Experts Weigh in on Challenges Facing UNHCR and New Chief Filippo Grandi

Filippo Grandi with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (UN Photo).

Filippo Grandi with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (UN Photo).

Jan. 13, 2016 - Filippo Grandi was sworn in Monday as the eleventh high commissioner for refugees. Previously head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Grandi takes the helm during the worst refugee crisis in UNHCR’s 65-year history.

UN Tribune asked three experts to answer five questions on the challenges facing Grandi and the UN refugee agency in protecting the ever increasing numbers forced to flee their homes.

Phil Orchard is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. His research focuses on international efforts to provide legal and institutional protection to forced migrants and civilians. He is the author of A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation (CUP, 2014) and, with Alexander Betts, the co-editor of Implementation in World Politics: How Norms Change Practice (OUP, 2014). @p_orchard

Dr. Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is a senior researcher at The Peace Research Institute Oslo. She holds an S.J.D. from Harvard Law School. Her current projects are on internally displaced women in Colombia and the humanitarian aspects of emergent military technologies. She is also co-editor of the forthcoming volume UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability (Routledge, 2016). @PRIOUpdates

Lucy Hovil is the Senior Researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative and is also Managing Editor for the International Journal of Transitional JusticeFor the past six years she has been leading a research project studying the linkages between citizenship and displacement in Africa’s Great Lakes region. @LucyHovil

1) What is the biggest challenge facing the new high commissioner for refugees?

Phil Orchard: The High Commissioner really faces two linked challenges. The first is the continued growth of forced migrants globally, which UNHCR is predicting passed 60 million people in 2015. The High Commissioner needs to continue to work with countries of first asylum to ensure that refugee rights are protected, but also donors to ensure that there are enough funds to support these refugees, even while the international humanitarian system is increasingly stretched. UNHCR also needs to continue to gain access and protect the internally displaced persons who remain within their own countries.

The second is related movement to the developed world, and principally refugees crossing the Mediterranean to reach the European Union. UNHCR estimates that over a million migrants made that crossing in 2015, and 84 percent of those came from the top 10 refugee producing countries. Here the High Commissioner needs to work to ensure that resettlement of refugees from the developing to the developed world continues. Critical here is ensuring that refugees can be resettled without having to risk their lives. This includes making sure that states follow up on their pledges to resettle some 162,151 Syrian refugees. But it also means making sure the EU as a whole continues its internal relocation schemes, but also looks at creating better and less risky paths for onward movement.

Kristin B. Sandvik: For the new high commissioner, ensuring that the international refugee law regime remains intact will be the key challenge throughout his term. In the short term, the Syria refugee crisis is the largest challenge.

Lucy Hovil: Clearly, the scale and scope of the current refugee crisis is of paramount concern. The increasing number of refugees is calling some to question core refugee protection principles, and the new commissioner will need to work hard to ensure that states hold true to these principles. Not only are new crises emerging and evolving, but old ones are lingering. While the immediate demands of new crises are likely to take up much attention, one of the greatest challenges is going to be to ensure that sufficient attention is paid to ongoing protection demands, and to finding genuinely durable solutions to protracted situations of displacement. In addition, financing this response will be a challenge. UNHCR’’s 2016 budget is its largest ever and the resources remain inadequate to the need.

2) The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Is it time for a new convention to account for other types of refugees, i.e. conflict, disaster, economic?

PO: The Refugee Convention continues to provide important protections for refugees fleeing individualized persecution, but does not provide as clear protections for those fleeing generalized violence or persecution by non-state actors. It also does not take into account other forms of flight, such as those driven by climate change or natural disasters. Unfortunately, there is little appetite among states for a new Convention. But here less binding soft law instruments could make a real difference. This is the pattern that was followed by the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which while initially soft law have been brought into regional hard law through the African Union’s Kampala Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. This is something I’ve detailed in my own work. Here, the Nansen Initiative for Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement is doing excellent work creating new guidelines for the protection of those victims.

KS: No, I really believe we need to spend our resources defending existing regimes from further loss of support and credibility.

LH: International law has been evolving in the direction of expanding the refugee definition for some time. The 1969 OAU Refugee Convention recognises refugees fleeing generalised conflict in Africa, as does the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in South America. Further expansion of these principles would be useful, but should benefit from a detailed analysis of the experience of regions that have already adopted these standards.

3) Does UNHCR need to become more independent, from donors and the UN system? 

PO: UNHCR under Antonio Guterres’ leadership was able to navigate the treacherous waters between the desires of donors and ensuring the protection of refugees and IDPs, something that it had not managed as effectively in the past. It will be important for UNHCR to continue to follow such a path and not become overly responsive to donors at the expense of protection.

KS: UNHCR needs to do its job better, including ensuring professional and accountable conduct by its staff. This also includes actually firing people found guilty of misconduct and not only keep moving them to other posts. Of course, UNHCR must also concentrate on providing due duty of care for its staff.

LH: Independence of UNHCR is critical. However, it is compromised in a number of ways other than donor control. UNHCR’s dual role as a protection and humanitarian agency creates tensions between the need to be critical and the need to maintain presence.

4) As the number of internally displaced people is double that of refugees, is there more UNHCR could be doing to assist IDPs?

PO: With the renewed global focus on refugees, IDPs are being forgotten. Elizabeth Ferris, in a study last year, argued that even with their growth in numbers –38 million people were internally displaced by conflict in 2014, and 19.3 million by natural disasters – IDPs today are “less visible that they were a decade ago.” There have been important steps forward in terms of legal protection, including the Kampala Convention. But the cluster based approach for humanitarian assistance, originally designed to respond specifically to IDP problems, is applied to almost every humanitarian emergency. UNHCR is now one of a number of organizations with specific responsibilities under the cluster approach, and can use upcoming events including the World Humanitarian Summit in May to refocus global attention on the problem of internal displacement.

KS: UNHCR should do less to assist IDPs and make it clear that they are the responsibility of sovereign states. UNHCR should generally try to do less and stick more closely to its original mandate of protecting refugees, instead of getting involved in an ever increasing amount of humanitarian aid and development activities. UNHCR should pull back from certain activities and from specific areas.

LH: The need for sufficient political engagement seems to be one of the greatest challenges facing all humanitarian actors in IDP situations. The general lack of visibility of IDP populations – which makes them particularly prone to becoming invisible emergencies – is key in this regard. UNHCR can do far more to ensure that IDP crises are given sufficient visibility regardless of the political cost in doing so.

5) What can be done to ensure states comply with their obligations to refugees?

PO: UNHCR’s mandate includes a supervisory responsibility over both the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This means it can issue interpretive guidelines as well as comment on states’ own legislative and policy proposals. The agency can and does use these powers. Just a few days ago, the agency critiqued the Danish government’s proposed amendments to its Aliens legislation. Among other points, UNHCR noted that a provision to allow the seizure of documents and assets from asylum seekers is “an affront to their dignity and an arbitrary interference with their right to privacy.”  However, it cannot compel a state to change its policies. And often UNHCR may find itself balancing the need for state consent to continue its operations with rights violations, such as policies that restrict refugees’ freedom of movement in contravention of the Convention.

KS: Humanitarian diplomacy and professional but brave conduct by UNHCR.

LH: Again, a far more robust political engagement with governments is crucial. Currently, fear of upsetting national governments is preventing sufficient engagement. Is it better to stay in a country and effectively support the status quo, or challenge it and be thrown out? This question needs to be revisited. In addition, there needs to be more public engagement. Unfortunately xenophobic attitudes in the public at large are making anti refugee policies attractive to many governments. Reducing xenophobia would reduce the incentive for restrictive policies.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

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