Blog post by Diana Alberghini, who holds a PhD in German Literature and MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. She is currently working with the organization Asylum Access which strives to promote human rights for refugees through legal empowerment, policy reform and global systems change.

COVID-19 has paralyzed many aspects of our world. But as we stop and reflect what the pandemic means for our future life, we realize that it is not all about restrictions. Quite on the contrary, COVID-19 has also presented us with many opportunities. And while the main focus now is to resume our lives as fast as possible, it will soon become apparent that “back to normal” cannot be fully achieved and that, thankfully, some positive changes have already occurred. The challenge is ensuring they become permanent.

For refugees all over the world, COVID-19 has brought many devastating consequences both in terms of their health but also for their ability to earn a livelihood. In many cases, refugees live in conditions where social distancing is impossible, water scarce and personal protection equipment inaccessible, which are further aggravated by a lack of access to health services and other fundamental rights, such as labor rights. The impact of the coronavirus crisis on refugee communities is being closely analysed and will continue to be in the near future, at least while its repercussions last. For instance, the World Bank–UNHCR Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement (JDC) has created a dedicated space for researchers and practitioners where they can collect and share research findings about the current pandemic. This blog post, however, aims to highlight some of the new opportunities COVID-19 has opened up which, if grasped and developed, could bring about radical changes in the refugee field and revolutionize the current concept of aid and how to provide it. 

Among these opportunities, it seems particularly important to shed light on the role played by refugee-led organizations (RLOs) in supplying refugees protection and assistance in this time of emergency. The well-deserved attention they are finally receiving could mark the transformation of the top-down framework of the humanitarian sector and for this reason it calls for a reflection on how these actors could be supported so they can continue their work and expand their reach also after the pandemic abates.

Refugee-led Organizations and the Humanitarian Response Framework

While it is common knowledge that UN organizations prefer to collaborate with well-established international and national NGOs, the pandemic is helping refugee-led-organizations gain international recognition as a very valuable source of assistance. These organizations are by no means a product of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of them have been around well before Coronavirus made its appearance, but while their work is highly valued by the refugee community, they have been largely ignored within the international scene. 

In one of the few studies on refugee-led organizations pre-COVID 19, Betts et al. identified at least 80 registered RLOs in Kenya and Uganda, different in size and scope, which have been responding to the refugee community’s needs for several years – some, such as Hope for Children and Women Victims of Violence (HOCW) and Kobciye, for over a decade.

Similarly, back in 2016-17, the non-profit organization Urban Refugees set out to show the importance of refugee-led organizations. It engaged in a capacity-building project involving RLOs in Malaysia which clearly demonstrated that supporting these organizations benefits the urban refugee community.

While these are sporadic examples, the spreading of coronavirus has undoubtedly contributed to put refugee-led organizations on the map and shined a light on their role. As the pandemic forced UN agencies and NGOS to pull back their staff from the field and greatly reduced their capacity and funding, RLOs have filled new gaps in providing protection to refugees and ensuring the continuity of services interrupted by COVID-19. Whether in East Africa, Europe, the Middle East or South East Asia, refugee-led organizations have mobilised to address the current shortcomings in the sectors of health, education, and protection, while raising awareness about the virus. The Asia Pacific Network of Refugees, for instance, has organized a series of live online events in Farsi, Dari and other languages with the aim of informing refugees on how to protect themselves from becoming infected. NeedsList recently tweeted that at a time when supply chains have been disrupted, they are currently able to distribute basic goods to refugees in Uganda only through refugee-led organizations. 

UNHCR too has shown to be willing to work with refugee-led organizations. While previously not included in their operation planning and support allocation, recent COVID-19 related documents highlight the need for UNHCR to revisit its activities and partnerships. In this process of reprioritization, UNHCR has started paying more attention to local players, including refugee-led organizations. According to the Global Humanitarian Plan, it is currently reaching out to refugee-led organizations among others “to seek new and innovative ways of collaborating to reach out to all segments of society, combat misinformation and enhance global solidarity.” In a June pamphlet, it described its approach as “community-based” and recognized that community-based organizations are much better positioned to reach groups impacted by COVID-19, especially those who are most at risk and marginalized. 

While this openness to collaborating with refugee-led organizations is welcomed, one cannot but wonder what this means concretely. Refugee-led organizations have very rarely been supported financially. Looking for answers in the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, it is immediately obvious that the importance of global actors is one of its central themes. However, when the funding aspect is mentioned, it mostly comes as an encouragement to donors to be more flexible and ease their bureaucratic requirements to facilitate funding reaching local organizations directly. Among one of the most concrete suggestions is to use County-Based Pooled Funds (CBPF) as a channel to distribute funds, but despite the willingness to adapt to the new situation, a 2019 NRC study reveals NGOs feel CBPF is a quite rigid tool where the voice of local actors in advisory boards is still quite feeble. Clearly, it seems the strategic role played by RLOs is appreciated, but a lot of work still needs to be done to work out exactly how to support it. 

The main concern is that if the funding issue is not resolved now, the chances of this openness to collaborate closely with refugee-led organizations might fade away. Partnerships with RLOs based on supporting them to strengthen and expand their capacity as well as helping them access funding need to become the “new normal” as soon as possible. First of all, this is crucial because this is what the urgency of the current situation dictates and secondly, because the sooner a new partnership framework is established, the less likely it will be for UNHCR to revert to its original preference of working only with well-established organizations. In sum, if partnering with RLOs is now convenient, it also needs to be innovative for this change to survive beyond the pandemic. 

The Idea of “Meaningful Participation”

At the global level, the importance of increasing refugee participation and promoting refugee-led initiatives had started being woven into the narrative of innovating the humanitarian sectors before the COVID-19 outbreak. The 2018 Global Compact called for the meaningful participation of refugees in the implementation of its goals. At the very first Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, aligned with the Grand Bargain’s goal 6 of a “Participation Revolution”, the Global Refugee-led Network (GRN) presented a pledge “to support the meaningful participation of refugees and host communities in decisions that affect their lives.” This was subscribed by international NGOs such as APRRN, Oxfam and Asylum Access, some states and even strategic players from the private sector such as IKEA.

Conceptually, the argument of why refugees should participate in policy-making processes impacting their lives seems irrefutable. Nevertheless, while the idea of participation per se has not been under scrutiny, the rhetoric of it has not yet been transformed into reality leaving refugees largely excluded and voiceless. As examined by Betts et al. in their latest work The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection and pointed out above in relation to UNHCR, the top-down structure of the humanitarian sector prefers to rely on well-established organizations rather than on grass-root groups. Refugee-led organizations do not fit into this framework. Challenges around vetting and compliance standards imposed by states and donors are among the most common hurdles they encounter, preventing them from being considered for partnerships and financial support.

Historically, this goes against a simple, yet crucial lesson about what makes social policies and programs successful: they need to include those who are most impacted by them. Exclusion is not only costly as it inevitably leads to few viable solutions, but also unethical as it erodes people’s dignity. Initiatives such as the pledge have highlighted the importance of inclusiveness in order to bring about systemic change into the humanitarian sector. 

Advocating for refugee inclusion at the local, national and international level is part of the GRN’s core mission. During their campaign to promote the “meaningful participation” pledge they have used the rallying cry of the international disability rights movement “Nothing about us without us” as one of their slogans. It clearly expresses the refugees’ will to be seen as part of the society where they are living and their determination in wanting to exercise their agency in matters concerning their lives. They have the experience, the perspective, the knowledge needed to find sustainable solutions. Failing to listen to what they have to say has been to the detriment of the international refugee regime, often leading to short-sighted policies and programs responding to political pressures instead of human needs. 

Perhaps what is worse is that leaving refugees voiceless has contributed to a narrative of passiveness, denying refugees’ ability to self-govern themselves. Over time, they have been depicted as passive recipients of aid, waiting for the international community to attend to their needs. This has given rise to a framework where humanitarians are the providers and refugees the beneficiaries. This simplistic, binary way of portraying a more complex and nuanced situation has offered support to the vision of the global north coming to the rescue of the helpless refugees. In turn, this vision has fueled anti-immigration attitudes and policies in many countries around the world while depriving refugees of their dignity and denying their ability to act autonomously. 

Refugee-led Organizations Are Gaining Visibility

The representation of refugees as passive victims has been widely criticized within the realm of refugee studies. Hyndman, for instance, analysed the notion of vulnerable refugees in need of outside help and Harrell-Bond extensively argued in her work that the image of docile refugees was created to serve the humanitarian system’s goal of exercising full control on their lives. The exploration of the relationship between aid providers and refugees as passive recipients is particularly relevant in the context of refugee-led organizations as the latter are a concrete manifestation of refugee agency and therefore of the false premises on which this relationship is based. 

The 2020 book The Global Governed? Refugees as Providers of Protection by Betts at al.  take a critical stance towards the legitimization of the provider/beneficiary interaction and highlights instead refugee efforts in mobilising themselves and forming their own organizations to provide the services of protection and assistance usually supplied by large humanitarian players. To my knowledge, this is the first substantial academic work entirely focused on the analysis of RLOs and arguing convincingly why they should occupy a seat at the table of global governance. By researching how these organizations operate in countries such as Kenya and Uganda, not only does this study give visibility to RLOs, but also attempts to promote their transformation from “passive objects of external governance to integral actors in the making of global governance, participating in the making of rules and norms and the creation and provision of global public goods.”

Beyond the academic world, other human rights organizations have started recognizing the importance of refugees’ participation and have taken an interest in how refugee-led organizations are responding to the COVID-19 challenges. In an especially trying time where healthy restrictions led to the closure of many businesses, thus depriving informal workers of their livelihood, Amnesty International reported on how RLOs in Kenya and Uganda found themselves having to provide not only health protection, but also material support for all those refugees who suddenly lost a way to earn their living. In particular, the AI’s article calls attention to the role of these organizations as being more important today than ever given the heightened risk refugees are currently running from falling outside health and welfare government interventions.

Other refugee organizations are also contributing to increase the visibility of refugee-led organizations. In a web article, NeedsList has been describing how it can continue to operate in Uganda thanks to their cooperation with RLOs. The aim of their article is to raise awareness about the challenges faced by refugee-led organizations and provide a way for donors to start funding these entities directly. Similarly, RefugePoint has published a list of 16 refugee-led organizations in Kenya and their current funding needs in the attempt to help them find some financial support.

Going Forward

As RLOs are still considered high-risk investments and therefore largely excluded from the formal humanitarian response, advocating on their behalf is certainly a step in the right direction. However, what is needed is a more substantial change in how the humanitarian response operates. A new framework should be created in which RLOs can be identified, capacitated, funded, and held accountable. For participation to be truly meaningful, refugee-led organizations need resources to acquire a legal status and enhance both their financial and technical capacity to continue and expand the work they are already doing. Only with steady and reliable access to funds and increased capacity will they be able to bring about sustainable, long-term solutions. 

In addition, while so far RLOs might have played mainly a consulting role, it is high time they are reserved a seat at the negotiating table as equal partners to other NGOs who are operating in the area with the support of UNHCR. First the GRF and then unintentionally COVID-19 have created momentum around refugee-led organizations. It is imperative to keep on building on it so that concepts such as “refugee-led” and “meaningful participation” transition from their current status as buzzwords into realities. 

As indicated above, some efforts have been made in identifying refugee-led organizations, understanding and recognising their work. So far, research has been mainly carried out in East Africa, but this kind of investigation should be expanded to other countries. It is fundamental to understand where and who these organizations are, how they have been operating, and above all how they can best be sustained.

Positive signs have also been registered throughout the humanitarian sector. The subscription of the meaningful pledge by many key players is a clear sign of the openness to include refugees. However, while the operating framework of multilateral organizations might not be nimble enough to react fast to the changes needed to facilitate RLOs, international and national NGOs might have a strategic role to play. 

Firstly, they can raise awareness about the work these organizations are doing. Secondly, perhaps a more direct way of contributing to RLOs at least in this initial phase as they try to gain recognition is by acting as a temporary bridge to what they lack the most: knowledge, capacity, connections, and funding. By leveraging their advantageous position, experience in navigating the system and familiarity with the mechanisms regulating the humanitarian scene, they can partner with RLOs and help them access multilateral organizations, donors, and influential actors so that they can establish themselves, get the financial support they need, and eventually become key players in their own right. An initiative of this kind is called Resourcing RLOs. Launched by a coalition of six organizations, the mission of this group is to help RLOs strengthen their capacity and access resources. By adopting an innovative “pay-it-forward” model, RLOs will eventually be able to lift up other RLOs, thus increasing refugee participation all around. 


While the fight against COVID-19 is by no means over, the time to think about how to “build back better” is now. Local supporters of refugees fear that once the coronavirus crisis is over, commitments to cooperate and support RLOs will be dissolved causing the disappearance of many small refugee-led entities.

Hence, this is an invitation to start reflecting critically on how to continue building momentum to sustain these organizations. Perhaps, an even more important question is how to ensure the current openness to cooperate with RLOs will lead to the systemic change of the humanitarian framework. Advocating for refugee-led organizations is an important first step, but the ultimate goal should be finally reforming how aid is done and redressing the balance between the provider-beneficiary relationship. While RLOs are acquiring some recognition today, the reason to keep talking about what they are doing and the position they deserve to occupy in decision-making processes is to avoid them becoming the forgotten heroes of tomorrow. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.