Although choosing to engage with UNHCR on an international level can be very helpful, it should be pursued with caution. Interacting with UNHCR on an international level is like approaching the local UNHCR’s boss – it is possible that the local UNHCR will view this kind of advocacy counter to the spirit of in-country partnership. However, depending on the particular nature of your relationship with the local UNHCR, UNHCR headquarters can play a powerful intermediary role. This page will outline the ways in which you may advocate with UNHCR on an international level.
Advocacy with UNHCR headquarters can happen in a few different ways. First, you could pursue writing opportunities through the Policy Development and Evaluation Service. These reports have a wide-array of viewership.
UNHCR makes most of its major decision-making once per year with its member states during meetings of the Executive Committee. This typically takes place in October every year in Geneva. It is generally difficult for NGOs and other members of civil society to gain access to Executive Committee, however, some actors choose to position themselves in Geneva during this time period in order to strategically schedule meetings with relevant national refugee officials as they are most focused on refugee response.
More commonly, NGOs will attend Pre-Executive Committee NGO consultations, which occur in June every year in Geneva. NGO consultations formally consists of a series of theme-specific panels, in which UNHCR and NGOs discuss pressing issues in refugee response. Informally, UNHCR consultations also has several networking events and trainings, including the Asylum Access Refugee Rights Training.
Participating in NGO consultations allows you and your organization the opportunity to communicate specific messages to your fellow refugee response actors who work either in your country or in others, and to engage with members of coalitions that you might only interact with over Skype or phone. These are critical relationship building moments that can raise the professionalism and legitimacy of your organization in the eyes of powerful actors.
Aside from relationship building, attending NGO consultations should not be in and of itself a goal. Rather, it is a forum that can be used to strategically pursue other goals. For example, if one of your goals is to help refugees in your country access work rights, you can use NGO consultations to call UNHCR’s attention to work rights in your region. You might use this moment to look for a potential champion at UNHCR headquarters to help you engage with local UNHCR, or to locate potential coalition partners for a work rights campaign. You might also do some direct advocacy by setting up meetings with UNHCR officials or other potential partners specifically calling attention to the state of work rights in your country. You might also seek to participate on a panel that is discussing work rights so you can communicate your message more broadly.
Attending NGO consultations can be expensive. As it requires significant resources, it is important that you carefully construct and focus on some specific goals for your organization.
When UNHCR is the adjudicator, it is critical to maintain a positive working relationship in order to protect your clients’ ability to receive unbiased treatment. For this reason, advocacy approaches should not be overly publicized or adversarial. This can be especially difficult for young advocates who experience feelings of frustration and injustice. As a program director, it is critical that you keep staff focused on the protection of the client.