Notes on: Refugee-Led Organizations

If you were in danger and needed assistance, would you turn to a member of your community, a financial institution, family and friends, or an outside, and often foreign, non-governmental organization (NGO) for help?

According to a question asked to over 8,000 refugees and members of host communities across four cities in Kenya [Kakuma and Nairobi] and Uganda [Nakivale and Kampala] by the Refugee Studies Centre [sic] (RSC) at the University of Oxford as part of their Refugee Economies survey, anywhere from 5% to 80% of the group surveyed in each city [results were broken down by city of residence and by the individual’s country/region of origin: DR Congo, Somalia, Turkana, Kenya, and Uganda] would reach out to their community in the face of an emergency. Connecting with the community was either the first or second most popular response in all but two groups. To further emphasize this point, the option ‘Would not ask for aid’ was selected more often than ‘NGO/UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees]’ in all but three groups; in no group/city was the option of connecting with an NGO/UNHCR selected by more than approximately 10% of the population. (Betts et al. 2)

This reliance on community for assistance is one factor that has led to the creation of refugee-led organizations (RLOs), or groups that conduct what is known as refugee-refugee humanitarianism. Additionally, recent years have seen an increase in refugees and/or internally displaced persons (IDPs) moving from traditional refugee camps to more urban areas. Per the Inter-Agency Research and Analysis Network’s (IARAN) 2017 report, “The Future of Aid in International NGOs in 2030,” 60% of refugees and 80% of IDPs live in cities. (132) IARAN expects this trend to continue and increase as conditions in traditional refugee camps fail to improve. However, this move to urban settings creates difficulties for NGOs working in aid distribution, as the locations of these individuals are not always known, or accessible. This is another reason why the creation of RLOs is so important, as it is these organizations that can fill this gap in service.

While I do not believe a global directory of RLOs exists, one report found 75 RLOs in Germany alone, although these groups were focused solely on working with Syrian refugees so there is likely to be even more in the country. (Wood et al., 62) Similarly, the RSC’s report found there to be over 80 RLOs across the four cities they examined, and one study estimated there to be hundreds of RLOs or refugee community organizations (RCO) in the European Union Member states. (Betts et al. 3; Torfa, 4) It is not farfetched to estimate that there are well over a thousand RLOs around the world. While some RLOs are registered in the countries in which they operate, many of them are run by volunteers and are not connected to a formal organization. This adds the additional challenge of visibility, both for potential clients and the NGOs and service providers in the area, as the knowledge of an RLOs existence is often shared by word of mouth.

The RLO model of aid has many benefits, primarily in the strength of the connection, either pre-existing or created through their membership in the same group (ethnic, religious, or otherwise), between the organization and the beneficiary. Despite this connection and ease of access, RLOs are not without their challenges. Often, this includes finding and receiving available funding, connecting to and working with larger and/or outside NGOs, and ensuring sustainability in their staff, programs, and the level of service and resources they are able to provide. The following case studies provide an overview of RLOs working in different fields and countries, highlight some of their successes, and discuss possible challenges they face.


Although the country of Indonesia allows refugees and asylum seekers to reside in the country until they are formally resettled by the UNHCR, they do not provide a pathway to citizenship or allow the individual to work while they are awaiting resettlement. Additionally, non-citizens face “a lack of formal rights and limited access to services like education.” (Brown, 64) In response to this lack of access, along with their more remote location in a small mountain town where they are not supported by outside aid organizations, rather than watching their children miss years of education, members of the Hazara ethnic group from Afghanistan now residing in Indonesia started several education centers in their community. These centers were established in 2014 “by four Hazara men with media and business backgrounds,” and additional support was soon provided by a group of supporters in Australia who started Cisarua [the name of the town in which the Hazara refugees live] Learning Limited to support the centers. (Id) As of June 2018 there were five education centers serving the Hazara community and students from Iraq, Myanmar, and Sudan, reaching approximately 300 children aged 5–16, and also providing English classes to adults. (65) The education centers are staffed by refugee volunteers, and members of the community are also brought in to share their skills. Programs offered at the centers are therefore dependent on the availability of volunteers to teach or lead those programs, with English classes, sports programs, and vocational training being examples of some of the offerings.

Financial support for the centers vary, with some receiving “ad hoc financial support from private donors, and others having more structured support that extends to mentoring, guidance and capacity development.” (66) Two of the centers are financially supported by a Swiss-Australian NGO called Same Skies, which also provides capacity-building workshops for staff, remote coaching, and support for digital marketing and fundraising campaigns initiated by the centers. This start-up funding set these education centers apart from other RLOs as they were able to use their digital marketing skills to “build an extensive international following and leverage it to attract donations through online crowd-funding campaigns.” (Id) However, a theme that appears to be common across RLOs is the fact that it is staffed by volunteers. While this report did not mention any difficulties with keeping teachers and other volunteers engaged with the education centers, interruptions that occur when an individual is resettled outside of Indonesia are unavoidable. In this sense, the sustainability of the classes and programs offered at the education centers is the primary challenge to address.


In Kenya, a nation that considers homosexuality illegal, public resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* [“used to denote all transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming identities” (Moore, 69)], intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) refugees are essentially non-existent. However, RLOs led by and working on behalf of members of the LGBTIQ population have become important providers for individuals in need of community-based protection. (67) The names of specific RLOs were omitted in this report, although information on the variety of services they provided was included. In one example, an individual with medical skills started an RLO and used this knowledge to train community members to provide health training to LGBTIQ refugees, a service that is otherwise limited due to discrimination in the country. (Id) In another example, an RLO led monthly group counseling sessions for refugees living with HIV, and in a third example, an RLO partnered with a local paralegal organization to offer “legal assistance to refugees in the form of accompaniment to police stations, paralegal training and emergency shelter and relocation.” (68)

Although working with a level of anonymity is understandable in these cases, challenges regarding visibility, in the community and to larger NGOs, is still prevalent. As one leader of an LGBTIQ RLO stated, “[t]he first step is to acknowledge that we are here. Why doesn’t UNHCR act as a bridge between all CBOs [community-based organizations]…[W]hat we need is networks.” (qtd. in 68) Additionally, in response to a survey about their needs, three RLO leaders mentioned the development of long-term strategies to “ensure continuity of leadership,” and to “develop financial frameworks to guide programs.” (Id) This report highlighted the importance of including RLOs in professional networks as this involvement will develop skills to address the previously mentioned needs, although it also cautioned the larger NGO against doing more harm than good with their involvement in the RLO. The report warned that the decision to financially support one RLO over another may lead to divisiveness within the community, in addition to the ways in which their support may reinforce pre-existing discrimination in the community. In one example, female leaders of LGBTIQ RLOs suggest that leadership in the network of similar RLOs is very male-dominated, to which the report suggests outside NGOs be aware of the current leadership structure, both in the RLO and the surrounding community, so that they can encourage more diverse leadership. Otherwise, this partnership could further marginalize members of an already marginalized community.

Social Services:

Even in places with established aid from outside organizations, RLOs are often still present and in some cases, provide more services than the outside NGO. An example of this is in the Shatila camp in Lebanon, where the difference between “established” Palestinian refugees and newer Syrian refugees can be seen. (Sharif, 10) The Shatila camp was established in 1949 and has been home to thousands of refugees since then, first, for Palestinian refugees, and starting in 2011, Syrian refugees; as of February 2018, the camp was home to approximately 40,000 individuals. (Id) In a show of refugee-refugee humanitarianism, established refugees, or those who were previously living in the camp, have provided a number of services to new arrivals, including acting as host families, donating extra clothes and blankets, and distributing additional resources as needed. (Id) It is noted that Palestinian refugees are included in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), causing most NGOs to focus on the Syrian refugees in the camp, rather than the newly arrived Palestinian refugees who also came from Syria. It is in cases like this where the established refugees step in, providing the new Palestinian refugees with what they need away from the NGOs. The author suggests this work “reposition[s] Palestinian refugees as providers of support rather than dependent recipients,” and highlights the ways in which refugees see the “shortcomings of the humanitarian response and show[s] how refugee-refugee solidarity can help fill these gaps.” (11)

As seen in this and other camps, it can be difficult for communities with multiple generations of refugees to coexist without hostility. This hostility is present in the Shatila camp and in the relationship between the established and new refugees, in part due to the lack of resources and poor living conditions that were already present in the camp. Similarly, access to schools, jobs, and healthcare are also points of contention as classes have become overcrowded, jobs are scarce, and health services are taking longer to receive. However, those interviewed in the report found that their social lives had improved since they began welcoming the new refugees or after they were welcomed into the camp, providing another example of the benefit of refugee-refugee humanitarianism. The author concludes by noting that “key hindrances to refugee-refugee solidarity…are largely driven by unjust government policies and an imbalanced humanitarian programme [sic],” highlighting areas in which outside NGOs could advocate for policy changes that benefit RLOs. (11)

Although the successes of the RLOs mentioned above cannot be directly compared to one another as they are working in different fields, in different countries, and with different populations, it is easy to see how these organizations all formed to fill in gaps in service from larger NGOs. These cases also provide examples of how refugees are not just beneficiaries of aid but also the creators of humanitarian organizations that often serve fellow refugees and members of the host communities. Conversely, the challenges they, and other RLOs, face are fairly similar. As one can imagine, funding is a primary challenge for any NGO, let alone one that is founded by a person or people others would consider being in need of aid themselves.

Additionally, the desire for networks to connect RLOs working in similar areas or with similar populations was mentioned several times, both as a way to improve services and to strengthen the RLOs work more generally through information and skill sharing. This network would also assist with the final challenge faced by these RLOs, partnering with larger NGOs. While some of the previously mentioned RLOs were connected with outside NGOs, this is not often the case. Rather, larger NGOs are either unaware of the RLOs existence or they work with them on one-time projects without building formal, lasting relationships.


Although funding is a primary concern for a lot of the RLOs detailed here and in other reports, a goal mentioned frequently is to connect with larger NGOs, build connections, and work together to serve the populations of interest. Along this line, a recommendation made in several reports was for outside NGOs, including organizations like UNHCR, to include RLOs in their planning and implementation work. However, these NGOs must not simply use the RLO as an extension of their own work; rather, they need to recognize the value in the RLO and ensure that they are able to serve their community in the ways they see fit. As one researcher stated, “[t]hose looking to partner with [RLOs] must preserve and value refugees’ proximity to those they seek to help or else risk losing what makes them such important actors within the international humanitarian system in the first place.” (Easton-Calabria & Pincock, 58)

In addition to financial support, NGOs should also provide resources on leadership, project development, and other long-term strategies to help RLOs create stronger, more sustainable programs. Two noteworthy examples of this support come from the Finnish Refugee Council (FRC) and the Refugee Council [in the United Kingdom]. Every year, the FRC selects 10–12 RLOs to complete a two-year program that offers trainings on topics such as management and accounting. After the program is completed, the RLOs receive up to $1,500.00 to start or expand their programs. (Betts et al. 3) The Refugee Council offers a similar program, although they are also working with RLOs to establish an “RCO-led advocacy forum to engage with policy and decision makers and to influence decisions that affect refugee communities in London.” (Refugee Council) There are currently 14 RCOs in the forum.

Before partnering with a larger NGO, RLOs must carefully consider what this partnership would look like. As detailed in the E-PARCC [Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration] Collaborative Governance Initiative’s “New Funding, New Beginnings: To Collaborate or Not to Collaborate” case study, when one organization is partnering with another and is challenged by a change in the mission or focus, their options include “follow[ing] the money” and altering their plan to continue partnering with the larger NGO (i.e. continue receiving funding and remain part of the established network), merge organizations and work together in the new area, or form a collaboration and continue to work on their respective missions while also assisting the other by fundraising or exchanging services. (AbouAssi & Herrold, 15) In this case, it is up to the RLO to determine if this partnership would allow them to strengthen their organization or result in a loss of focus from their original mission. When a mutually beneficial partnership between and RLO and an NGO is created, the communities being served have the best of both worlds in that they can receive effective aid from individuals with whom they share a common identity.

AbouAssi, Khaldoun and Catherine Herrold. New Funding, New Beginnings: To Collaborate or Not to Collaborate. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Betts, A., Pincock, K., & Easton-Calabria, E. (2018, November 27). Research in Brief: Refugees as Providers of Protection and Assistance (November 2018) — World. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Brown, T. (2018). Refugee-led education in Indonesia. Forced Migration Review, (58), 64–66. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Easton-Calabria, E., & Pincock, K. (2018, June). Refugee-led social protection: reconceiving refugee assistance. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

(IARAN) Inter-Agency Research and Analysis Network. (2017). The future of aid: INGOs in 2030. Retrieved from

Moore, H. K. V. (2018, June). Lessons from LGBTIQ refugee-led community-based organisations [sic]. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Refugee Council. (2019, December 13). Support for rcos. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Sharif, H. (2018). Refugee-led humanitarianism in Lebanon’s Shatila camp. Forced Migration Review, (57), 10–11. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Torfa, M. (2019, May 24). ECRE Working Paper: Refugee-Led Organisations (RLOs) in Europe: Policy Contributions, Opportunities and Challenges — World. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

Wood et al. (2018). Syrian refugee-led organisations [sic] in Berlin. Forced Migration Review, (58), 62–63. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from

MPA. Currently an immigration paralegal, interested in migration, international development, research, and policy writing.