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How the New ‘World Refugee Council’ Plans to Reform Refugee Response

As the newly launched World Refugee Council begins its work, we spoke to its chair Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign and immigration minister, about its ambitions to bring fresh ideas and build political consensus to reform the international refugee system.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A South Sudanese boy at Nguenyyiel refugee camp in Gambela, Ethiopia on June 20. Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency

When Lloyd Axworthy was Canada’s immigration minister in the early 1980s, he oversaw the resettlement of thousands of refugees fleeing southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War.

More than 55,000 “boat people” came to Canada during the 1970s and 1980s. Many were supported by community or religious groups, founding the basis of Canada’s celebrated private sponsorship model for refugees and earning Canadians the U.N. refugee agency’s 1986 Nansen Award.

Several decades and leadership roles (including Canadian foreign minister) later, Axworthy is at the helm of a new global initiative to reform the international refugee system. He chairs the World Refugee Council, a group of academic, civil society, business and political leaders intent on providing “bold strategic thinking” on how the world responds to refugees.

The initiative was launched last month by the Canadian think tank the Centre for International Governance Innovation, with support from the Canadian government. The council’s members include former Greek prime minister George Papandreou and former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete. Following the group’s first meeting this month, Axworthy talked to Refugees Deeply about how the idea started and what the council hopes to achieve over the next 18 months.

Refugees Deeply: How did the World Refugee Council first come about? Why did you see a need for such a body?

Lloyd Axworthy: I went to Germany last year to discuss the Canadian model for refugee resettlement and rights at the invitation of the Robert Bosch Academy. While I was there, I realized that not only had the situation changed – usually people move from east to west, but now you have large numbers moving south to north – but also that the institutions and practices and conventions [on refugees], that are still very rooted in the post-World War II era, are just not adequate to meet the demands of today. We need structural change, not just minor adjustments. That was crystallized at the refugee summit meetings in New York last fall.

I met people from the Center for Innovation in Governance, who were thinking the same thing. We engaged the Canadian government and put together a partnership to sponsor a refugee council which would bring together a lot of people from different parts of the world and different sectors to do some forward thinking that was more than just administrative adjustments or rhetoric.

I felt that the world had to get its act together to start preparing for – and to offset – the kind of right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-refugee attitudes that were being exploited by some politicians in different jurisdictions. And thirdly, to make it clear to the general public that we need a new policy and new governance to make sure that the issue [of forced displacement] is properly managed and governed.

As foreign minister, I was involved in things like the landmine treaty and the International Court, which made me realize that that there are limitations to the degree of freedom to think outside the box within the U.N. structures – a lot of interests are at stake there. In Geneva, we had dinner with [former U.N. secretary-general] Kofi Annan and his advice to us [on reforming the refugee system] was that the U.N. has to ultimately be the place where it happens, but it’s not necessarily the place where the best thinking is going to be done on it.

Refugees Deeply: What did you agree on in terms of the objectives and the agenda at your first meeting in Geneva?

Axworthy: There will be four to five major council sessions in different parts of the world, with the next meeting in the coming months in the Middle East, followed by Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Then we will bring some conclusions back in Ottawa around 18 months from now.

We also decided on two-track approach – alongside the full council meetings, we will also to spin out smaller teams of four or five members to zero in on certain issues, like finance, organizational structure, technology and the politics to support a reform initiative.

It’s not that I already have a list of recommendations in my back pocket. We want to be as open as possible and get the best ideas, but also ideas that lend themselves to serious political action.

Refugees Deeply: Do you foresee practical ways that the council will feed into the work being done on the 2018 Global Compact on refugees?

Axworthy: Yes. We met with UNHCR high commissioner Filippo Grandi and assistant high commissioner Volker Türk in Geneva, and there was an agreement that because of our independence perhaps we can take a look at some of these issues … not to disrupt the compact, but to be as constructive and helpful as we can to the compact meetings.

We want to be a supplementary source of thoughts and ideas and proposals, but it’s not limited to the Global Compact. There’s lots of other places, like the G20 or the E.U., and there’s the private sector initiative that really needs to be organized.

There’s a lot of things that we have a freedom to do that may not be as constrained by the normal rules that the U.N. works under. Several of us on the council are former ambassadors or former foreign ministers, so we’ve been through that system and we know both its capabilities and its limitations.

Refugees Deeply: What do you see as the primary goal of the council?

Axworthy: To help to start building a consensus or agreement around certain structural or institutional changes by bringing together working coalitions of civil society, private sector, universities and governments.

I was very involved in the anti-landmine campaign, and the reason we were able to achieve what we did was due to a very unique partnership of NGOs, International Red Cross and six to eight key countries who worked on it, as well as a large public support, partly gained through the advocacy of celebrities like Princess Diana. So there’s some models about political change at the international level that hopefully we can help initiate – not only putting the ideas forward, but also trying to put some kind of political will or momentum behind them.

Refugees Deeply: What strategies will you use to work with governments where there clearly isn’t a lot of political will right now?

Axworthy: One of the opportunities we have is that there are far more centers of decision-making and policymaking and action than there were 10 or 20 years ago. There are coalitions that can be worked out at a local or regional level. When we did the treaties on landmines and small arms, we didn’t have to have everybody signed up. In some cases, we had some of the big powers not signed up. But we did establish a real norm … a real standard, upon which the behavior was going to be measured. That could be used domestically to hold governments to account, as well as non-government players.

One of the really nasty elements of refugee situations is the deep state of economic and financial institutions, who exploit resources to get big profits and cause wars and breakdowns in governance. South Sudan is not just a climate problem or sectarian problem – there’s also a network of people around the world who are making a lot of money off it.

Refugees Deeply: What was the criteria for choosing the executives and the councillors?

Axworthy: The criteria include a full gender balance, North-South equality and inclusion of young people. The second criteria was experience – people who knew the issues and had been involved in them. And thirdly, we looked for terrific research being done by scholars in the area, and civil society, who are the building blocks of the kind of political momentum I spoke of earlier.

Refugees Deeply: Will there be ways for refugees to directly input or provide feedback into the council’s work?

Axworthy: Everywhere we go, we’ll be reaching out to refugees or those who represent them through their organizations. One of the reasons for our first meeting in Geneva is that it coincided with UNHCR consultations with civil society, and we were able to meet with them too.

Refugees Deeply: What would you say to someone who argues that we don’t really need another high-level forum for discussion, what we really need is change in policies, and how is the World Refugee Council going to help with that?

Axworthy: There are international norms and standards, and cooperation and collaboration, that has to be developed so that people begin to see the real value in a reform structure or a reform process.

The kind of enthusiasm and engagement that happened after the Berlin Wall came down in the 1990s, and then about developing international agreements on climate change or epidemics at the turn of the millennium – there needs to be a similar kind of collaboration on the refugee issue. But now we’re in this nadir, where there are just too many political leaders who are out to upset that kind of international cooperative system. One of the reasons for having a council is to provide another place to counterpoint those arguments.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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