A landmark meeting in Geneva between the UN refugee agency and representatives of faith-based NGOs and major religions ended today with agreement to step up cooperation in support of the world's forcibly displaced and stateless people.
UNHCR, a secular and non-political humanitarian organization, has worked for more than 60 years in helping millions of displaced people around the world. In common with many faith-based organizations it seeks to provide protection and care for people who are forced to flee. In his summing-up remarks UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said closer cooperation between humanitarians and faith-based actors could only serve to better help the displaced.
"Religion and spirituality motivate and propel individuals, communities and organizations to help those in need and to save them from danger," Guterres said, noting the close link between humanitarian work and the values and principles that are at the basis of all major faiths. "There was unanimous recognition [at this meeting] of the valuable contributions that faith organizations and communities make to the protection of refugees and the displaced."
This week's meeting with individuals and organizations representing multiple faiths was a first of its kind for UNHCR, but follows related earlier discussions the UN refugee agency has held with NGOs about cooperation with faith-based organizations, as well as earlier this year with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Also present at this week's two-day meeting were representatives of governments, international organizations, and NGOs.
Guterres said that while several participants had acknowledged that violence and persecution were also perpetrated in the name of religion, faith groups could play a role in opposing religious intolerance by being better integrated into conflict-prevention and reconciliation efforts. He also spoke of substantial common ground between humanitarians and faith-based organizations in other areas.
"Faith-based actors have a role to play from the beginning of a crisis, with a view to promoting durable solutions before a refugee situation becomes protracted," he said. "They can help prevent conflict and address the root causes of displacement, assist refugees in making informed choices in exile, and play a central role in making solutions sustainable by helping refugees integrate in their new communities."
A series of working groups at the meeting generated ideas for helping integration of displaced people into communities, including by shaping positive attitudes towards outsiders and fighting xenophobia. Progress was also made on promoting durable solutions, and on improving understanding between humanitarians and faith-based NGOs.
Guterres said UNHCR intended building on these ideas by exploring how some might be put into practice. UNHCR, he said, would deepen its own understanding of religious traditions across faiths with a view to improving its own engagement with faith-based actors, including local religious communities. The dialogue that began this week, he said, would be built upon to institutionalize it and open it more widely to other humanitarian, government, NGO and faith-based participants.