The first ever Global Refugee Forum

16 December 2019|Fr Kevin White SJ, Jesuit Refugee Service’s representative in Geneva, Switzerland.

Related: Advocacy
Rahma came to Kakuma as a refugee from Ethiopia together with her husband and oldest son in 2018, While her 8 other children remained behind. She took a training and now work as a JRS staff for the Special Need unit in centre 4. She also adopted baby Blaze, who was left alone by her parents. (Fredrik Lerneryd/Jesuit Refugee Service)
Rahma is a refugee from Ethiopia. She took a training and now works as a JRS staff for the Special Need unit in Kakuma refugee settlement, Kenya. She also adopted baby Blaze, who was left alone by her parents. (Fredrik Lerneryd/Jesuit Refugee Service)

This is not hyperbole: Today more people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time in recorded history. This displacement is a complex, often vexing topic, and one that can be exploited for political purposes. There is some good news about initiatives to address the problem, including the first ever Global Refugee Forum, which will be held in Geneva 17-18 December. But first here are some terms and statistics that can help make some sense of the headlines. Behind these numbers are individuals who want nothing more and deserve nothing less than what we all want and should enjoy: a life consistent with our dignity as children of God. How we respond reflects our own humanity.

The scope of displacement worldwide

Today, nearly 71 million people—almost twice the number of people living in the world’s largest city of Tokyo—have been forcibly displaced.

26 million are refugees—individuals who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution or violence for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, have fled their countries. Half of all refugees are under 18 years of age.

3.5 million are asylum seekers—individuals who seek protection in a specific country and must wait to be recognized by that country as a refugee.

41 million are internally displaced persons—individuals who have fled their homes because of internal strife or natural disaster but have not crossed an international border. IDPs remain under the legal protection of their own governments, and unlike refugees, are not eligible for international legal protection, nor many types of aid.

Following up on the Global Compact on Refugees

This week in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) along with Switzerland will host the first ever Global Refugee Forum. This gathering of UN member states, together with private businesses, nonprofits and nongovernmental organisations (including the Jesuit Refugee Service) will gather to address the current refugee situation. This meeting follows up on the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR)—the international community’s statement of resolve to improve the world’s response to today’s refugee situations by ensuring that refugees and the nations hosting them receive the support they need.

The GCR has four objectives:

  1. Share responsibilities more equitably
  2. Enhance refugee self-reliance
  3. Expand access to third-country solutions (i.e., permanent resettlement or other opportunities such as scholarships or work permits)
  4. Support conditions in countries of origin for safe, voluntary, dignified repatriation

The GCR envisioned periodic meetings to assess progress toward its goals—hence the Global Refugee Forum (GRF). During the Forum, states and other stakeholders will exchange “good practices” as well as announce pledges and contributions within six focus areas: Responsibility sharing, Education, Jobs and livelihoods, Energy and infrastructure, Solutions, and Protection capacity.

JRS has pledged within Education, Jobs and Livelihoods, and Solutions (Reconciliation/Peace-building programmes).

Funding and resettlement

A successful GRF this week will see more states and other actors joining the response to the refugee situation as donors, hosts and partners. The GRF hopes to enlist the “missing middle”—that is, those states that could either contribute more or host more refugees.

In 2018, 76 percent of UNHCR’s budget came from the top 10 donor states, with 38 percent from the United States alone, and 60 percent of the world’s refugee population lived in just 10 countries. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

What can you do?

The GRF will be a high-level gathering of states and other stakeholders, but what can individuals do about the forced-migration crisis? A few thoughts:

  1. The response that is needed is both collective and individual. We can all #Do1Thing to bring hope to refugees. Get inspired here.
  2. Learn about the Church’s social teaching and positions on migration.
  3. Get inspired by Pope Francis’s 20 Action Points that you can use in your community or parish to get personally involved in practical and spiritual ways.
  4. Consider partnering with JRS or make a financial contribution.
  5. Undertake a fast for refugees, an action recommended by the church as a way of becoming more aware of our dependence on one another and making us more grateful for what we have—and thereby more willing to share. God does not delight in our discomfort from hunger; rather, God rushes in to expand our hearts when we feel more open to others.


A longer version of this article first appeared in America magazine on 11 November 2019.