A new multilateralism for an old problem: Five ways in which the Global Refugee Forum brings a fresh way of responding to refugee situations

Ruven Menikdiwela
March 05, 2024

When the Refugee Convention came into force, it provided a new legal frame to solve an enduring problem: how to protect people who are not protected by their own states. This Convention is at the heart of UNHCR’s work. It defines who is a refugee and outlines the obligations that states have towards them. In the aftermath of the Second World War, during the wars of decolonization, through the Cold War, and beyond, millions of people have been saved and safeguarded by this instrument. Seven decades later, with multiplying wars, violence and persecution persisting, the number of people forced to flee is the highest it has ever been. The plight of many refugees has become protracted – forced to live in exile for too long. People flee, but – increasingly - cannot return home, and solutions remain elusive. The refugee phenomenon is marked not only by protection needs, but also by the significant social and economic pressures on low and middle-income countries where most refugees live.

A Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) was affirmed in 2018 by the United Nations General Assembly as a means to increase equitable responsibility sharing and to redouble the search for solutions. The global arrangement for international cooperation foreseen under the Compact is a periodic Global Refugee Forum (GRF) to be held every four years. The GRF was convened for the second time in December 2023 to mobilize support for the objectives of the GCR: to ease the pressure on host countries, to enhance refugee self-reliance, to expand access to third-country solutions, and to support conditions for return in safety and dignity.

How well did it advance these objectives? In a context of a dysfunctional international global order, waning attention spans, and deep polarization - particularly around issues of human mobility - the GRF went against the negative tide and proved to be a ‘groundbreaking moment of action, unity and impact.’ This was modern multilateralism in action: the coming together of a diverse set of stakeholders to address increasing forced displacement, comprehensively and predictably.

Here are five ingredients that helped to make the GRF a rare success for international cooperation, solidarity, and renewed multilateralism.

An all-of-society approach: Although the GRF derives strength and legitimacy from being a General Assembly-mandated process, it thrives because it brings together different stakeholder groups: humanitarian and development actors; the private sector; international and regional organizations; NGOs; sporting organizations; faith leaders; academia; parliamentarians; refugees themselves; and more. The usual diplomatic and bureaucratic guardrails were loosened, which allowed in more perspectives and much more diverse and dynamic alliances for action. Having refugees, including many young refugees, take part in the development of pledges and identify the challenges and solutions needed, was a game-changer and central to the GRF’s success. Refugees were also part of official delegations of 14 member states.

A push for ambitious, transformational pledges: Pledging — monetary, technical, material, and policy — is the engine of the GRF. We saw governments, civil society, academia, and regional and international financial institutions, among many others, come together to commit to further refugee self-reliance and strengthen support for host communities. For the GRF, we pushed for more strategic focus and a high level of ambition. We aimed for all refugee children to be adequately educated, for refugees to access the labor market, for refugees to feature in peace processes, and for considerations of forced displacement in climate financing and adaptation. Shooting high, we ended up with energized and committed pledgers, and of the over 40 multistakeholder pledges, several have the potential to be truly transformational. The following months will focus on implementation to translate these ambitious commitments into concrete action.

A focus on facts and accountability: We tried to ground all discussions and pledges in empirical facts and a solid accountability framework. The GCR indicator report, World Bank studies, and other baseline data enabled the pledging groups to anchor their commitments and provide solid benchmarks by which to measure progress and fulfillment. If the transformational pledges are closely followed and parties held accountable, we will witness a sea change in the way refugee situations are addressed.

Unleashing ‘minilateralism’: The GRF also honed in on specific situations putting refugees, host communities and regions at the center of solutions, such as in the Horn of Africa, Central America, Mexico, and for Afghans, Rohingyas, or Central African refugees. This kind of ‘minilateralism’, in particular via the “Support Platforms,” brings together a smaller group of impacted countries and concerned actors to join efforts to identify solutions for specific displacement situations. These Platforms, led by coalitions of governments and other actors, bring much needed focus to complex situations, approach problems through economic and political lenses, and gather sometimes unlikely partners around the table.

A focus on unity: Some have feared that at the GRF tensions could be raised, humanitarian issues could become politicized, and results could be compromised. Yet, the GRF overcame these risks and became a moment of global unity, a time to leave differences at the door, activate solidarity, and seek solutions. Against expectations, this largely worked. States and parties primarily focused and pledged on the issues that united them. Fissures and inadequate practices remained, but it was remarkable, at the conclusion of the GRF, to see the thousands of participants all stand up to pledge to take action for refugees and their hosts.

The Global Compact on Refugees, and its global vehicle, the GRF, emerged as the Refugee Convention was under threat. The Compact is a means of reinforcing the protection principles central to the Refugee Convention by giving further definition to the meaning of international cooperation— how to support those who bear the responsibility of hosting refugees and how to redouble the quest for solutions. At the GRF, we mobilized the new ways of working together suggested in the Compact. By enlisting a wide range of actors, aiming high, and holding the parties accountable, we came away with a forum that was ‘more than multilateralism’: an example of how to expand the circle of support, focusing on big goals without polarizing parties, and always keeping an eye on pledging, accountability, and tangible results.

Taking this work forward is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone has a role to play. Working together, we can translate the ambitions of the Compact and commitments made at the GRF into action and transform the lives of refugees and the communities that host them for the better.

About the author

Ruvendrini Menikdiwela is the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with UNHCR. Previously, she served as Director of UNHCR’s New York Office, and UNHCR Representative in Pakistan and Thailand. You can follow her on X (ex-Twitter) at @RuvenMenik.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.