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Improving the global refugee system


From Syria to Venezuela, Africa to the Pacific Islands, more people have been forcibly displaced from their homes now than at any time since World War II. Upwards of 68 million people are either living as refugees, displaced internally within their country, or seeking asylum. These migrants endure great hardship to escape violence, persecution, economic deprivation, and natural disasters.

Research highlights

  • Research is gathering evidence on the factors that lead to the displacement of women and children in Guatemala and southern Mexico, and the risks they face once they become migrants.
  • A digital learning project in Lebanon is developing critical thinking and problem solving while promoting collaboration among students from displaced populations and host communities.
  • An institute in Lebanon is specializing in healthcare issues related to refugees and conflict zones to find solutions to the challenges of displacement.

The World Refugee Council (WRC), which brings thought leaders, practitioners, and innovators from around the world together to further international cooperation and responsibility-sharing for refugees, was created by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in May 2017. Their report, A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System, declares that the number of migrants has grown beyond the capacity of the existing international system. It offers a series of concrete recommendations intended to spark global action and put mechanisms in place to prevent and respond to the forced displacement of people globally. These specific calls for action address the need for accountability, shared responsibility, solid financing, governance, broad-based support, technology, and protection for internally displaced people (IDPs).

At an IDRC and CIGI co-hosted event on April 10, 2019, WRC Chair Lloyd Axworthy emphasized that with the launch of the report, the challenge is to turn it into an action agenda and put the recommendations into practice. IDRC is proud to support the work of the WRC and other research that aligns with and furthers the council’s calls to action. The following are just a few examples of this research.

Addressing sexual violence against migrant women in Central America

Tens of thousands of women and unaccompanied minors are among the migrants escaping violence and economic hardship in Central America. Estimates show that as they make their way north to Mexico and the US border, six in 10 of these women and girls become victims of sexual violence. Displaced people are particularly vulnerable to violence perpetrated by government authorities and criminals, as well as their intimate partners.

Because mechanisms for reporting attacks are difficult to access (or nonexistent) and the victims are often threatened and intimidated into silence, there is little information available about the situation. IDRC is supporting research by Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, and Voces Mesoamericanas to gather evidence on the factors that lead to the displacement of women and children in Guatemala and southern Mexico and the risks they face once they become migrants.

Citing this IDRC-supported project, the WRC report calls for measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse as part of the need for accountability to refugees, IDPs, and host communities. The data the research is generating about the circumstances that contribute to victimization will help to identify practices and inform policy that will protect the rights and safety of Central American migrant women.

Providing innovative learning opportunities for Syrian refugees

The WRC report calls for using technology to enhance support to refugees and IDPs. This highlights another IDRC-supported example in Syria.

The Syrian conflict has displaced millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of children. In Jordan and Lebanon, more than 300,000 children are unable to attend school. For those who do, the mass influx of Syrian refugees has placed enormous strain on the educational systems of the host countries. Classroom space, teaching capacity, and educational resources are insufficient to meet demand. The lack of educational and training opportunities could lead to poor economic and social prospects for the majority of displaced Syrian children and increase the likelihood of conflict and social instability within the host countries.

In 2016, IDRC and the International Education Association launched the Coder-Maker Digital Learning Innovation project in 41 public schools in Lebanon. The project uses technology to improve access to quality learning opportunities for both Syrian refugees and host communities. Through Coder-Maker, students learn design thinking and computer programming to solve real-life problems. For example, one student team designed, coded, and installed traffic lights to improve local traffic flow. Importantly, in addition to teaching problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, the project fosters social learning and collaboration among Lebanese and refugee students.

Improving access to healthcare for displaced people

The WRC report also calls for enhancing the role of regional organizations in alleviating the plight of refugees. The Global Health Institute at the American University of Beirut has been addressing healthcare issues related to refugees and conflict zones, such as access to basic medical care, since 2017. With the support of IDRC, the Institute is developing resources and conducting research to help build the capacity necessary to meet the medical needs of displaced people and host countries in the Middle East.

In the context of the war in Syria, the Refugee Health Program is examining the impact that protracted conflicts have on health and well-being. The program has already authored a policy brief with recommendations to alleviate barriers that hinder displaced Syrian medical professionals from working legitimately in Lebanon, where there is a great need for their underused expertise.  

Another Global Health Institute project is developing a mobile electronic personal health record for Syrian refugees who have lost their important health information amid the chaos and destruction of war.

In the decades ahead, the impact of climate change, in addition to conflict and persecution, will increase the numbers of refugees, IDPs, and asylum seekers around the world. Innovative research initiatives, such as the IDRC-supported research highlighted here, are critical to transforming the global refugee system so that it can meet the growing demand of displaced people and improve their circumstances.

Watch WRC’s short video Concrete solutions to transform the global refugee system

Watch the trailer and the full April 10, 2019 event on the WRC report.