GENEVA — Six countries and the United Nations opened the first Global Refugee Forum on Monday to help poor nations overwhelmed by taking in people fleeing for safety across international borders.
The three-day forum was put together to support the 25.9 million refugees worldwide. It was co-hosted by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and Switzerland, with additional backing from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, Pakistan and Turkey.
“As old conflicts continue and new ones erupt, displacing millions of people, we need smart, inspiring, engaging and inclusive ways of helping refugees and host communities, and we can all play a role,” UNCHR’s chief, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement.
About 3,000 participants, including refugees, and 750 delegations were turning out. Refugees — those escaping war, persecution, or natural disasters — represent a portion of the 70.8 million people forcibly displaced last year.
The World Bank was expected to pledge US$2.2 billion matched by pledges of US$3 billion in donations and in-kind contributions from nations. Some 100 businesses and 30 organizations were giving US$250 million.
Businesses philanthropies such as Ingka Group, Inter IKEA Group and IKEA Foundation, Vodafone Foundation and LEGO Foundation announced major donations. Ingka Group, Inter IKEA Group and IKEA Foundation pledged help for 2,500 refugees with job and language training at stores in 30 countries by 2022.
IKEA Foundation said it will provide grants worth €100 million over the next five years while Inter IKEA Group said it will partner with Jordan River Foundation to create “sustainable livelihoods” for 400 women.
LEGO Foundation said it will establish a US$100 million grant of “play-based learning solutions” for pre-primary and primary school children impacted by humanitarian crises in East Africa. Vodafone Foundation said it will offer high-quality digital education to 500,000 young refugees, plus free connectivity in schools and Vodafone employee volunteers to train teachers and give technical help.
About 20 law firms, including some of the world’s largest, and a bar association and several in-house counsels for multinational corporations pledged 125,000 hours per year of pro bono legal support to refugees and stateless people. Several dozen non-governmental organizations offered similar legal aid.
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency #RefugeeForum (@Refugees) December 16, 2019
Poorer nations bearing the burden
Almost exactly a year ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new global treaty that spreads responsibility for those helping refugees flee from war and persecution.
The Global Compact on Refugees passed by a vote of 181-2, with the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya abstaining. UNHCR praised it as “a new deal for refugees.” Only the United States and Hungary were opposed.
As global financial help for refugees lags, some leaders have been raising concerns that insufficient resources can destabilize the security of neighboring countries and regions that provide shelter and help for people fleeing war-torn nations.
The new treaty was intended to address the severe stresses that unequal burden-sharing puts on some nations, by asking wealthier nations and businesses to provide more services and materials, educational opportunities, clean energy sources and ways to minimize environmental impacts.
The effort to push through the treaty accompanied a similar effort in support of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration that the General Assembly also approved. Both grew out of the U.N.’s New York Declaration for refugees and migrants in 2016 in the wake of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. The declaration amounted to a promise by nations to better protect rights and share responsibility for people uprooted worldwide.
“We need more help like this,” said Joelle Hangi, a Congolese refugee in Kenya, who has been studying online for a bachelor’s degree in business communication with U.S.-based private Southern New Hampshire University.
“Already, there are many examples of cooperation. But with refugee numbers rising, we need more people to give us their support, more governments, companies and communities to share the responsibility of helping refugees,” said Hangi, who also researched refugee camps with Oxford University and University of Geneva. “That is how we will regain our freedom and independence, and repay those who came to our aid.”
The top refugee-hosting nations are Turkey, with 3.7 million, Pakistan, 1.4 million, Uganda, 1.2 million, Sudan, 1.1 million, and Germany, 1.1 million, according to UNHCR. Lebanon, bordering Syria, has the highest per-capita concentration: 1 million refugees among its national population of nearly 5 million.
But the promises of the New York Declaration remain unfulfilled. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, or NRC, said borders have closed for families seeking protection, refugee quotas have been slashed and poor host countries have been left with little international support.
At the end of 2019, humanitarian appeals for some of the largest refugee crises were less than half funded and desperate families were forced to cope in dangerous ways through child labor and prostitution, according to NRC. Closed borders also made people risk their lives in search of safety.
“Many large and emerging economies are neither receiving refugees nor contributing financially. They must come onboard and increase their contributions if we are to succeed,” said Egeland, a veteran of numerous top U.N. and Norwegian diplomatic roles.
“Uganda is sheltering more refugees alone,” he said, “than the total number of people that arrived into the whole of European Union, Switzerland and Norway combined during the so-called refugee crisis in 2015.”