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Mayors Can Help the Refugee Compact Turn Words Into Action

Will two years of work on the Global Compact on Refugees produce more than a piece of paper? Jessica Brandt of the Brookings Institution argues that the involvement of mayors and other urban leaders is critical to the Compact’s success.

Written by Jessica Brandt Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's installation in Washington Square Park, New York, in 2017 as part of a series called "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors."Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For nearly two years, world leaders have been engaged in a process of developing a new global compact for refugees (GCR). The compact is designed to make responses to displacement more coherent and comprehensive, and implicitly, better suited to today’s reality.

In light of the increasingly urban nature of displacement, ensuring that this process produces more than just a piece of paper will depend in no small part on how and whether local authorities are engaged in implementation.

That’s because today, meeting the needs of refugees requires more than providing emergency assistance in camps. It also means delivering long-term social services in urban contexts.

It’s welcome then, that the current draft of the compact recognizes local authorities as relevant stakeholders and invites their engagement. The draft compact acknowledges that local partners have a role to play in measuring the impact of hosting, protecting and assisting refugees, in order to assess gaps in international cooperation. It also calls on the international community to support the strengthening of local institutional capacities, commits the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to supporting twinning arrangements that enable cities hosting refugees to share good practices and innovative approaches, and argues for the deployment of dedicated development resources to support host communities.

Today, meeting the needs of refugees requires more than providing emergency assistance in camps. It also means delivering long-term social services in urban contexts.

As consultations on the new framework conclude, and UNHCR begins preparing for implementation, it is worth reflecting on how these aspirations can be translated into reality.

First, UNHCR should invite local authorities to participate in the Global Refugee Forum that the GCR envisions. Slated to take place on a biannual basis beginning in 2019, the forum is intended to provide a regular opportunity for taking stock of progress and making concrete pledges toward achieving the four broad goals of GCR – easing pressure on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding pathways for resettlement and supporting conditions for safe and voluntary return.

Municipalities are relevant to each of these goals. They host a majority of the world’s refugees, and have well-informed perspectives on how to ease the various pressures they face. Municipalities contain labor markets that are a critical component of refugees’ access to sustainable livelihoods. They are places of resettlement, and therefore have a stake in how resettlement programs are established and expanded, how the proposed Emerging Resettlement Countries Joint Support Mechanism (ERCM) is designed, and how private and community sponsorship programs are implemented. When it comes to the safe and dignified return of refugees, how well local communities where refugees are returning fare will go a long way toward ensuring their safety and dignity.

Municipal leaders are also uniquely positioned to report on progress in their communities toward meeting GCR’s goals, providing important inputs to the policymaking process that can be used by national governments, humanitarian agencies and civil society actors, including the business community, to calibrate their respective activities.

Perhaps most importantly, local authorities are well placed to make pledges toward fulfilling those goals. For example, they could commit to expanding access to education, work permits, housing, healthcare and financial services for refugee communities within their jurisdiction; collecting and standardizing data that could be used as the basis for evidence-based policies at all levels; and improving child protection practices, among other things.

These sorts of commitments are not new to cities – a group of them proposed similar pledges in a document known as the Mechelen Declaration, which they submitted to the Global Compact on Migration late last year. Municipal commitments should be proactively encouraged. For these reasons, it is integral to the effectiveness of the Global Refugee Forum, as well as GCR itself, that municipal leaders be welcome.

Second, UNCHR should take proactive steps to consult with local authorities, along with experts on urban displacement, as it develops a set of key monitoring and evaluation indicators that are measurable against the GCR’s core objectives. UNHCR has pledged to do so before the first Global Refugee Forum next year.

These indicators will play an important role in ensuring that the two-year effort produces tangible results. To invite these perspectives, UNCHR could convene a consultation with municipal authorities, perhaps on the sidelines of the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges in December.

Doing so would be an important step toward opening up an ongoing dialogue that could prove immensely valuable for host communities, refugees and humanitarians alike. That’s because the locus of attention is about to shift from theory – developing the GCR and its indicators, to practice – ensuring that its objectives are fulfilled. This is a realm where municipalities have immense knowledge and operational capability.

UNHCR has recognized that cities are important partners in delivering effective, comprehensive responses to displacement. Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner himself remarked, “Cities are frontline players in dealing with refugees,” continuing, “UNHCR is ready to step up its engagement with mayors around the world.”

By taking these steps, UNHCR can ensure that it makes good on that pledge. Doing so is essential to the well-being of the majority of the world’s refugees residing in urban environments, and the communities that host them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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