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To address complex refugee problems, the refugee regime should be accountable to the population it serves

Expert Comment

Written by Bahati Kanyamanza

Hero image description: A Syrian refugee in Lebanon holds the money he will use to buy groceries Image credit:Medair/EU/ECHO/Kate Holt Image license:CC-BY-NC-ND

For meaningful change to happen in the humanitarian sector, people with lived experience of displacement should be at the forefront of leading solutions for refugees.

Through meaningful participation, refugees can be part of the solution. Before displacement, some refugees are already successful in various professional fields, and those who get the opportunity during displacement develop new skills, acquire new knowledge and become entrepreneurs, innovators, educators, and health workers. However, these skills are underutilised because host country policies worldwide prevent refugees from maximising their full potential.

When I resettled from Uganda to the United States, I was a trained teacher, lawyer and successful social entrepreneur. But in spite of my education and career accomplishments, I couldn’t get an office job, however small. It wasn’t until I acquired a master's degree through help from the School for International Training that I started getting professional job offers. Without this training, I would be working in a warehouse or cleaning an airport my entire life like most immigrants with degrees.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are suggestions for improving the refugee regime so that it meets the needs of the refugee populations it serves.

Refugee leadership

Refugees should sit on the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR's) Executive Committee, or ExCom. This body decides UNHCR's programme and priorities and allocates its budget. UNHCR is mandated to protect refugees, but diplomats are appointed to this ExCom by states via a political process. In practice this means that ExCom represents the interests of these countries and not refugees. To tackle this, UNHCR's ExCom should comprise 50% refugees or people with lived experience of displacement.

Likewise, leading humanitarian organisations play a crucial role in addressing refugee issues. However, they are led by people with no lived experience of displacement. This leads to misplaced priorities. To give an example, as refugees in Uganda, my family received seven pairs of ill-fitting and unsuitable Toms shoes. We sold them for less than a dollar each, only to discover that each pair originally cost more than $20, excluding the shipping expenses.

Meaningful participation

Despite costing millions of dollars, these kinds of projects fail to achieve their intended impact as they are designed and delivered without refugee participation. Prioritising refugee leadership is a cost-effective way of achieving greater impact. Refugees should be consulted on what is important for them and then programmes should be designed based on their needs. Refugees should be involved in project design, implementation, evaluation and reporting.

Financing refugee-led initiatives

Many social ventures and enterprises have been established by refugees. Yet we know that refugee-led organisations (RLOs) don’t have access to financing. They should receive multi-year unrestricted financing to run effectively. Funders should remove bureaucratic barriers that limit refugee-led initiatives from accessing funding, and establish innovation grants for refugee entrepreneurs to test their ideas. Refugee business models should be analysed and financed to scale. This can lead to the creation of employment opportunities in refugee-hosting communities.

Favourable policies in host countries

Countries continue to have restrictive policies limiting refugees' full participation in the socioeconomic development of their host communities. Refugee host countries should put in place laws and policies that allow refugees to move freely, work, and access available public services such as education and health.

To sum up, refugees are contributing to addressing their issues amidst challenges such as a lack of resources and opportunities. A meaningful change can only be achieved if refugee leadership is embraced at ExCom and leading humanitarian organisations. Funding refugee-led initiatives and removing barriers to accessing financing is a crucial component of meaningful change. The refugee regime should be accountable to refugees and tap into existing local solutions, capacities, opportunities and community-rooted models. Local problems should be addressed by local solutions led by those affected by the same issues.