Canadian refugee makes history as UN delegate

January 16, 2020

By Canadian Immigrant Magazine |

With little fanfare, Canada made history at a recent United Nations conference in Geneva by having a refugee as part of its official delegation.

While Mustafa Alio’s role as a state delegate had gone largely unnoticed, it marked a historic moment for the international community to – for the first time – have a refugee at the table among world leaders and diplomats who made high-level global policy decisions that dictate the fate of millions of displaced migrants seeking resettlement.

“It was transformative and had never happened before. It might have been a pedestrian act to have a refugee sitting next to a minister as an adviser, but it’s unprecedented to have a refugee sitting there as a national delegate,” said Prof. James Milner, policy director of the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network based at Carleton University, who attended the Geneva conference.

“It is not just the right thing to do to include refugees in the process – who knows the issues and challenges of resettlement better than refugees themselves?”

Alio, who sought asylum in Canada in 2012 after war broke out in Syria, was seated next to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Leslie Norton, the Canadian ambassador to the UN, at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva hosted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in December.

Although the 35-year-old Toronto resident had previously attended many international refugee conferences as an observer, being granted equal status with global policy decision-makers as an official Canadian delegate took it to a whole new level and left him feeling “scared.”

It was frightening, Alio said, because he had no knowledge of UN protocol or how to behave and speak around heads of state and foreign government officials – a totally different experience than he had previously as an observer.

“It was a new thing for me and it’s surreal to be a refugee in these meetings where significant policies were planned. It’s a huge responsibility to be representing other refugees. I didn’t want to be a token. I didn’t want to say something that I did not believe in to butter somebody up,” said Alio, who was granted asylum in 2014 and became a permanent resident in Canada in 2018.

“I tried to be critical in a constructive way. I was happy to hear later that other delegations saw the value of my participation and I hope other states will follow and get their refugees involved in these conversations.”

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