What if students could shape solutions to help refugees? This is the bet that we made at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Worldwide, 80 millions people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence and persecution. They face obstacles on a daily basis to access jobs, schools and healthcare. Yet, we desperately lack solidarity and policy solutions to better integrate them in the countries where they have found refuge.
The decision-makers of tomorrow are still in school. We launched a campaign to encourage youth all over the world to take action for refugees. Many students, from high-school to university, join “Model United Nations” (MUNs) - simulations of the UN in which they step into the shoes of diplomats. These student-led events have gained popularity to the point of being featured in the Simpsons. We turned the game into reality by challenging students to develop ideas to help refugees during their MUNs and submit them to the real UN.
Students are our future politicians, business leaders and storytellers. They will be the ones deciding how our communities welcome those who have lost their homes to war. By educating young people and making them part of the solution now, in a space that appeals to them, the MUN Refugee Challenge paves the way for a society that is more welcoming of refugees.
The call to action started in the digital space but resulted in actions in real life with tens of thousands of students interacting and debating in classrooms and conference rooms all over the world throughout 2020. We targeted students aged 15 to 23 via a campaign across social platforms: #munrefugeechallenge.
We provided the students with background guides and material on the 4 debate topics, which were:
1. Climate change and displacement
2. Countering toxic narratives
3. Economic inclusion of refugees
4. Access to education for refugees.
We also connected the students with young refugees and UNHCR experts who joined their conferences as guest speakers. The students went above and beyond, inviting refugees to join their debates, being featured in the local press, and creating their own shirts, visuals and videos to promote the cause of refugees. When Covid-19 started and countries had to go into lockdown, the students didn’t give up and transitioned their physical conferences online.
All participating students received a certificate recognizing their contribution to the refugee cause. At the end of 2020, a jury of refugees and other experts from the UN, World Bank and academia reviewed the resolutions submitted. The winners were interviewed and the best ideas were promoted on UNHCR’s social platforms and shared with policy-makers at a high-level event.
20,000 students from 350 MUNs across 75 countries directly took part in the MUN Refugee Challenge and collectively developed innovative ideas to help refugees, which they submitted as “resolutions”. And over 100,000 students learned about forced displacement through their peers and the UNHCR and refugee guest speakers who joined their MUNs.
70% of students said that they felt more positive about refugees after joining the Challenge. This was a big win because it showed that actively learning and debating issues related to refugees opened new horizons and allowed the students to become more empathetic.
The 8 winning teams came from Nigeria, Costa Rica, India, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus and the USA. Their proposals included setting up an international database of job opportunities for refugees, creating emergency residency permits for people forced to flee climate catastrophes, and reforming educational programs to include themes related to refugees’ rights.
Students from the winning teams were interviewed and their ideas were animated and promoted across UNHCR’s channels. The best proposals were shared with policy-makers during the High Commissioner’s Dialogue, a high-level UNHCR event bringing together diplomats and experts to decide on the future of refugee protection.