matter how much money we give to UNHCR, there is no humanitarian solution to the humanitarian crises we see around the world.” Instead, the causes of displacement are political, environmental, and economic. Panelists urged the actors in the regime to have the courage to tackle these underlying crises causing displacement through the UN system and beyond.
Acknowledging that refugee situations are increasingly long-term rather than short-term emergencies, the panel emphasized the need to prioritize refugee voices, experiences, and leadership. Ambassador Bob Rae stressed that “being a refugee and being stateless should not mean you are voiceless or that you are not heard.” The Ambassador argued that humanitarian assistance needs to be paired with opportunities for work and education. Otherwise, “we are treating people as objects, not as subjects.” Mustafa Alio, who made history as the first Refugee Advisor in the Canadian delegation at an international refugee meeting, highlighted that “UNHCR needs to transition from merely consulting with refugees to an equal partnership with refugees in creating solutions.” With dwindling resources for humanitarian assistance due to donor fatigue and a higher number of displaced people, the refugee regime needs to find better ways to use limited resources. Alio argued that an important lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that refugee-led organizations are valuable partners in delivering cost-effective humanitarian assistance. They also provide a unique perspective informed by the experiences of those directly affected by displacement.
In addition to refugee-led organizations, community organizations like sponsorship groups have been important in providing solutions for refugees beyond the actions of governments. Professor Jennifer Bond, who leads the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, highlighted the importance of rebuilding public support for refugee protection. Community sponsorship allows citizens to get involved directly with refugee protection and to become advocates for welcoming policies. UNHCR’s attention to public support is crucial to counter negative portrayals of refugees. Indeed, as Julie Crowley pointed out, one of the major issues is “the growing negative and toxic narrative about refugees and the forcibly displaced. A lot needs to be done to counter misinformation and break down the unfounded myths about these vulnerable populations. Again, this should only be done in partnership with refugees and refugee communities.”
On the subject of protection, Professor Beth Ferris drew attention to groups of displaced people who currently do not benefit from refugee status and as a result are outside of the global refugee system. That includes Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and those displaced by environmental and climate-related factors. UNHCR should expand efforts to examine gaps, develop inclusive strategies, and engage development actors so that individuals who do not qualify for refugee status may still be supported. Ana Macouzet, Senior Policy Advisor at Open Society Foundations (OSF), emphasized the importance of promoting regional cooperation between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. She called current approaches to migration management in the region ineffective and inhumane. Working together, these countries can discuss common interests related to migration and strengthen refugee protection across the region.
Leah Zamore, Director of the Humanitarian Crises program at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation (CIC), provided a valuable lesson from history on how the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe after World War II. According to Zamore, “this sort of economic vision that went behind the Marshall Plan” is needed today to assist major refugee-hosting countries. Zamore proposed that North American countries could leverage their participation in international financial institutions to support refugee-hosting countries by offering debt relief or financial stimulus packages.
The speakers agreed that while the COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic, it provides a unique opportunity to learn from North America’s history and reflect on opportunities going forward. Through US funding for UNHCR, resettlement and community sponsorships, participation in the UNHCR’s governance structure, and recognition of gender-based persecution, North America has played a critical role beyond the North American region. The resounding conclusion was that there is no better time than the present to begin casting a vision for refugee protection in the coming years. Following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, there is a new opportunity to incorporate international displacement issues in post-pandemic recovery plans. Recognizing that 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in the Global South, North America can support and engage with host countries in the Global South as partners. Through bold ideas and creative thinking, UNHCR can seize the opportunity of the current moment to work with governments, civil society actors, and refugees to improve responses to displacement.
This report was prepared by Rawan Youssef, LERRN Social Media & Communications Officer, with assistance from Sohaila Khaliqyar, LERRN Project Communications and Social Media Coordinator, and Rachel McNally, LERRN Knowledge Mobilization and Translation Officer.
To read the report on Panel 1, “Realizing protection and solutions within North America,” click here.