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The Under-Examined Role of Refugee-Led Organisations in Assisting Refugee Children

04 Dec 2023
Bangladesh 2022

By Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria (UNICEF Innocenti)


The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of local communities as both providers of assistance and partners of established aid actors, building on existing localisation efforts in the humanitarian sector. This is particularly true of organisations and initiatives started and led by refugees themselves, known as refugee-led organisations (RLOs). Notably, many RLOs provide crucial services to refugee children, ranging from education to child protection. Others are youth-led, as discussed in a companion blog article, illustrating child participation in action and one of many ways young people take ownership over finding their own solutions. 

At the onset of the pandemic, as many established aid actors withdrew from local service provision, RLOs around the world stepped in as first responders, providing emergency food rations to fellow refugees during lockdowns, sewing masks, raising awareness about COVID-19 hygiene and sanitation protocols, and more. In part due to their prominence in delivering support when many other organisations were limited in their ability to do so in person, refugee-led organisations have become an increasingly widespread topic of discussion within the humanitarian sector. This is also reflected in funding flows, with new financing mechanisms for refugee-led organisations now worth over 50 million USD - illustrating a clear increase since the onset of COVID-19 in the visibility of and investment in refugee-led organisations.


The importance of informal support to refugee children and youth 

Despite growing recognition of the many ways in which refugee-led organisations offer support to their communities, there is a significant lack of recognition of their critical role in both discourse and evidence, which can be attributed to their under-utilization in programming and their still limited visibility in policy. In particular, there is a clear need for more rigorous empirical research into RLOs to provide evidence and insights to support more impactful programming. 

This gap is particularly significant in policy and practitioner discussions on RLOs’ roles in supporting child protection and wellbeing – a critical aspect given research findings on the importance of informal support provision to migrant and displaced children. For example, as the UNICEF report ‘Reimagining Migration Responses found: ‘Scarcely any children or young people who said they felt scared said they would turn for help to the police or other authorities; they were more likely to turn to religious leaders, international charities [including community-based organisations] and teachers.’ Almost half of respondents stated that they thought a community leader would help them if they were in need compared to approximately 40% saying they believed a government official or police would help them. These findings on the importance of community assistance, whether it be members of the community, grassroot organisations, or faith-based leaders, underscore the relevance of refugee-led grassroots efforts to provide safety and assistance for refugee children and youth. 


Countless examples of RLOs assisting children and families 

Through my work and research with RLOs in Eastern and the Horn of Africa over the last ten years, I have seen first-hand the significant assistance that RLOs provide to refugee children and their families. In a refugee settlement in Uganda, refugee leaders explained how their organisation acts as a first responder in child protection cases, helping children directly when they can and referring them onwards to services or the authorities when they cannot. In Nairobi, an organisation started by a Somali refugee offers English and computer classes to children (many of whom are not in formal schooling) as well as a safe space to convene. In Berlin, refugees have created their own library, including for children, and others have developed programming for at-risk refugee youth. Multiple RLOs offer emergency shelter for unaccompanied children or mothers and children and also organise children and youth activities such as football. 

Several RLOs even run their own Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes. One RLO director started his own ECD and primary school class for children in a Ugandan refugee settlement during lockdown, working with children as young as two years old, in an effort to create a space for learning and to protect children dealing with domestic abuse. In Kampala, the RLO Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre leads an education project with ECD components for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy. 

Importantly, refugee-led initiatives for children often arise out of a gap in existing humanitarian and development programming. Of the ECD programme, for example, Bondeko’s director stated:

We noticed that at that age there is no support at all from UNHCR or other stakeholders in the field of education – they prefer to give support to children in primary school. But the fact is that children refugees are reaching primary school and they are not competitive with nationals who went through kindergarten or nursery…our program aims to help refugee children to be competitive. 


Advancing evidence and learning on refugee-led child programming 

These and countless other examples illustrate how refugee-led organisations are places where significant innovative good practice in child and youth programming occurs. These organisations offer real opportunities for agencies like UNICEF to help scale up important and currently under-utilised practices. Doing so also provides important pathways to widen humanitarian localisation by focusing on those needs that refugees themselves have identified through supporting solutions that they have developed. As one leader of a refugee youth-led organisation explained, ‘When big agencies come they don’t see what’s on the ground and they don’t see what’s missing because they have their own projects. This doesn’t work. But we give opportunities for refugees to come up with their own project, to design it with them, and to help with implementation.’ Presented below are some recommendations for policy, practice and research to further advance refugee-led child programming. 


Recommendations for Policy & Practice  

  1. Improve meaningful representation and inclusion of RLOs in local/regional consortia or clusters on different areas of child wellbeing. RLOs have a deep understanding of the main challenges faced by refugee children and families; including RLO leaders and staff in relevant stakeholder meetings can increase learning and the potential for partnerships. 

  2. Formalise channels between RLOs and local authorities, NGOs, and INGOs for referring child protection cases and other referral needs. This could occur through facilitating introductions, partnerships, and MoUs between relevant stakeholders in particular neighbourhoods or regions. 

  3. Increase funding to RLOs for child and youth programming. RLOs need stable financial support to run operations (most employees are in fact volunteers); this includes funding to pay for rent and to pay employees in addition to resources for child programming. 


Next steps in research  

The following types of research could increase the evidence base on RLOs and child programming as well as improve knowledge for policy and practice: 

  • In-depth case studies of the work of RLOs in child protection and wellbeing to address the current lack of qualitative data on this topic.
  • Surveys of RLOs to better understand the prevalence of child- and youth-focused programming, including the types of support offered and RLOs’ needs and challenges in providing it.
  • Qualitative research with refugee-serving NGOs, IOs, and INGOS to understand their level of engagement with RLOs and to better understand how RLOs could contribute to their work and vice-versa (e.g. opportunities, barriers, needs).