The number of refugees has risen steadily in recent years, with over 70 million people now living as either refugees or internally displaced persons. This is not a challenge that any country can take on alone: it requires a joint, international framework for cooperation, which is precisely the intention behind the United Nations (UN) Global Compact on Refugees, approved by UN member states in December 2018. The first Global Refugee Forum (GRF), held in Geneva on 17–18 December 2019, aims to spur progress in implementing the compact.
The first Global Refugee Forum
The forum provides a platform for all actors – governmental and non-governmental – to forge partnerships and showcase innovative solutions, and to address together the growing challenges facing refugees and host communities. The forum brings together governments, international organisations, local authorities, civil society, the private sector, host communities and refugees themselves. It gives these stakeholders an opportunity to announce new measures that they will take to ensure international protection, ease the pressure on first host countries, enhance refugee self-reliance and identify sustainable solutions.
Switzerland and the Global Compact on Refugees
The Federal Council decided to support the UN's Global Compact on Refugees (not to be confused with the Global Compact for Migration) at its meeting on 7 December 2018. The compact was approved by the UN General Assembly on 17 December 2018, with 181 countries voting in favour, two against (the US and Hungary), and three abstaining.
The compact underscores the principle of the sovereignty of all states and builds on existing international refugee law, as enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which Switzerland has ratified. It does not alter the definition of the term 'refugee' in either international law or Swiss law. The compact has four key objectives:
- The first objective is to ease pressures on countries hosting large numbers of refugees and to encourage local assistance. This is in line with the demands expressed by Parliament regarding international cooperation.
- The second objective is to support countries in the affected regions which make efforts to integrate refugees in local economies and communities, in order to enhance their self-reliance and make them less dependent on state support.
- A more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibilities associated with hosting refugees is envisaged in the third objective. The compact appeals to states which are neither hosts nor donors to contribute substantially to the international effort.
- Finally, the compact seeks to encourage the return of refugees to their countries of origin where possible.
By supporting the Global Compact on Refugees, Switzerland is able to further its own interests in line with the compact's objectives, while also reaffirming its humanitarian tradition.
The forum, co-hosted by Switzerland, is opened by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis with the High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Secretary-General.
Switzerland contributes to a number of key topics being discussed at the GRF, chief among them education, protection, employment and integration. Switzerland has a wealth of hands-on experience in these areas, both at home and abroad.
For many years, Switzerland has been helping countries of first refuge to protect refugees and internally displaced persons as quickly and effectively as possible. By providing assistance on the ground, it seeks to ensure adequate protection for the people concerned. This means that refugees are not forced to move on to other countries and regions, which usually entails a dangerous journey during which they run the risk of falling victim to human trafficking and other human rights violations. As well as providing protection in regions of origin, Switzerland also supports measures to prevent large-scale refugee or displacement movements and to promote refugees' social and economic self-reliance and their integration in countries of first refuge. Switzerland works with a number of humanitarian and development organisations to this end. A particularly important collaboration is that with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The significance of this partnership was confirmed by the Federal Council's decision in spring 2019 to grant UNHCR a total of CHF 125 million over the next four years.
Focus on education
Fewer than half of refugee children worldwide are able to complete compulsory education at primary and secondary level. Given that 52% of the world's approximately 70 million displaced persons are under the age of 18, this is very worrying. Without schooling, their future prospects are limited, whether in their host countries or on return to their countries of origin. Being able to go to school, despite war and displacement, is one of the most commonly expressed needs of refugee children and their families. School is both a place of protection and social integration and a vital stepping stone to further education, work and independence.
This investment is worthwhile because the future of each and every refugee child and their relatives is at stake – as well as that of the regions concerned, for without education there is no social and economic development. Switzerland will therefore work even harder in the future to promote education in crisis-hit areas. This includes recognising education as an important component of protection in emergency situations, as well as increasing support for partner countries to help them integrate refugee children into local education systems.
More information about Switzerland's commitment in this area:
At the forum, Switzerland also presents its new asylum procedure and the implementation of its Integration Agenda as examples of good practice. The Geneva Refugee Convention guarantees protection for refugees around the world and forms the backbone of Switzerland's asylum policy. The new asylum procedure, which has been in place since spring 2019, aims to improve the protection of refugees, speed up procedures, make them more effective and uphold the rule of law. But Switzerland's efforts do not stop there. The country attaches great importance to integrating refugees, and its new Integration Agenda aims to get refugees and temporarily admitted persons into work more quickly and make them less reliant on social assistance.
Another Federal Council decision that Switzerland showcases at the forum is its implementation of the resettlement plan for recognised groups of refugees. Resettlement has been a part of Swiss refugee policy for many decades. Developed in close consultation with the cantons, cities and communes, the plan will see up to 800 particularly vulnerable refugees, living in precarious circumstances in countries of first refuge, resettled in Switzerland in both 2020 and 2021.
Switzerland's participation in the GRF follows the whole-of-Switzerland approach. Experiences and innovative solutions from the country's cantons and cities, private sector, academia and civil society feed into the discussions, alongside contributions by the Federal Administration.
Whole-of-Switzerland approach to refugees
In the wake of the humanitarian refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, a range of Swiss actors, including the general public, mobilised to lend a helping hand in areas such as integration and assistance on the ground. Here are just three examples:
The FOGO project
Last year, Zurich City Council set up the FOGO project, which provides combined accommodation for refugees and young adults in education and training. With small businesses also involved, as well as food and drink, cultural and educational facilities, FOGO is more than just a residential space: it promotes participatory integration and benefits the entire neighbourhood.
Among other things, SINGA Switzerland offers six-month start-up programmes for people from a refugee and migrant background in Zurich and Geneva. A mentoring programme involving volunteers from the private sector sees business ideas realised through cooperation and discussion and then pitched to potential investors. This makes a very real contribution to social and economic integration. Read the stories of SINGApreneurs Elie Khudari from Syria and Saran Camara from Guinea.
For more than 70 years, Swiss Solidarity has been collecting money for victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises in Switzerland and abroad. Time and again, the Swiss public show unstinting generosity, including in response to refugee crises. In 2015, for example, a Syria appeal raised over CHF 29 million in public donations, enabling support for projects in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Greece.