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Refugee Coordination Model (RCM)

Key points
  • UNHCR's is accountable for coordinating refugee responses as follows:

    1. Preparedness. It makes sure that joint risk analyses are prepared and that, where necessary, joint preparedness plans and actions are completed.

    2. Protection strategy. It guides the development of a comprehensive refugee response, drawing on the contributions of partners.

    3. Resource mobilization. It coordinates immediate and ongoing inter-agency funding appeals. It seeks support from pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum and other relevant fundraising fora.

    4. Sectoral set up:
    a. It determines whether current Government-led or interagency coordination mechanisms (including clusters) can be adapted to address the needs arising from refugee influx, in accordance with UNHCR's accountabilities.
  • b. Where necessary, it establishes sectoral coordination mechanisms, with government counterparts where possible, to lead sector-specific needs assessments, planning, monitoring, reporting, and information management, within and across sectors, at national and sub-national level.
  • c. It leads the refugee protection working group; ensures protection concerns are reflected in the work of other sectors; and ensures that refugees and host communities participate in a manner that is sensitive to age, gender and diversity.
  • d. It ensures that other sectors and their leaderships, including leads from other agencies, have appropriate expertise, experience and operational capacity.
  • e. Being accountable for the quality of the refugee response, the UNHCR Representative maintains a direct line to the Government on refugee issues.
  • 5. Coordination forum. Where appropriate, it establishes a national coordination forum, if possible co-chaired by the Government, to support the overall refugee response.

    6. Information management. It builds or strengthens information management, including through contributions by other agencies.

    7. Information sharing. It ensures that information is shared regularly with the RC and UNCT; updates and ensures coordination with the HC and HCT (where they operate); and shares information regularly with donors.


The coordination of international protection, assistance and solutions is central to UNHCR's refugee mandate and derives from the High Commissioner's responsibility to ensure international protection for persons of concern to UNHCR from the time they become a refugee or internally displaced person (IDP) until they find a solution, whether they live in urban or rural host communities or in camps, with other refugees and internally displaced people, with other populations affected by humanitarian crises, or in non-emergency settings.

The Refugee Coordination Model (RCM) provides the model for leading and coordinating refugee operations. It sets out our shared duty to refugees, an integrated humanitarian vision, and responsibilities. Together with the UNHCR-OCHA Joint Note on Mixed Situations: coordination in practice (2014), the RCM sets out a framework and principles for responding to refugee and mixed situations.

Main guidance

Underlying rationale / objective of the approach or system

UNHCR's mandated responsibility to protect refugees, and coordinate action on their behalf

Under its Statute, UNHCR provides international protection to refugees and seeks permanent solutions for them, acting on the authority of the General Assembly (GA). In that capacity, it is the lead agency with respect to refugee protection, responsible for seeking solutions in the UN system in association with a wider array of stakeholders. As set out in subsequent GA resolutions, its responsibilities include coordination, provision of protection and assistance, obtaining solutions, and advocacy. Importantly, UNHCR also has a supervisory role: it is the UN entity most immediately responsible for ensuring that States adhere to internationally accepted standards with respect to refugees and stateless persons and for strengthening States' capacity to protect such persons.

UNHCR has led and managed refugee operations effectively for decades. For many years, however, it did not articulate a model of refugee coordination that took account of changes in the humanitarian landscape. The Refugee Coordination Model (RCM), formalized in 2013 and further updated in 2019, makes UNHCR's approach to coordination more predictable by clarifying roles and responsibilities. Recent UN General Assembly Resolutions have confirmed the RCM and UNHCR's mandate to lead and coordinate the refugee response (A/RES/69/152, A/RES/70/135).

States are primarily responsible for protecting refugees. Several factors can inhibit their capacity to fully discharge this responsibility. Over two thirds of all refugees live in low- and middle-income countries that face economic and development challenges. The arrival of large numbers of refugees strains already over-stretched infrastructures and service delivery. In addition, the institutions of many States across the development spectrum are not equipped to appropriately receive, protect or otherwise respond to the challenges of receiving large numbers of refugees. For this reason, it has long been recognized that international cooperation is required to support States that receive refugees. This understanding lay at the heart of UNHCR's creation and the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. The importance of cooperation was subsequently confirmed in a range of regional instruments and was underscored by the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) which stated that "there is an urgent need for more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world's refugees, while taking account of existing contributions and the differing capacities and resources among States. Refugees and host communities should not be left behind." The GCR calls for a multi-stakeholder and partnership approach to meet this objective, to achieve which UNHCR plays both a supportive and catalytic role.

UNHCR's approach to coordination is determined by the needs and concerns of refugees and persons of concern, the capacity of Government to respond, and the operational context. Coordination is a means to an end, whose purpose is to ensure that refugees and other persons of concern receive the protection and assistance they need through the collective efforts and capacities of all stakeholders involved. Reflecting these points, the RCM:

  • Reaffirms that States' have the primary responsibility to protect refugees, and that the High Commissioner has a mandate to provide international protection to refugees and support the efforts of host Governments to protect refugees by providing leadership and coordination.
  • Affirms that coordination of a refugee response takes account of the approach of the host Government, and its capacity, and builds on the resources of refugees and host communities.
  • Makes clear that UNHCR's approach to coordination is predictable, inclusive and partner-friendly, designed to ensure that refugees receive the assistance and protection they need throughout the duration of a refugee response.
  • Underlines that UNHCR is mandated to undertake advocacy on refugee issues and international protection.
  • Welcomes sector leadership by partners who have the necessary expertise and experience.
  • Seeks to widen the support base for refugees and countries that host them, and promotes self-reliance and collaboration with development actors, in accordance with UN Reform and the Global Compact on Refugees.

In practical terms, UNHCR's coordination responsibilities lie operationally in the following broad areas:

1. Preparedness. It works with Government and partners to assess the likelihood of refugee inflows, determine the impact of inflows on national response mechanisms, and (depending on the level of risk) take preparedness actions.
2. Advocacy. It intervenes politically, diplomatically and legally to influence legislation and national practices. When doing so, UNHCR may engage directly with host Governments.
3. Strengthening national capacity. It may strengthen the capacity of national institutions and local actors to protect refugees and find solutions for them.
4. Delivery. It delivers protection and assistance and facilitates solutions.
5. Coordination. It involves UN partners and other stakeholders in developing and implementing a protection and solutions strategy that supports refugees and assists host countries to support refugees.
6. Participation. It works with refugees and host communities in ways that are sensitive to age, gender and diversity, and ensures they participate in designing responses to their needs that are appropriate, accessible and inclusive.
7. Resource mobilization. It raises funds for responding to refugees, including through inter-agency plans and appeals. Inter alia, it sets protection objectives; coordinates resource mobilization; drafts initial inter-agency plans; reports on their implementation and impact; and tracks contributions.
8. Broadens the support base. It seeks out and works with a wide array of stakeholders, including private sector organizations and multilateral and bilateral development actors, to strengthen institutional capacity and assist host communities to address their urgent humanitarian needs. Where applicable, it works with such stakeholders to overcome shocks that result from conflict or large refugee arrivals.
9. Monitoring and reporting. It monitors and reports on the situation of refugees and application of the international protection regime.
10. Prevention. UNHCR uses the High Commissioner's good offices to prevent situations that cause refugees to flee, address root causes of migration and displacement, and promote the involvement of refugees in efforts to sustain peace.
11. Solutions. It promotes durable solutions; designs refugee responses that facilitate solutions; and ensures that solutions are implemented in ways that are safe and sustainable. This work includes efforts to secure return and reintegration,  resettlement, local integration, obtain complementary pathways, and achieve other local solutions.

UNHCR's mandate includes leadership responsibilities. Within countries, the Representative speaks for the High Commissioner on matters concerning UNHCR's mandate and is responsible for coordination, as described in the next section. Where large refugee movements occur, the Representative coordinates UN and NGO partners as they prepare a refugee response plan, which serves as an advocacy tool and is used to raise resources.

At regional level, the High Commissioner may appoint Regional Refugee Coordinators to address a specific refugee situation and lead development and implementation of regional refugee response plans. These are developed jointly with partners at regional level.

The High Commissioner may also appoint Special Envoys to provide political representation and advocacy on behalf of the High Commissioner in specific contexts.

Resident Coordinator system
In the UN system, the Resident Coordinator (RC) in a country leads the UN Country Team (UNCT) in undertaking development activities under the UN Strategic Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF, formerly UNDAF) and assisting countries to implement the 2030 Agenda. As a member of the UNCT, UNHCR contributes to this work and is accountable to the RC for UNHCR programming in support of the UNSDCF/UNDAF. RCs are in turn accountable to members of the UNCT, who expect the RC to support their efforts to fulfil their mandates. UNHCR exercises its mandate as an agency and fulfils its supervisory responsibilities. These include the duty to monitor States' compliance with their international obligations to refugees and stateless persons, and play a catalytic as well as support role in implementing the GCR, which encourages a broad range of stakeholders – including development actors – to participate in refugee responses.

In line with the GCR, UNHCR is committed to work with RCs and UNCTs to advance national development priorities and ensure no one is left behind. This collaborative work includes encouraging development actors to intervene on behalf of refugees and in support of host communities, as well as to work with States to include refugees in national development plans, as part of the Agenda 2030 imperative to ‘leave no one behind'.

Humanitarian Coordinator system
In complex emergencies, the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC), if one has been appointed, leads overall humanitarian planning, advocacy and resource mobilization. When a complex emergency occurs that has a refugee dimension, UNHCR leads the refugee response, working with the overall humanitarian response to make sure it is coherent. The arrangements are set out in UNHCR's and OCHA's Joint Note on mixed situations: coordination in practice (2014). They were reconfirmed by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and the High Commissioner in 2018. The Note describes in detail the division of responsibilities between the UNHCR Representative and the HC in such situations.

The High Commissioner remains accountable for protection of persons of concern; the Joint Note is about increasing operational efficiency by flexible and pragmatic organization, not about transferring accountability or responsibility. The High Commissioner's protection responsibilities, combined with his advocacy and supervisory functions, mean that he must continue to oversee and monitor the delivery of services to refugees during UN responses. UNHCR's refugee response is an integral yet distinct element in the overall humanitarian coordination architecture. By developing visions that are integrated and strategic alongside distinct but interoperable plans and funding tools, UNHCR and the larger humanitarian response can remain accountable and fulfil their responsibilities coherently and transparently.

The RCM is applicable in all refugee situations and throughout a refugee response, whether the emergency is new or protracted, and whether refugees are living in camps, rural areas, urban settings or in mixed situations. According to the operational context and the size and length of the response, certain features of the RCM may be less or more significant.



Policy, strategy and/or guidance


Refugee influxes can often be anticipated. Large movements may build over time and can be predicted as the conflict that drives them intensifies.

UNHCR's emergency policies require operations to prepare annual risk analyses and complete minimum preparedness actions. This work is done with government and partner counterparts to: assess the likelihood of refugee inflows; determine the impact that refugee flows are likely to have on national response mechanisms; and, depending on the level of risk, make ready.

When refugee influxes are anticipated, UNHCR coordinates refugee preparedness actions. Where relevant, it does so as part of broader UNCT or Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) preparedness processes. Wherever possible, UNHCR works jointly with Government. Preparedness actions include mapping of partner capacities.

The growing engagement of multilateral development actors, including the World Bank Group, mean that preparedness efforts can be supported more actively by national institutions, whose capacity goes well beyond what UNHCR can do on its own. By engaging early on with development and financial institutions, UNHCR can provide information and guidance that will help them to: strengthen the institutions that will manage any refugee influx; prepare instruments to facilitate flows of financial support; devise social protection systems able to support affected host communities and refugees; and establish surge capacity for service delivery.


At the outset of a refugee emergency, UNHCR's knowledge and operational capacity assists Governments to design and roll out quickly a response that has the capacity to be sustainable and encourages contributions from a wide array of stakeholders. Importantly, Governments expect UNHCR to act immediately to raise financial and in-kind resources to meet urgent and pressing needs.

Operations are expected to reinforce or establish coordination arrangements, as prescribed in the RCM, ensuring a smooth interface with other interagency mechanisms.

Building for resilience

Not all refugee situations start with an emergency influx, but all emergency responses need to become consolidate programmatically and become a more stable form of operation.

National ownership is crucial. Wherever possible, UNHCR will work to establish and support national arrangements for coordinating a comprehensive refugee response. As envisaged by the GCR, UNHCR may support the development of a comprehensive plan, in line with national policies and priorities. Comprehensive plans set out: policy priorities; institutional and operational arrangements; requirements for support from the international community, including investment, financing, and material and technical assistance; and solutions, including resettlement and complementary pathways for admission to third countries, as well as voluntary repatriation.

The GCR also makes clear that refugee responses should be designed (or adapted) to be able to evolve into more sustainable forms of support and response. One objective of the GCR is therefore to strengthen the resilience both of refugees and the communities that host them, especially when displacement is protracted. The GCR's Programme of Action sets out various arrangements for supporting refugees and hosting countries and identifies areas in which immediately or long term support is likely to be needed. Longer term action is likely to be required to: strengthen the capacity of facilities and systems that deliver asylum, education, health and child protection services; enhance accommodation, energy supply, and natural resource management; increase livelihoods and grow the economy; and empower women and youth.

UNHCR will remain engaged in all areas of refugee protection and solutions; however, the transformative support envisaged by the Programme of Action requires investments that go well beyond a humanitarian or even a UN development response. A much broader array of stakeholders must be engaged. While UNHCR can act as a catalyst, it recognizes that it is not competent to lead in all areas.

UNHCR must therefore encourage others to make significant contributions, to strengthen institutional capacity, help host communities overcome shocks resulting from conflict or large refugee arrivals, and advance the rights of refugees. These objectives can be pursued in the following ways:

-Within the UNCT. UNHCR actively draws on the expertise of other agencies to promote refugee resilience: UNICEF and UNESCO in education; ILO in employment; WHO in health etc. It works to include refugees in UN development frameworks (UNSDCF/UNDAF).

-NGOs. NGO contributions and leadership are vital and can be promoted in HCTs and within refugee responses that UNHCR coordinates. Encouraging others to lead in their areas of expertise strengthens their engagement and the inclusion of refugees without undermining UNHCR's mandate or accountability.

-The private sector, and multilateral and bilateral development actors. UNHCR encourages involvement by the private sector and development actors. Its knowledge of refugees, of the operating environment, and other agencies and actors involved in refugee response, mean that UNHCR can be an invaluable guide and source of information for such organizations.

Voluntary repatriation and returns

Within the UN, UNHCR is the authoritative voice on the right of every refugee to a safe and dignified voluntary return to his or her own country. It advises and guides UN action and facilitates voluntary return by refugees to their country of origin when conditions in those countries are such that their return can be safe, dignified and sustainable.

UNHCR advises the UN system on the basis of its own assessment of the degree to which countries are in a position to: receive returnees; assure their security and provide essential services; and sustain return. In its assessment, UNHCR identifies obstacles to voluntary return, conditions favourable for voluntary return, and specific protection needs. UNHCR also leads on a range of other relevant activities by UN and operational partners. These include: compiling information on possible return areas; structured dialogues with refugees and intention surveys; go and see visits; identification of specific protection needs; monitoring; and comprehensive measures to support protection and solutions. With both host and receiving Governments, UNHCR may sign a Tripartite Voluntary Repatriation Agreement that defines the legal framework, lists refugee guarantees, and describes the responsibilities of the parties.

In countries of return, UNHCR's work to support returning refugees usually focuses on the country's coordination mechanisms (notably the UNCT and HCT, where applicable), and, for an initial period of time, on the protection, assistance, and well-being of returnees. Its responsibilities include the provision of: return packages; initial reintegration support; returnee monitoring; information sharing on protection risks in areas of refugee return; and advocacy and operational guidance on measures to reduce those risks.

It is a given for UNHCR that Governments should lead refugee responses wherever possible. Beyond this, how UNHCR exercises its coordination responsibilities is context specific.

Refugee Response Plans. With respect to both inter-agency refugee response plans (which are country specific) and regional refugee response plans (which address refugee influxes in several countries), UNHCR leads their development, their implementation, and resource mobilization. Response plans are a coordination tool: they establish a common strategy and give host Governments as well as donors an overview of the inter-agency response, including resource requirements.

Comprehensive Response Framework. When requested to do so, UNHCR assists Governments to put in place the national, regional and international arrangements needed to establish a comprehensive refugee response framework. These frameworks should engage a broad range of stakeholders as envisaged by the GCR and are context specific.

As recognized in the GCR, population movements are not always homogeneous and may be composite. Some large movements involve both refugees and others on the move; others involve refugees and internally displaced persons; in certain situations, people are displaced across frontiers by sudden-onset natural disasters and environmental degradation.

These situations present complex challenges for affected States. In responding to refugee movements within mixed movements, UNHCR works with a range of operational partners, such as OCHA, UNDP and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), drawing on their mandates, roles and expertise as appropriate to develop a coordinated approach.

In complex emergencies that include internal displacement and refugees, for example, UNHCR and OCHA apply a joint coordination model that ensure their leadership and coordination are complementary and clearly defined, reflecting their expertise, mandates, and responsibilities.

UNHCR is also actively engaged in efforts to ensure that humanitarian and development responses are linked and engage multilateral partners such as the World Bank and international financial institutions. These efforts include the humanitarian-development-peace nexus, the collective outcomes approach, and the New Way of Working set out in the Agenda for Humanity.

Mechanisms for joint coordination, which can be adapted to regional contexts, have been designed for responses to mixed movements of refugee and migrants, and responses to refugees and hosting communities. These are elaborated by UNHCR and IOM in their Joint UNHCR-IOM letter on Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (25 January 2019).

Wherever inter-agency mechanisms function In countries or regions, UNHCR will seek similarly to coordinate its work with them.

At all times, UNHCR exercises its mandate responsibilities which include coordination of efforts to ensure refugees are protected and to advance solutions for them.


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