Refugee Led Organizations: Innovation in Refugee Responses

There is a lot that is commendable about the trending increase in global refugee responses, however the question remains “how meaningful are these interventions?’ The rising number of refugees and forcibly displaced persons globally demonstrate a failure within the refugee response system itself. The system’s current shortcomings include the limited and often tokenistic inclusion of refugees, and lack of funding support and recognition for refugee led organizations many of whom are poised to highlight and address the true needs of forcibly displaced persons. That notwithstanding refugee needs are very real and warrant active and meaningful responses.

Earlier this year, 22-year-old youtuber Abo Flah successfully raised US$11M for more than a hundred thousand refugees and displaced persons in the Africa and the Middle East regions. The content creator launched “Let’s Make Their Winter Warmer”  fundraiser aimed at providing warmth to target refugee families by spending 12 days locked in a glass room in Dubai. The funds were raised and distributed with the support of the UNHCR and the Food Bank Regional Network to provide essential resources to weather the harsh winter conditions. This innovative fundraising approach was a clear success story with a lauded introduction into the Guinness World Record for the most views for a charity donation livestream.

Despite these incredible efforts, some have expressed dissatisfaction with UNHCR’s approach to the distribution of funds. A tweet from UNHCR in the Arab region initially reported that 50% of the amount raised by the Youtuber, approximately 5.5 million dollars will be used for efforts to reach refugees and displaced families. This announcement was not received well by many including public, refugee leaders and experts on refugee needs in the region questioning the integrity and legitimacy of the distribution of funds. Due to pushbacks and additional questions being raised, UNHCR emphasized this clarification twenty-four hours later:

All the donations that were collected for the benefit of needy families through the campaign “Let’s make their winter warmer” will be monitored for refugees, displaced people and the needy. Half of it is through UNHCR’s aid programs and the other half through the network of regional food banks.

Perhaps the misleading initial tweet was an accident, or the intentions were changed after pushbacks started, nonetheless we cannot ignore the overused humanitarian responses of cash and in-kind donations. Although many displaced persons will attest to the immense benefits of cash and in-kind donations while navigating forced displacement, refugee camps where such approaches are often used is also an antiquated model itself. The flexibility of such a campaign looks beyond traditional state funds for refugee assistance to gather additional support for refugees. How effective will refugee responses be if the system created to navigate these responses fail to innovate and keep up with the dynamism of refugee needs?

In a similar attempt to protect Syrian refugees from harsh winter conditions, Molham Volunteering Team NGO launched the Until the Last Test campaign on January 27th this year. This campaign aimed   at relocating an initial 100 families from tents in camps into temporary housing units, protecting them from freezing snow and low temperatures experienced while in refugee tents during the winter. After reaching the 100 families target in one day the team successfully  increased the target to reach 500 families, raising USD$2 million in 5 days.

Indeed, both campaigns met their goals of providing relief for several refugees and displaced persons however it is worth noticing the impact was greater and more sustainable under the Molham team’s campaign. According to the organization’s website the amount required to fund a refugee family’s relocation from a tent to a housing unit is $4000. Currently 945 families have been funded

In comparison to Let’s make their winter warmer, which was set up to support 100,000 families, then according to the UNHCR’s initial distribution approach each family is expected to receive $55. If the full donation amount raised were to be distributed to the families, then each family would receive $110. While the YouTuber’s efforts are very commendable and cannot be undermined, it is important to focus on the practicality of the $11m fund and how it can be utilized. What would $110 do for a family and how long would that last?

When refugee leaders and organizations are actively involved in designing and implementing refugee responses, the impact is greater. The simple fact is by including refugee perspectives, decision-makers can access more information to better identify problems, address gaps in services, and receive input that can lead to more innovative solutions. As cliché as it may seem the adage “nothing for us without holds” holds true developing effective refugee responses. No matter how well-intentioned humanitarian responses and refugee policy are, excluding the main demographic affected by the decisions taken should be considered a non-starer for refugee responses.  

The Malham Volunteering team is not a traditional refugee led organization however delving deeper into the organization’s history and mandate, it certainly embodies the strong principles of one.  Founded during the escalation of the Syrian conflicts and aimed at providing aid to internally displaced and refugee Syrians in the middle east and neighboring countries, the team continues to evolve while offering innovative humanitarian assistance to refugees. The success of such assistance and relief campaigns can be attributed to Molham team’s reception of the views and perspectives of the many refugees volunteers often engage with. Refugees are often the ‘first responders’ to refugees’ needs and actively work to improve the lives of refugees on the ground. However, the reality is that refugees are rarely included in decision making about refugees- an understated but inherent flaw within global refugee responses. Molham Volunteering Team’s Until the last tent campaign is only one example of what relief responses can look like when refugee perspectives are included. For the global refugee regime to experience the full benefits of such innovative responses, stakeholders and global actors ought to look at refugees beyond beneficiaries of aid, but as capable contributors to enhancing the global refugee response system.

There is the strong need for the international community’s response to refugee needs to embody the dynamism and constantly changing experiences of refugees. For the global refugee regime to be legitimate and effective, responses should actively and meaningfully include refugees and refugee leaders’ perspectives. The international community and refugee policy stakeholders should consider the following approaches in global refugee responses:

Increasing funding and support for refugee led organizations: Refugee led organizations are very capable of enhancing global refugee responses. However, despite the wealth of resources they possess from lived experiences in forced displacement, many refugee organizations are often underfunded. This in turn limits the reach and impact of refugee led responses. For refugee led organizations to actively participate in global responses and refugee policy it is imperative to empower the voices of refugee leaders and support their operations. Refugee leaders are often the ‘first responders’ to refugees’ needs and actively work to improve the lives of refugees on the ground. To this effect the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR since 2018 has honored several refugee organizations with the UNHCR NGO Innovation Award. This award celebrates the achievements of organizations developing innovative approaches for the protection and delivery of services to refugees and displaced persons. Funders in humanitarian development including states, private corporations and legacies among others should be presented with the value of refugee led organizations and encouraged to support and fund them.

Formalizing the meaningful participation of refugees in refugee policy: This is when refugees can influence the development of refugee policy. Meaningful participation requires actors to listen to refugees, and for refugees to have the power to have a tangible influence over the priorities and outcome of the policy process. Canada, Germany, and the United States have taken the lead in this space by including refugee advisors in their state delegations at the inaugural UNHCR High-Level Officials Meeting and establishing refugee advisory groups to consult with in states’ engagement in refugee situations, as set out in the Global Compact for Refugees. Such innovative responses are more legitimate and effective when refugee inclusion is meaningful rather than arbitrary or tokenistic. States should be strongly encouraged to view refugees as full participants in their communities, and refugee perspectives as a viable tool towards enhancing global refugee responses.