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Two years after agreement on the Global Compact for Refugees, progress towards goals of easing pressures on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third-country solutions, and supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity offer a mixed story. At the same time, efforts to expand the scope and availability of comparable data are beginning to show their promise. As more data leads to more evidence, the logical next question is: how do we bridge the gap between research and action to inform programming, policy and advocacy that improve the lives of the displaced and their hosts?
In 2018, the UN General Assembly passed the Global Compact on Refugees, which established the strategic directions for refugee response, including the importance for nations to share the responsibility of improving the fates of refugees, people whose lives have been torn apart by conflict, persecution, violence, and severe climate patterns.2 To help realize this vision, UNHCR, together with the international community, has embarked on its own transformation. Solutions are now a greater focus from the start. There is an active shift away from encampment and parallel systems for refugees, wherever possible, and an emphasis on strengthening national and local infrastructure for both refugees and their host communities.
Two years on since that global commitment, representatives from around the world met for a High Level Officials Meeting (HLOM) in December 2021. This event was foreseen in the Compact to take stock of progress towards easing pressures on host countries, enhancing refugee self-reliance, expanding access to third-country solutions, and supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity. What did we learn from this event and where do we stand on unlocking the promise of the GCR, particularly in its call for more timely, reliable and comparable data and evidence?
Progress towards the Global Compact's Objectives
The picture that is emerging shows both progress and ongoing challenges. The Global Compact on Refugees Indicators Report, which covers the period 2016-2021, shows that low and middle-income countries are receiving more support to manage the responsibility and costs of hosting refugees.3 Legal access to decent work, freedom of movement, and access to national education systems show signs of improvement. Yet practical barriers remain, such as non-recognition of educational qualifications, lack of fluency in local languages, and hesitancy of firms to employ refugees. On the downside, durable solutions—such as citizenship or return and reintegration of refugees to countries of origin—remain elusive and a large portion of funding needs for comprehensive responses are left unmet. Based on the indicator report and stocktaking event, the HLOM outcomes document (forthcoming) provides 15 recommendations and outlines engagement opportunities for the future.
With the pandemic and associated economic shocks continuing to ravage refugee and host communities alike, the tools set out in the Global Compact have proven to be needed now more than ever. First, while the pandemic was devastating to so many, refugees experienced disproportionally worse outcomes on income, food security, and access to education.4 Second, despite movement restrictions in the midst of the pandemic, millions more fled their homes, resulting in additional risk, complexity and uncertainty.5 Continued efforts to improve socio-economic inclusion, as well as targeted interventions to address specific vulnerabilities, are desperately needed to address refugee poverty, which stands at alarming levels even before the pandemic.
Innovative approaches have emerged to allow States and other stakeholders to use Global Compact principles in their responses. Of particular note, increased and timely investment to include refugees into high frequency phone survey efforts has improved the landscape of comparable socioeconomic data of refugees and hosts helping to inform mitigation and response efforts. Other examples of innovation include the expansion of remote delivery mechanisms. Among UNHCR operations 85% adapted to provide services and assistance remotely. Examples include delivering high-risk pregnancy telemedicine in Jordan and contactless cash in Ecuador. After school closed in March 2020, UNHCR quickly developed and implemented distance learning programmes that reached over 100,000 refugee, internally displaced and host community children.6 Many of these innovations will remain even when the pandemic abates.
More Data than Ever Before, but Many Refugees Remain Statistically "Invisible"
The critical role of data and evidence to underpin these efforts and live up to the promise of the Global Compact is widely recognized. In this regard, significant progress has been made to measure the financing to refugee situations, access to third-country country solutions and refugee self-reliance using administrative and other data sources.
Household-level information on socioeconomic and living conditions are also crucial to enable evidence-based programming, policy, and advocacy responses by UNHCR and partners. The many obstacles to collecting this sort of data on forcibly displaced persons are well documented. Most refugees live in low- and middle-income countries, which face their own struggles delivering timely data for nationals; these are further complicated by challenges in forced displacement settings.7 On top of that, refugees are frequently excluded from data collection activities led by national governments for reasons both practical and political. Displaced populations are by nature highly mobile and often difficult to identify. Security, access and cost further contribute to their "invisibility" in national statistics, leading to a blind spot in the central call of the Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda to "Leave No One Behind".
This has recently begun to change, with the increasingly substantial number of datasets, reports and analyses that capture socioeconomic impacts of displacement. A growing number are produced by or in collaboration with national governments. This has been accompanied by a shift in culture at UNHCR towards responsible data sharing, based on processes put in place to anonymize, document, and make datasets more broadly available. At the time of writing this, UNHCR's Microdata Library records some 400 surveys and public and licensed datasets for partners, analysts, and researchers.8 Increasing access to quality microdata decreases duplication of efforts and increases efficiency, allowing resources to be used where they are most needed.
Still, the Global Compact on Refugees Indicator Report points out that more progress is needed. Data on access to decent work and movement rights in law (de jure) are available for only 25 countries accounting for 11.1 million, or just over half (54%), of the world's refugees, while those for education access cover 40 countries and poverty estimates are available for only 5 countries. Two other recent studies speaking to the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic using representative, comparable household surveys were able to cover less than 40% of the global refugee population. 9 10 More needs to be done to close these gaps.
The lack of coverage is compounded by difficulties in comparing the data that do exist. In the absence of inclusion into national surveys, much of the data collection on forcibly displaced persons has been left to humanitarian agencies and their emergency counterparts in the government. Until recently, this often led to site-specific approaches and heavy reliance on needs assessment to direct assistance. Increasing alignment with international standards offers many benefits, among them opportunities to speak the language of national policymakers and to facilitate humanitarian-development collaboration.
Technology offers both solutions and additional challenges. In the early months of the pandemic, national statistical offices and others limited face-to-face data collection and many suspended their survey efforts. UNHCR faced similar challenges in maintaining its refugee registration system. Over time, systems and processes were adapted and new tools developed to allow for remote servicing.
One example is the COVID-19 High-Frequency Phone Surveys implemented by the World Bank and national statistical offices, which were rapidly designed, deployed and adapted at low cost to deliver timely information in 70-plus countries globally.11 Through the efforts of the World Bank, UNHCR and the World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center, more than 10 of these surveys included sub-samples of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, together covering over 100,000 respondents in total.12
What is important now is to build on these efforts and seek opportunities to further institutionalize them into national systems, where possible.
Emerging Evidence Is Starting Point for Ongoing Efforts
The evidence provided by the Indicator Report is a starting point and will inform where to focus interventions in the future, especially as the international community develops new contributions for the next Global Refugee Forum in 2023. The HLOM also provided an opportunity for sharing countless examples of the efforts of different national governments, development partners, non-governmental organizations, civil society, and refugee-led groups to address the challenges of forced displacement. Some of these expand on the work of nearly 350 "Good Practices" documented in advance of the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019.
Fueled by new sources of data, an expanding body of knowledge is emerging from academic institutions and research agencies in search for solutions. A review of recent publications compiled by the Joint Data Center demonstrates some of the trends.13 Of more than 400 publications, the largest numbers focus on "integration, inclusion and social cohesion", "impact on host communities and host countries" and "education." Still others tackle diverse topics such as return, labor market development and firms and decisions to flee. On the other hand, the review also shows the concentrated geographic scope of this work: one-half of the studies concentrate on a total of ten countries and one-third focus on Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or Turkey. More needs to be done to tackle important questions from the many other, often neglected areas affected by forced displacement.
Bridging the Gap between Evidence and Action
As more data leads to more evidence, we confront the next logical question: How do we bridge the gap between research and action to inform programming, policy and advocacy that improve the lives of the displaced and their hosts? Answers to this are also emerging, with UNHCR regional and country offices expanding their use of evidence through a range of actions from increasing data savvy staff, improved targeting of assistance, tracking of inclusion efforts, protection outcomes and responsible data sharing.14
Data and evidence on effective responses to forced displacement are fundamental to UNHCR's increasing engagement with development actors. Humanitarian-development collaboration is based on growing awareness that forced displacement is relevant to poverty reduction and other development objectives, on the one hand; on the other, humanitarian aims such as inclusion and self-reliance necessitate development tools and resources. We have found that our most effective collaborations are based on complementarity, mutual influence, and practical action at country level. The importance of intragovernmental collaboration between humanitarian and development departments is equally crucial.15
In turn, these efforts are shown to have largely positive effects on development partners themselves, the policies of host governments and, most importantly, refugees and host communities. In Jordan, Syrian refugees receiving work permits were shown to have higher monthly incomes and indicate fewer specific legal or physical protection than those without a work permit. In Ethiopia, more refugee children received birth certificates following the government's pledges linked to the Global Compact; in turn, this increased school attendance. In Niger, land transformation projects created social housing for both host communities and refugees.
The urgency of the pandemic also necessitated a reprioritization of the humanitarian response in the short term, while creating new opportunities for humanitarian-development cooperation going forward. This includes openness among some governments to consider inclusive policies, particularly in relation to health systems and interventions. The Global Compact on Refugees Indicator Report shows increases in Official Development Assistance for refugee situations and number of partners contributing to complementary responses, and the share devoted to humanitarian assistance also rose from 67% to 74% during this time.16
Achieving the Vision of the Global Compact
While the demand for evidence will only become more vital, using it to drive change in policy and institutional and operational decisions requires more work to shift UNHCR's way of doing business to be driven by evidence. In practice, UNHCR and its development partners often have limited influence on many of the key factors affecting host government policies towards refugees.
Developed by the World Bank with UNHCR input, the Refugee Policy Review Framework (RPRF) provides a comprehensive picture of existing domestic policies, practices and developments over time in fourteen countries eligible for the Window for Host Communities and Refugees under the 18th and 19th replenishments of IDA.17 The framework is organized around four main policy dimensions – Host Communities, Regulatory Environment and Governance, Economic Opportunities, and Access to National Public Services – with cross-cutting themes of Gender and Social Inclusion.
In doing, it provides an excellent starting point to engage Governments and key stakeholders strategically and systematically in efforts to ensure more predictable, mutually reinforcing and better targeted support to unlocking solutions pathways such as local solutions (Art 100 GCR), Complementary Pathways (Art 85 GCR) or one of the traditional durable solutions.18 The RPRF is well timed to inform pledges and advocacy in advance of the next Global Refugee Forum.
Our aim is that by 2025, UNHCR is a trusted leader on data and information related to refugees and other affected populations, thereby enabling actions that protect, include, and empower. Increasing investments in household survey are a crucial part of this vision, allowing UNHCR and stakeholders (including partners, member states and donors) to use evidence to make strategic decisions, inform actions and plans.19