Deputy UN Chief Eliasson to Head Search for Next Refugee Commissioner

Jan Eliasson: the former Swedish FM is heading the search for a new high-commissioner for refugees

Jan Eliasson: the Swedish diplomat is heading the search for a new high-commissioner for refugees

Sept. 24, 2015 – A panel headed by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson will present a short-list of three names to Ban Ki-moon in the coming weeks as he seeks to find a replacement for Antonio Gutteres as high commissioner for refugees.

Gutteres is stepping down after ten years in the post and his successor will take over at a crucial time in the agency’s 65 year history. There are currently 60 million refugees around the world, a figure which includes 40 million displaced inside their own borders and five million Palestinian refugees, whose welfare is handled by a separate agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Among those vying for the post is the former head of UNRWA, Italian Filippo Grandi. He stepped down last year as commissioner-general of the agency that he joined in 2005 as deputy commissioner-general. He assumed the top post in 2010. During his time with UNRWA, he oversaw major refugee crises including the 2006 Lebanon war, the destruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007, the 2009-09 Gaza conflict and the conflict in Syria, which is home to some 550,000 Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s care.

Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the head of the UN Environemntal Program Achim Steimer are also among the candidates. The short-list is expected to include at least one female candidate. Once Ban makes his selection, he then sends it to the General Assembly for rubber stamping, which will likely happen in November.

The new refugees high-commissioner will head a 10,000 person agency working in some 123 countries. UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes, in 1954 and 1981.

Eight of the ten previous high commissioners for refugees have been Europeans. The only non-Europeans were Japan’s Sadako Ogata, who served from 1990-2000 – and who is also the only woman to have headed the agency – and Iran’s Sadruddin Aga Khan, who was high-commissioner from 1965-1977.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related Story: Former Danish PM Nominated to Head UN Refugee Agency

Former Danish PM Nominated to Head UN Refugee Agency

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Sept. 4, 2015 –  Former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was nominated by her government on Friday as a candidate to succeed Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as head of the UN refugee agency. Guterres, also a former prime minister, has headed the agency since 2005 and was nominated unopposed by Ban Ki-moon for a second term in 2010.

His successor will be elected by the General Assembly in the fall.

Thorning-Schmidt would be the eleventh high commissioner for refugees and the second woman to head the world refugee agency since its inception in 1950. The agency, with almost 10,000 staff members, works in 123 countries responding to a growing global refugee crisis. Japan’s Sadako Ogata was the first female high commissioner for refugees. She served from 1991-2001.

There are currently 60 million refugees around the world, a figure which includes 40 million displaced inside their own borders and five million Palestinian refugees, whose welfare is handled by a separate agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Syria overtook Afghanistan this year as the world’s biggest source country for refugees with more than four million having fled the country – 3.7 million of whom are hosted in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – in addition to almost eight million displaced inside their own borders. Afghanistan, for long the world’s biggest source country, has the second highest number of refugees residing outside its borders at 2.6 million – mostly hosted in Iran and Pakistan, followed by Somalia, with 1.1 million refugees who are mostly residing in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Thorning-Schmidt served as her country’s prime minister from October 2011 until June this year and was Denmark’s first female premier. She was a member of the European parliament from 1999-2004 and in 2005 succeeded Mogens Lykketoft as leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats party. Lykketoft has since been elected as president of the 70th UN General Assembly and will assume his post this month. Thorning-Schmidt is daughter-in-law of the former leader of the British Labour party, Neil Kinnock.

During her time as prime minister, she rolled back anti-immigration policies put in place by her predecessor including eliminating the immigration and integration ministry although she was criticized during her 2015 campaign for prime minister – which her party lost to an anti-immigration coalition – for taking a tough stance on immigration saying immigrants and refugees must learn Danish and must work. During Thorning-Schmidt’s tenure time in office the number of asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark more than doubled and she proposed sending people back to their home countries if the situation permitted.

She made global headlines in 2013 when she posed for a selfie with US President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

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Eight of the 10 previous high commissioners for refugees have been Europeans including Thorning-Schmidt’s fellow Dane, Poul Hartling, who served from 1978-1985 and collected a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the agency in 1981. While senior UN positions are ostensibly open to nominations from all member states, the top posts tend to be divided among the permanent members of the Security Council and major donor countries.

Having missed out on the top humanitarian job, which a Norwegian and Swede held in the past, there’s a view among Danish diplomats that the refugee chief job should go to a Scandinavian.

– Denis Fitzgerald @denisfitz

Updated to reflect Thorning-Schmidt would be only second ever female high-commissioner in 65 years.