The Relevance of Faith Actors’ Partnerships for the Global Compact on Refugees

Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees

Contribution by Stephanie Acker, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute & Leiza Brumat, Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute

9 June 2022

The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) cements a call to the international community: the refugee response needs everyone. In 2018 nearly every country joined in adopting[i] the GCR (with exception of Hungary and the United States opposing it and abstentions from Eritrea, Liberia, and Libya).  They affirmed a commitment to leveraging civil society and partnering with all relevant stakeholders, including faith-based actors and organizations. This marked the first time that faith-based actors were explicitly included in an international agreement comprised of most countries in the world. 

Faith actors include faith-based organizations, local faith communities, and faith leaders (see Box 1 with the definitions) and they have a long history of involvement with forcibly displaced populations (Ferris, 2005; Milner and Klassen, 2021). The GCR uses the terms faith-based organizations and faith-based actors largely interchangeably. We use the term faith actors from UNHCR’s 2014 partnership guidance, as a more precise phrase to encompass the diversity of various faith actors. There is evidence that faith actors alongside other members of civil society, have for centuries ‘led responses to displacement’ (Milner and Klassen, 2021, p.1) and that they have played an ‘important role…in humanitarian responses in all regions of the world [emphasis added]’ (Ferris, 2011, pp.607–608). Faith actors play multiple roles in refugee protection—from conflict prevention, to immediate aid, to integration and self-reliance. Their ability to play a role in all of these areas makes them a unique and critical partner (Thomson, 2014; Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Communities, 2018; Sulewski, 2020; UNHCR, 2014).  Specifically in the Global South, which hosts most of the world’s refugees (Adamson and Tsourapas 2020 ), faith actors are a widely accepted part of both public and private life, have a significant role in development, and have played key roles in refugee governance (Clarke, 2006; Haynes, 2013; Wurtz and Wilkinson, 2020). They often have high-trust from the community, are ‘widely present in all parts of a country’ and ‘often remain long after international attention has faded, and funding has declined.’ (UNHCR, 2014, p.8).


Box 1: Definition of Faith Actors*


Source: Summary from UNHCR’s 2014 Partnership Note On Faith-Based Organizations, Local Faith Communities, and Faith Leaders.


Despite playing key roles in refugee protection, there has been ‘surprisingly little academic research’ on faith actors’ roles in humanitarian spheres (Ferris, 2011, p.607). As Carbonnier, (2013, p.6) argues,

the lack of attention to religion and faith in development research and policy […] stands in stark contrast to the paramount role played by religion in the daily lives of individuals and communities, particularly in the most active field of international development cooperation, the developing world.

There is even less research on the impact of the GCR’s broader call for civil society’s participation, and more specifically faith actors’ participation (Milner and Klassen, 2021; Sulewski, 2020). While faith actors have a long history of engagement in refugee protection and are named as a relevant stakeholder in the GCR, we know little about the formal role they have in achieving the objectives of the GCR and if their relevance is recognized by other stakeholders.

This blog contribution sheds light on the role of faith actors in the implementation of a key international agreement: the GCR. To do this, we ask whether and how the GCR’s call for partnering with faith actors is legitimizing their involvement in refugee protection?

To develop our analysis, we draw from existing literature on faith actors in humanitarian and refugee response, UNHCR publications, and the empirical data from the ASILE project’s country case studies in Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa.  We analyse how norms are globalized and localized and what is the role of faith actors in this process. After this, we trace the evolution of UNHCR initiatives that have normalized faith actors’ roles in refugee governance on a global scale. We then critically assess how the GCR’s call for partnering with faith actors is being globalized and adapted to local contexts.


Faith Actors: Between globalization and localization processes.

There is rich literature and debate on how international and domestic norms influence each other (Acharya, 2004; Brumat, Geddes, and Pettrachin, 2021). The literature identifies two main processes: globalization, the process by which international norms are incorporated into domestic standards, and localization, which assesses how global norms are adapted into domestic contexts (Brumat, Geddes, and Pettrachin 2021).

It is commonly argued that international organizations (IOs) play a key role in ‘disseminating new international norms’ and ‘teach[ing] states new norms of behavior’ (Finnemore and Sikkink, 2001, p.401). However, more contemporary studies have emphasized that states and local actors are not ‘simply passive recipients in either accepting or rejecting international norms’ and obligations under international law but there is a constant back and forth occurring (Hellmüller, 2020, p.409).

Subsequently, in the processes of globalization and localization, there is an interplay between local, civil society actors and international actors, particularly IOs. Research demonstrates that civil society can act as ‘agents of normative change’ or ‘brokers’ (Hönke and Müller, 2018) in how norms get adapted and translated into local practice and that faith actors are a part of civil society who are especially influential in this process (Boesenecker and Vinjamuri, 2011).  Characterized by deeply held conceptions of justice and peace, studies show that in some contexts and particularly in areas of limited statehood (ALS) and in some global South countries, faith actors play a leading role as international norm ‘makers’ and ‘adapters’ (Boesenecker & Vinjamuri, 2011). For example, their pivotal role in setting and adapting international human rights norms in peacebuilding processes had been documented in the cases of post-apartheid South Africa and and Northern Ireland.  

We will now look at whether and how a norm of partnering with faith actors in international refugee governance has evolved.


A global norm of partnering with faith actors in refugee governance

The role of and view towards faith actors in refugee protection has evolved. These changes have been well documented by (Barnett and Stein, 2012; Clarke, 2006; Haynes, 2013; Sulewski, 2020; Wilkinson, 2018; Wurtz and Wilkinson, 2020).  Over the course of the 20th century, as the humanitarian field became increasingly professionalized, more formal legal and institutional frameworks began to replace the more informal humanitarian leadership of faith organizations. This eventually resulted in faith actors being biased against by secular organizations; UN agencies specifically were sceptical of engaging with religious organizations (UNHCR, 2014, p.20). Beginning after the Cold War, there was broad resurgence in recognizing the role of civil society, and specifically the role of faith actors and while some of this resulted from the increasing recognition of living in a post-secular world where faith is accepted, there was an increasing ‘institutionalized presence’ of faith actors, across the entire UN system (Haynes, 2013, p.9).

One way we can understand the role of faith actors in the translation and adaptation of global norms is through the actions and initiatives of the UN, and in this case specifically through UNHCR.  Over the past decade, UNHCR publications and forums demonstrate the evolving recognition of faith actors’ role in the modern-day refugee response. Figure 1 (see below) details a timeline of such evolution in UNHCR publications and events.


Figure 1: Timeline of Key UNHCR initiatives on partnering with faith actors

Source: Summary of UNHCR publications and initiatives involving faith actors compiled by the authors.


The active recognition of faith actors arguably began in 2012 when UNHCR’s annual forum was dedicated to discussing this topic. The tenor of the gathering however was one of cautious intrigue; faith actors’ roles needed to be justified, partnerships with them needed guidance. But, by 2016 and 2018, when the international community affirmed the New York Declaration and the GCR respectively, no specific justification was needed; instead, faith actors appear in the texts seemingly on par with other civil society organizations. Formal publications by UNHCR after the GCR helped to further elaborate and formalize the roles they could play (for example, the Guide to Action (Wilkinson et al., 2019) and the Policy Brief (Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Communities, 2018). Come 2021, almost a decade later, when UNHCR further institutionalized faith actors in establishing the Multi-Religious Council of Leaders, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi described faith actors as ‘key’ in refugee protection (UNHCR, 2020, para.4).

Thus, while faith actors have played a role in refugee protection for decades, their institutionalization and formal recognition as global governance actors is quite recent (see figure 2 below). The bottom-up process through which this occurred demonstrates both a globalization and localization of their role.  As international norms and institutions gradually incorporated faith actors who were already informally diffused, especially in the Global South, their role became ‘globalized’—incorporated into domestic standards (Brumat, Geddes, and Pettrachin, 2021, p.2).  At the same time, we hypothesize that as faith actors’ legitimacy on a global scale increase, their local involvement in refugee governance will do so as well, giving them a role in localization—adapting international norms and standards. Figure 2 models this hypothesized co-constitutive, simultaneous process.  We will look at some empirical examples in the next section.


Figure 2: Hypothesized cycle of localization local-global norm development

Beginning at local practice

Source: Authors’ elaboration


Globalizing and localizing refugee protection and partnerships with faith actors: what about the GCR?

Building on our hypothesized cycle, we will look at how the formalization of faith actors’ role in international refugee governance is increasing their role in local refugee protection. The fieldwork that we have developed in the ASILE project shows an uneven picture. We interviewed officials representing IOs, various levels of government, civil society, and FBOs in six countries: in Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. The focus of interviews was on assessing how the GCR was being implemented at a country-level and who key actors were as part of that process. Here we provide two examples of how the GCR is being globalized or localized and the role of faith actors as translators in those processes.

In both Brazil and South Africa, faith actors’ role in refugee protection was highlighted. In Brazil, FBOs, in particular Caritas and the Scalabrinian Sisters, play a key role in the process of refugee status  determination because they do the initial processing of the refugee status request they assess people to fill in the forms and make their case and by doing this, they are the ones who do an initial selection of who can apply to refugee status (Jubilut and Apolinàrio, 2008). In the context of Venezuelan forced displacement, the worst forced displacement crisis in the history of South America, it was a FBOs that partnered with UNHCR and successfully pushed for the group recognition of Venezuelans as refugees:

We worked for around a year in the recognition of Venezuelans as refugees. We argued, insisted, we showed the reasons [why we had to do this|, we analysed… we insisted so that the government would accept the serious and generalized violation of human rights in Venezuela. For me, it was a conquer, but the government didn’t want it. […] now we keep pushing so that this decision is extended to [individuals from] other regions of the world, especially where Boko Haram is acting (interview with FBO official in Brazil, December 2020).

Similarly, in South Africa faith actors are attributed to having an expansive role in refugee protection:

there is [a faith organization] who are working at the border between South Africa and Mozambique…with unaccompanied and separated children…and [a] mission… offering pastoral care to migrants and refugees…and it [has] just expanded from this; so in a way…[it] has always meant that there are available links to faith actors…there is also pastoral care actors across the country…[who] first identify or see migrants and refugees and…offer them guidance and assistance…[and there is] great respect for the groundwork done by many kind[s] of small churches in quite rural areas (interview with FBO official in South Africa, January 2022).


However, in both countries, despite their recognized roles in refugee protection broadly, there was not an equal recognition of their roles specifically in achieving the objectives of the GCR.  Some faith actors acknowledged the GCR as ‘guidelines’ and not really a new norm that is resulting in increased partnerships and activities to improve refugee protection. In the case of Brazil, this is because ‘the government presents proposals and data as part of the implementation of the GCR, but many of these things were already implemented in Brazil’ (interview with FBO official in Brazil, December 2020). In South Africa, despite having ‘powerful faith lobby’ and ‘a clear connection between high-level politicians and faith actors’ (interview with FBO official in South Africa, January 2022), faith actors were not otherwise described as meaningfully involved in the formal country-level initiatives around of the GCR.

One of the powerful things that I saw…with the Global Compact of Refugees,it was the way in which UNHCR really engaged far more than just their implementing partners in country, to try and find ways to make the Global Compact … more real at a country level…Usually previously … UNHCR mainly would only interact with their implementing partners.And so, it was kind of a branching out for them and that was quite exciting to see… it was a something …[to] really bring people together.And so…when the pledges were made… there was a group pledge that was done as well as these individual pledges…. [but] I am actually not sure, whether many of the faith-based actors… signed pledges… it has been more civil society organizations and then the private sector (interview with FBO official in South Africa, January 2022). 


In Turkey, Canada, Bangladesh, and Jordan, while the role of faith actors in refugee protection has been documented (Aslıhan Tezel Mccarthy, 2017; Barbour, Fan, and Lewa, 2021; Bompani, 2015; Fiddan-Qasmiyeh, 2020; Mencütek, 2020; Mulholland, 2017), and their role was mentioned in some of the ASILE case study interviews, interviewed actors did not highlight faith actors in any further way to draw conclusions about how the GCR was impacting the prominence of and partnership with faith actors. For example, while it is documented that in fact faith actors play a prominent role in Canada’s private sponsorship program, beyond being mentioned this was not emphasized or expanded on by interviews conducted with officials in Canada.  Thus, it is likely that the biggest conclusion we can draw is the sheer absence of faith actors in the interviews; the GCR might formally call for partnerships with faith actors, but in these case studies, there are not local signs of this formalisation. In line with recent ASILE findings, we can hypothesise that there is a strong path dependency regarding the role of faith actors in each local, national and regional context, which means that the role that faith actors were playing in each context before the GCR was implemented is very likely to persist. As seen in our research, many times, the GCR is used by governments as a framework to legitimize and ‘visibilize’ some policies and actions that were already being implemented.


Conclusion: Does it matter that the GCR calls for partnering with faith actors?

The GCR named faith actors as a relevant stakeholder. This ASILE blog post sought to better understand the role of faith actors in refugee response. It traced the evolution of faith actors’ increasingly formalized role on the global stage and then sought to understand the impact of this in local refugee protection.

Literature suggests that faith actors have historically have been involved in refugee protection, yet their role was often overlooked. We can see that however at least within the UN system, faith actors in the 21st century have gained ground in their formal recognition and that their incorporation in the GCR has arguably ‘globalized’ their role (see also figure 1). However, this recognition in the international refugee regime is recent and thus, more research is needed to understand how this norm is playing out at a local level. Currently faith actors are largely absent in the empirical data on the implementation of the GCR (Appleby, 2020; Milner and Klassen, 2021; Sulewski, 2020). Further in the six ASILE country case studies with interviews of close to 100 actors in local refugee response, only actors in two countries—Brazil and South Africa—specifically highlighted the role of faith actors, and when they did it was not formally or seemingly meaningfully connected to GCR implementation.

We surmise that faith actors’ roles in refugee protection are not less relevant but that they are still less visible and more informal. We cannot conclude that GCR’s naming of faith actors is increasing their role in refugee protection or in adapting global norms into local contexts. As (Wurtz and Wilkinson, 2020) also argue, to better understand the legitimacy of faith actors in international refugee governance, there are dynamics to unpack between the Global North, who is viewed as the influencer of norms such as the GCR, and the Global South, where most of the world’s refugees live and where faith actors are ubiquitous. It is plausible that what we see in the implementation of the GCR is illustrative of the dynamics surrounding changing flows of power in the localization of international norms for refugee protection.

For now, we know that the GCR names faith actors as relevant and that this has arguably globalized their role as actors in international refugee governance. While we have evidence of their historic relevance in refugee response, we still know little about their relevance and power position in the implementation of the GCR and the localization or local adaptation of the GCR principles.



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