UNHCR partners to create multireligious advisory council on refugees, displacement

A refugee camp in Cameroon. Photo by: Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council / CC BY

WASHINGTON — A new partnership between the United Nations Refugee Agency and Religions for Peace will form a three-year, multireligious council to advise UNHCR on humanitarian and displacement issues.

The council will be composed of a diverse set of faith leaders from around the world and will focus on supporting peace building, inclusion, and reconciliation. It will also work to strengthen efforts to address root causes of conflict and displacement, UNHCR said in an announcement.

Religions for Peace uses its 90 national and 6 regional “interreligious councils” — which have members from all the world’s major religions — to mobilize faith communities to welcome migrants and refugees. It also provides direct, multireligious humanitarian support to these populations.

Religions for Peace The new Secretary General Religions for Peace, Dr. Azza Karam

“We actually are facing a minimum of two pandemics: One is called COVID, but the other is called the highest number of refugees and displaced populations ever.”

Azza Karam, secretary-general, Religions for Peace

Azza Karam, secretary-general of Religions for Peace, said faith leaders have “an incomparable podium” when it comes to advocating for welcoming attitudes for refugees and migrants. They can use that platform to disseminate specific messages that can lead to behavior change “so that they can be kinder, gentler, more accommodating to refugees amongst them,” Karam said.

“That’s like the oldest means in the book of being able to work with religious leaders so that they may use their unparalleled platforms to reach people’s hearts and minds and change behaviors and attitudes, including policy.”

Karam said the council will be composed of 10 to 15 faith leaders representing a balance of different religions who have experience serving and helping displaced populations. It will also have gender parity — a priority for both organizations, Karam said.

According to UNHCR, there were nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019. Of these, 45.7 million were displaced within their own countries, and 4.2 million were asylum-seekers. Eighty-five percent of refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad are hosted in lower-income countries, with the top hosts being Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany.

The multireligious body will advise UNHCR in the lead-up to the 2023 Global Refugee Forum, the second such gathering after the inaugural event last year that sought to unite the world around the Global Compact on Refugees. Karam said it is important that perspectives from the faith community are included in such global dialogues because so many nongovernmental organizations that serve refugees and migrants are faith-based.

This isn’t just a council as in a body. This is a council of people who bring to the table to also advise, to counsel, UNHCR’s leadership in their work. Those are the religious leaders who are busy actively welcoming the stranger, serving the needs of the internally displaced and marginalized, advocating for their humanity, their dignity, their rights, and the fact that these people are not victims,” Karam said. “These are people who are survivors, who serve, who add value to the communities that they happen to be inhabiting.”

While Religions for Peace and UNHCR have worked together for decades, Karam said this new partnership is particularly important.

“We’re talking about UNHCR’s mandate, which is refugees and displaced people. So as far as that set of realities are concerned, we actually are facing a minimum of two pandemics: One is called COVID [COVID-19], but the other is called the highest number of refugees and displaced populations ever,” Karam said. “If these two pandemics don’t enforce a deliberate consolidation of partnerships, existing partnerships, and/or lead to the creation of new partnerships to address the needs, then nothing ever will.”

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