17 ways refugees are leading on sustainable development
At the halfway mark for achieving the SDGs, progress is being made, but not at the speed or scale required, and ongoing and new crises are also exacerbating long-standing challenges to sustainable development.
Building on the momentum of the SDG Summit taking place at the UN in New York in September, the Global Refugee Forum in December will present another milestone opportunity to mobilize action for positive change in the lives of refugees, and to pledge fresh support for refugee-hosting countries.
At UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, we know that those most adversely affected by the world’s biggest challenges are often best placed to discover and implement solutions. While armed conflicts, rising food insecurity, and the climate emergency have pushed displaced people around the world to the brink, refugees are finding ways to contribute to their host communities, as educators, entrepreneurs, advocates, climate activists and health-care workers, among others. They must be uplifted and supported in these efforts. The SDGs cannot be fully realized without the inclusion of refugees, including young refugees, in national systems and social safety nets, in local economies and in development planning and response.
Here's how refugees are leading the way on each of the goals:
“Inclusion is one of the best forms of protection. And inclusion – in societies, in services, in the economy – is often obtained or facilitated by development.”
SDG 1 – No Poverty
Approximately 74 per cent of refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries while least developed countries provide asylum to 22 per cent. Despite tremendous obstacles, many refugees are entrepreneurs and business owners who are rebuilding their lives, providing for themselves and their families, and giving back to their host communities.
In Burundi, a Congolese baker is providing daily bread for his fellow refugees and local Burundians, an income for his family, and dignity for himself. Shebulike is keen to expand his business further, but lack of access to electricity and restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement are obstacles. UNHCR is advocating for connecting Burundi’s refugee camps to the national grid and expanding refugees’ access to economic opportunities.
Being a refugee is not a handicap. I am living proof that you can be a refugee and accomplish great things. I don’t know of any refugee who wants to stay in a precarious and dependent situation indefinitely.
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Rising food and fuel prices linked to the war in Ukraine, the impacts of the climate crisis and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to record levels of hunger. People forced to flee have been disproportionately affected while refugees in 15 countries are also facing cuts to their food assistance due to funding shortfalls.
Forcibly displaced people must find increasingly creative ways to provide nutritious food for their families.
In the face of spiralling food costs and cuts to their food rations, Sahrawi refugees living in camps in Algeria’s remote desert region of Tindouf have turned to an unusual cookery show, presented by a fellow Sahrawi refugee named Haha. She helps others to make nutritious meals with limited resources by blending traditional Sahrawi food with new recipes and ingredients.
"My TV show is basically a way to teach women and families how to prepare nutritious food with reduced food rations."
People forced to flee conflict or persecution often lack access to mental health care despite being highly exposed to stress and trauma. Pressures include separation from families, perilous journeys, exposure to violence and abuse, xenophobia, and lack of livelihood opportunities. While additional resources are needed, refugees are finding their own ways to deliver mental health services.
In Slovakia, the League for Mental Health is a group of mostly Ukrainian female psychologists who take calls from fellow Ukrainian refugees phoning a hotline. People call for help with anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and for legal advice. Some are survivors of gender-based violence. Svitlana, who fled Kharkiv, is part of the team of 13 psychologists.
The person stops crying, stops shouting, starts talking slower, their breathing slows, so after a while we can hear people begin to feel better.
SDG 4 – Quality Education
Some 40 per cent of refugees are under the age of 18, yet quality education is often out of reach. Of the total 14.8 million school-aged refugee children, 51 per cent are estimated to be out of school, meaning more than 7 million refugee children are currently missing out on an education, while only 6 percent are benefiting from tertiary education.
At the Transforming Education Summit, held in New York during the UN General Assembly in 2022, refugee students and educators came together to call for all refugee children and youth to be given access to quality education, through their inclusion in national education systems and relevant education financing mechanisms. These refugee scholars are using their platforms and advocacy to empower and uplift all young refugees and realize SDG 4.
“My wish for education is that it is reachable for any refugee student in the world.”
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Of 110 million people forcibly displaced at mid-2023, more than half are women and girls. In some emergency contexts that number can rise to nearly 90 per cent. Refugee women are leaders and change-agents and in spite of tremendous obstacles, are forging their own paths and uplifting each other.
In Bangladesh refugee camps, Rohingya volunteers are working to confront gender-based violence and make the camps safer. They visit mosques, tea stalls, and community centres and go door-to-door to bring awareness about the risks of GBV. Not only are they changing attitudes, they are gaining a sense of purpose and fulfilment and earning a small stipend.
"Before, people never understood the impact of this violence on their families. But because of our programme, people understand better and are changing."
SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation
Access to safe drinking water and sanitation are human rights, yet millions of refugees and forcibly displaced people struggle to get enough water, or to access toilets, hygiene and washing facilities. UNHCR advocates for safe and sustainable access to adequate drinking water and sanitation services for all refugees and has committed to reaching 10 million refugees with adequate drinking water services by 2025. Refugees are also doing what they can to ensure their communities can access safe water sources.
Nikuze Rachel is the chairperson of her local water committee in Uganda’s Nakivale settlement. She helps to manage the supply of clean water in her community, reporting water leaks and ensuring that everyone gets an equal share of water.
"I manage water supply in the community and ensure order is maintained at the tap stands and everyone gets an equal share of water."
At least four out of five forcibly displaced people rely on wood for cooking and heating, which can lead to deforestation and increase risks to women and girls who often must make long trips to collect it.
Refugees are finding ways to provide clean and affordable energy for themselves and their neighbours.
Vasco, a Congolese refugee living in Kenya’s Kakuma camp, runs a 10-kilowatt solar mini-grid that is providing clean energy to 200 businesses inside and outside the camp, as well as many refugee households..
He is glad to be able to contribute towards clean energy solutions in the camp, where most refugee families cannot afford to light their homes at night.
“Any time of day you need energy, you should have it.”
SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
Access to decent work, livelihoods and labour markets is essential for refugees. Currently, 70 per cent of refugees live in countries that restrict their right to work. Empowering refugees to earn a living is critical if they are to rebuild their lives, and benefit the communities they live in. Many refugees, when given the right to work, launch their own businesses – supporting their families and boosting local economies.
Across Latin America, training courses are helping Venezuelan refugees and migrants gain the tools to be self-sufficient and contribute to their host countries. In Peru, María, a refugee from Venezuela, was working an off-the-books job before an entrepreneurship mentorship course helped her take her small business to the next level.
“The mentorship opened my eyes and made me see that I could do more and grow more.”
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A lack of internet connectivity, as well as costly devices and limited training opportunities, prevents many forcibly displaced people from taking advantage of new technologies. Digital inclusion of refugees and their host communities is critical to ensure refugees are not left behind in today’s digital world and can help accelerate progress to achieve all SDGs. Through innovative programmes, refugees are also contributing to securing digital technologies for themselves and their neighbours.
Desiree Núñez is a refugee living in the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. Most people in her neighbourhood lacked a reliable internet connection until a UNHCR-supported, community-led initiative connected them to a high-quality fiber network with Wi-Fi routers. Desiree is one of the 16 "Network Guardians" who volunteer to keep a watchful eye on the new routers.
"I need to keep the service working for everyone. Having internet is very important and I must make sure nothing happens to [the router]. I am glad to do this for the community."
SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ+) refugees and internally displaced people often face barriers to access and inequalities in health care, housing and employment. Even after fleeing violence and persecution at home, they often continue to be discriminated against or targeted for violence. Many are breaking through barriers and advocating for equality in their new homes.
After fleeing his home country of Uganda to Kenya because of persecution due to his sexual orientation, Emma Yaaka began volunteering for UNHCR to help provide support to other vulnerable LGBTIQ+ refugees. After being resettled in the United States, he continued championing the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, establishing a virtual support group uniting over 200+ LGBTIQ+ refugees from all corners of the globe.
“Every time I raise my voice, it creates a positive ripple effect.”
A majority of the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Mayors, local authorities, and local municipalities are on the forefront of the global refugee response, fostering social cohesion and protecting and assisting the forcibly displaced. Refugees are helping them to build more inclusive and sustainable cities and communities.
Nestled in the town of Lewiston, Maine, New Roots Cooperative is a sustainable farm started by Somali Bantu refugees who escaped violence in their homeland and got a chance to start a new life in the United States. It uses traditional farming methods from Somalia to give back in the most tangible way to the community that welcomed them. The cooperative brings fresh produce every week to the local farmer’s market.
“We are cooperative, we work together, and we meet our needs together.”
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The world’s most vulnerable people, including many who were forced to flee their homes, often suffer the worst effects of climate change and environmental destruction. Refugees are joining the fight to promote responsible consumption and production in camps, towns and cities.
Syrian refugee, Abu Jihad, wakes up before dawn every morning to scavenge discarded plastic and other materials from garbage dumps at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. He turns what he finds into unique objects such as flowerpots, lamps, coffee grinders, rainwater tanks and more.
"I want to show people that what they see as waste can be turned into something beautiful. It’s my way of contributing to a cleaner environments."
SDG 13 – Climate Action
Over 70 percent of refugees and internally displaced people come from or live in countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Millions more are forced from their homes every year by weather-related disasters. Refugees are raising their voices to call for urgent climate action and the inclusion of refugees in planning, mitigation and adaptation efforts.
At COP 27, the UN Climate Conference held last year in Egypt, 12-year-old Assad was among those calling for change. A refugee from Sudan, he was not only affected by conflict but had also seen his entire community engulfed by flooding. He and his fellow panelists spoke about the efforts they are making to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate.
“I am coming today to ask, with the voice of every child, for rich countries to help the poor countries so they can face disasters.”
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Pollution threatens oceans, rivers and other bodies of water that communities rely on for drinking water and food. Refugee volunteers and activists are working to protect marine and coastal ecosystems.
In Bangladesh, groups of young Rohingya who have received training on environmental issues have identified the challenges affecting their section of the camp in Cox’s Bazar and come up with their own solutions to them. Mohammed Rofique, 18, belongs to a group that is trying to reduce pollution and the clogging of waterways by improving waste management. They make and distribute bins and have planted gardens in open areas where people used to discard their rubbish.
“People used to throw their rubbish everywhere. It used to block waterways so when it rained, it flooded and spread waste around the camp.”
Joshua, who fled gang violence in his country, now works as a forest ranger at a natural preserve in southeastern Guatemala. Through a partnership between UNHCR and FUNDAECO – the NGO that runs the preserve – refugees receive training and employment. Many discover a passion for the natural world and become conservation advocates.
“I love nature, and I know that what I do is important not only for me personally, but that it’s actually benefiting everyone.”
SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Millions of people around the world are denied a nationality because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language or gender, or because of gaps in nationality laws. Often they are not allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married. Stateless people are leading the way in demanding change.
Meefah Ahsong was born stateless as a member of one of Thailand’s indigenous ethnic minorities living in northern mountainous areas near Chiang Mai. Now she works as a community volunteer helping others in her community to go through the process of acquiring Thai citizenship.
“I’m happy that they have a new life, they have better work, and access to health coverage. I want stateless villagers to be more aware of the rights that they are entitled to.”
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The 2030 Agenda emphasizes the interconnectedness of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the need for partnerships to achieve them. Inclusive partnerships are a cornerstone of achieving the SDGs.
UNHCR works with forcibly displaced people and refugees, including refugee-led organizations, to support innovative projects to improve the lives of displaced people and host communities. This includes the provision of financial support for refugee-led organizations to implement and develop innovative projects that demonstrate the power of solutions developed by and for displaced and stateless people.
"I believe in the power of perseverance and the importance of working towards a better future, no matter the obstacles that may stand in our way."