The international community is currently in the midst of negotiations on the UN Global Compact on Refugees which provides an opportunity for the world to redeem itself on an issue in which it has failed so miserably to date: the treatment of refugees.

The current draft of the compact rightly cites that “responses are most effective when they actively engage those they are intended to protect and assist, relevant actors will, wherever possible, continue to develop and support consultative processes that enable refugees and host communities to help design appropriate response(s).” As we try to build a better refugee system, we must recognize that refugees have an important, all-too-often ignored, voice. Reforming the system without their perspective would not only be irresponsible, it would almost certainly guarantee failure.

The current global refugee system has a critical structural flaw: the absence of the refugee perspective. Without this crucial insight, we keep making the same mistakes regarding refugees, migrants, internally displaced individuals and the communities hosting them. 

Unfortunately, the current system operates on a crisis by crisis basis that establishes two categories of people – those in need and those not in need. This approach results in a problematic practice where the international community and humanitarian agencies – based on available funding from voluntary donors – provide refugees and their host communities with the bare essentials for survival and very little more. This is both ineffective and unsustainable – two sides of the same coin.

The system is ineffective because, historically, it has limited itself to the perspectives of governments, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. The survival-based system falls apart when donor fatigue sets in and/or the political landscape changes.  In either case, it is to the detriment of refugees. Current actors tend to be shortsighted. Their preference for short-term relief prevents real solutions, which require long-term commitments and a more holistic approach. As a result, refugees live in a vicious circle of disaster and dysfunction.

What is needed is a comprehensive and inclusive system where displaced peoples not only survive but thrive in their new communities.  The time has come to look at migration differently. Ultimately, a larger and longer-term vision with an inclusive, grassroots approach can bring sustainable solutions for migrants and their host communities.

The international community has a lot more to offer refugees, migrants, and IDPs. Modern technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and others, carry a tremendous amount of hope to allow support systems to work collectively and comprehensively to create a unified platform that is more inclusive, democratic, accessible and which works to ensure transparency and accountability while avoiding duplication, redundancy, and ultimately wasting resources for those assisting refugees.

Refugees and host communities also have tremendous value to add when it comes to developing and implementing innovative solutions to the problems of the current refugee system.  They have the capacity and the personal drive to find solutions and drive their own futures. We need to move beyond traditional structures of donors and providers and include the knowledge and expertise of refugees and host communities along with other non-traditional actors. Through close collaboration and strong networks, the international community can create a system that identifies specific problems and responds with effective and sustainable solutions. A global policy platform should be built to lead and incentivize collaborative, coherent, and innovative responses to refugee crises.

The needs of refugees are not fixed or limited – they vary according to the contextual environment and socioeconomic factors of their origin and their host community. Alone, the humanitarian and development sector simply cannot provide for all the needs of refugees. Coordination and cooperation from the private and technology sectors should be garnered and it will have a remarkable impact on the ability of refugees to thrive in their new communities.   For example, coordination from banks to assist and enable refugees to open bank accounts, or from health providers to enable refugees to receive medical care or from schools to access education – each of these facilities would, in both the short and long-term, mitigate and eventually eliminate the dependence of refugees on host and international communities by easing the process of assimilation and ultimate independence.

In order to do this, we need to give refugees a voice. As the Global Compact negotiations note, we must stop speaking for them and start listening to their perspectives. They will be better able to tell us about their experiences, their needs, their challenges, allowing us all to move forward together. Without doing so we are simply perpetuating the cycle of dependence which, when donor fatigue becomes apparent or the political environment changes, leaves those in need little better off than they were before. 

Her Excellency Shaima Al Zarooni is the founder and president of Camp01, a US-based public benefit corporation which enables partners and clients to plan and manage humanitarian and development projects for vulnerable populations. She is also a council member on the World Refugee Council by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).