Conference on displaced people highlights importance of lived experience

  • Date

    Mon 15 Feb 21

A virtual conference looking at the global crisis of displaced persons has drawn participants from around the world, including in some of the locations where those at the heart of the debate live.

The conference, ‘70 Years of Protecting People Forced to Flee’, opened on 18 January and marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It was hosted by UNHCR and the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network (GAIN), which is based at Essex.

85% of displaced people live in the Global South and a key theme was the need to amplify both academic voices from the South and those with first-hand experience of displacement, when developing solutions. Across four days and 20 panels, 49% of speakers had personal experience of forced displacement, and a majority were from Low and Middle-Income Countries.

Professor Geoff Gilbert, from our School of Law, who is the first Chair of the GAIN Secretariat, said: “One of the most important aspects of this conference was the number of people with personal experience of displacement featured on the panels. In addition, many young and emerging scholars have been able to participate and put their views alongside those with long experience in the field.

“We have to move to a position where the voice of the person of concern is part of the planning, part of the study, part of the analysis process in all our research studies. We also need partnerships to emerge between academics in the Global South and Global North.

“In addition, we are an interdisciplinary network and this conference heard not just from experts in international humanitarian and human rights law, but geographers, social anthropologists and international relations scholars – we need to draw in a range of disciplines to improve solutions.”

The conference featured 12 academic institutions, including Essex, and included expert panels from every region where UNHCR operates, with contributions from the Asia-Pacific region, Middle East, Africa, and North and South America, as well as Europe. Topics included protection and solutions for refugees, burden and responsibility sharing, and how academic research can inform policy making, programme implementation and evidence-based decision-making.

GAIN was launched in December 2019, following a call for greater research on the issues affecting people experiencing forced displacement, made as part of the Global Compact on Refugees. In July last year, Essex agreed to become the first host of the GAIN Secretariat, with Professor Geoff Gilbert as its Chair.

In 2020, UNHCR estimated that there were 79.5 million displaced people – representing one per cent of humanity - with 85% per cent in the Global South. Displacement can occur for a variety of reasons, including conflict, human rights violations and climate change.

Five countries - Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar - account for two thirds of people displaced across borders. Half are children, many separated from their families.

In many cases, the countries displaced people settle in are themselves facing serious challenges, including food insecurity and the impact of the climate crisis.

The conference panels were recorded and are available onlineReports on each panel and a series of pieces looking at aspects of the debate will be published in the coming months.

- Image by kind permission of UNHCR