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

Related: Three Women, One Man in Race for Top UN Refugee Post

Syria Overtakes Afghanistan as Top Source Country for Refugees

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June 18, 2015 - Before the conflict in Syria started, the country was among the top five refugee hosting states. It is now the number one source country for refugees, having overtaken Afghanistan which had been the number one source country since 1981.

There are now a record 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, mostly as a result of war and persecution, according to figures released Thursday by the UN Refugee Agency in its annual Global Trends report. In addition to the 3.9 million Syrian refugees in 107 countries, there are another 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are hosted in neighboring countries Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

The number of Afghan refugees stands at 2.6 million, making them the second largest refugee group. The majority of Afghan refugees are hosted in Pakistan and Iran.

The next highest group of refugees are Somalis with 1.1 million, mostly residing in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Sudan and South Sudan are the third and fourth largest countries of origin for refugees with the latter experiencing a massive outflow of people fleeing war and hunger in the past twelve months – some 616,200 South Sudanese are now refugees compared with 114,400 last year. Ethiopia and Kenya were the top destination countries for South Sudanese.

Armed conflicts in the Central African Republic and Ukraine saw the number of refugees from these countries grow with Cameroon hosting the majority of CAR’s 412,000 refugees while more than 270,000 Ukrainians applied for asylum or refugee status in Russia. There are also more than 800,000 displaced inside Ukraine.

Developing countries continue to bear the primary burden of hosting refugees while the Americas hosts the lowest number and Europe – excluding Russian and Turkey, which is now the world’s biggest host country – the next lowest.

UNHCR said in its report that at least 3,500 people died crossing the Mediterranean last year seeking shelter in Europe.

More than half of the world’s refugees are children, the agency said.

The full report is here.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

Needs Far Outstrip Resources as Syria Donors Prepare to Meet

Syrian Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan.  (C. McCauley/Wikimedia Commons)

Syrian Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. (C. McCauley/Wikimedia Commons)

March 25, 2015 – With the campaign against ISIS dominating headlines from Syria, the United Nations will convene a donors conference on March 31st in Kuwait to raise much needed funds to address the ever-growing humanitarian crisis inside and outside Syria’s borders and to re-ignite awareness of the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

More than half of Syria’s population is displaced, some 7 million inside the country and another almost 4 million have fled the country with the majority residing in camps in neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan.

An $8.5 billion UN appeal was launched at the beginning of the year but only seven percent of the requested funds have been received, with just 23 countries contributing so far in 2015.

Despite the media and donor fatigue, the humanitarian situation in Syria is dire and atrocities continue, including more reports of chemical agents used as weapons. The Security Council this month adopted a resolution condemning the use of weaponized toxic chemicals following the OPCW’s finding “with a high degree of confidence, that chlorine had been used as a weapon in three villages in northern Syria from April to August 2014.”

An estimated one million Syrians have suffered injuries in the past five years, according to Handicap International with tens of thousands of those in need of prosthetic limbs. And a recent report from Physicians for Human Rights said that in the year from March 15, 2014 to Feb. 28, 2015, 162 medical personnel in Syria were killed. There were 82 attacks on medical facilities inside the country, including 32 attacks on 24 facilities using barrel bombs, the report added.

As well as seeking much needed funds, the United Nations will also hope that Western countries will share the burden of hosting Syria’s refugees. So far, only five percent of those who have fled the country have found refuge in EU countries, with the majority finding shelter in Germany and Sweden.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

The 22 Countries That Have Agreed to Resettle Syrian Refugees

Two Syrian sisters prepare to board their first flight in Beirut to start a new life in Hannover. © IOM

Two Syrian sisters prepare to board their first flight in Beirut to start a new life in Hannover. © IOM/Remi Itani

July 1, 2014 – Germany leads among countries that have agreed to resettle Syrian refugees with the country pledging to admit 25,500 Syrians that have fled to a neighboring country, including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The UN Refugee Agency called for states to provide 30,000 resettlement places for Syrian refugees in 2013-14 and an additional 100,000 in 2015-16 with a focus on the most vulnerable, especially women and girls, people with medical needs, refugees at risk due to their sexual orientation, those facing persecution because of religious or ethnic identity and vulnerable older adults.

European countries dominate the list of 22 countries that have agreed to provide resettlement for 34,722 Syrians with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Uruguay the only non-European countries to make firm pledges on resettlement. The US has also agreed to take an open-ended number of refugees.

The United Kingdom is not among the countries that have signed up with the UN Refugee Agency’s resettlement program but it has resettled Syrian refugees as part of its vulnerable persons relocation scheme.

These are the 22 countries that have agreed to admit 34,722 Syrian refugees from a second country in 2014.

Australia – 500
Austria – 1,500
Belarus – 20
Belgium – 150
Canada – 1,300
Denmark – 140
Finland – 500
France – 500
Germany – 25,500
Hungary – 30
Ireland – 310
Liechtenstein – 4
Luxembourg – 60
Netherlands – 250
New Zealand – 250
Norway – 1,000
Portugal – 23
Spain – 130
Sweden – 1,200
Switzerland – 500
USA – open-ended number
Uruguay – 120

Data provided by UNHCR.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Top 25 Donors to UN Syria Appeals in 2014

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June 4, 2014 - A total of $2.1bln has been contributed in 2014 to the two United Nations appeals for Syria – one to address the humanitarian situation inside the country and the other to assist the 2.5M refugees in neighboring countries.

The amount received so far this year is still much less that the $6.5bln the UN says it needs to respond to the crisis. Last year, a total of $3.1bln was contributed to UN appeals while in 2012, the figure was $1.2bln.

The US is the top donor by some distance in 2014 contributing a total of $407M, followed by Kuwait, $300M, and the European Commission, which has contributed $294m.

These are the top 25 donors to the Syria appeals so far this year.

1. US $407M
2. Kuwait 300M
3. EC $294M
4. UK $238M
5. Canada $143M
6. Japan $119M
7. Germany $95M
8. UAE $71M
9. Norway $64M
10. Australia $30M
11. Denmark $25M
12. Saudi Arabia $22M
13. Switzerland $18M
14. Netherlands $17M
15. Finland $11.5M
16. France $11.2M
17. Belgium $11.1M
18. Qatar $11M
19. Sweden $8.9M
20. Italy $8.2M
21. Ireland $5.2M
22. Morocco $4M
23. China $3.9M
24. Luxembourg $3M
25. New Zealand $2M

Data from UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/Wikimedia

New Books

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Charlotte Mires’ Capital of the World is an entertaining account of the race to host the UN’s headquarters in the mid-1940s. New York City won the privilege in the end but Mires takes us through the twists and turns of the origins of the ‘world capital’ including plans from South Dakota, Michigan, St. Louis and Westchester County and she tells us the story of Prescott Bush’s opposition to building the headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut which was the UN’s first choice.

Anne Hammerstad’s The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor tracks the UN Refugee Agency’s rise in the 1990s as a major actor in the global security arena and its post-9/11 return to a more independent role as its major donors fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with both these countries soon becoming the top source countries for refugees.

Providing Peacekeepers examines the challenges and demands of generating some 120,000 troops to serve in UN peacekeeping missions. The book has sections on the permanent five members of the Security Council, traditional troop contributor countries and emerging troop contributor countries.

We The Peoples: A UN for the 21st Century is a collection of Kofi Annan’s speeches arranged thematically and regionally covering such topics as human rights, peace and security, the Middle East, Africa, and development. The book is edited by Annan’s former speechwriter, Edward Mortimer.

Top 15 Donors at Pledging Conference for Syria

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Jan. 15, 2014 – Host country Kuwait topped the list of donors at the pledging conference for Syria on Wednesday with the Gulf country announcing a $500 million contribution.

The United States followed with a $380 million donation. The European Commission pledged $225 million; United Kingdom, $164 million; Japan, $120 million; Germany, $110 million; Norway, $75 million; Saudi Arabia and Qatar both pledged $60 million.

Rounding out the top 15 donors at the conference in Kuwait City were Italy, $51 million; Denmark, $37 million; Sweden, $35 million; Switzerland $33 million; France, $27 million; and Ireland, $27 million.

A total of $2.4 billion was pledged towards a total of $6.5 billion required to support nine million Syrians in need of assistance inside and outside of Syria in 2014.

UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia were not among the 37 countries that made pledges. Nor was Canada, traditionally a strong donor. The United Arab Emirates was also absent, as too was Bahrain.

Iraq was the fourth largest Arab country donor, pledging $13 million.

Among emerging donor countries, South Korea announced a $5 million contribution; Mexico $3 million and India, $2 million.

Non-traditional donors making pledges included Estonia, $552,000; Romania, $100,000 and Botswana, $50,000, according to figures provided by UN OCHA.

A full list of the countries that pledged funds is below.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

List of Humanitarian Assistance Pledges at the Second International Donors Conference for Syria

 

Energy Rich Qatar Lags in UN Aid Appeal for Syria

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Syrian children inside a classroom at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan (photo: UN photo/Mark Garten)

Sept. 4, 2013 – Qatar, the richest country in the world, has given less than $3 million to the UN aid appeal for Syria, according to figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Of the more than $2.9 billion donated to the UN’s emergency relief fund for Syrians, energy-rich Qatar has contributed $2.7 million – less than 0.1 percent of the overall total. Countries such as Belgium, Finland, Iraq and Ireland have all given more.

The United States is the top donor, at $818 million, followed by the European Commission – the EU’s legislative arm – which has provided $619 million. Of the 28 EU member states, Britain, $196 million, and Germany $73 million are among the top ten donors.

Kuwait, $324 million, is the top Gulf donor, coming in third overall, according to OCHA’s figures as of Sept 4th, 2013, while Saudi Arabia, at $51 million, is the tenth biggest contributor.

Outside of the EU, US and Gulf, Japan, $82 million, and Australia, $64 million, are also among the top ten donors.

Of the remaining permanent five Security Council members, Russia has given $17 million, France, $15 million and China, $1 million.

The UN has requested a total of $4.4 billion to assist Syrians, with $1.4 billion designated to assist those inside the country – more than 4 million of whom are displaced – and $3 billion to assist neighboring countries that are now home to more than 2 million Syrian refugees.

- Denis Fitzgerald

States Slowly Making Good on Syria Appeal Pledges

April 23, 2013 – More than $1.2 billion has been committed to aid the humanitarian response inside Syria and in neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees, according to the lastest figures by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Some $2 billion had been pledged by donors in recent months, with $1.5 billion alone pledged at a donors conference in Kuwait City on Jan. 30.

It was just just last week that Kuwait made good on its $300 million pledge from Jan. 30, a contribution that U.N. Refugee Agency chief Antonio Gutteres said gave his and other humanitarian agencies “a breathing space” as they struggle to assist the more than 6 million people in need inside and outside of Syria.

The situation inside Syria is compounded by myriad bureaucratic hurdles placed on humanitarian actors. Valerie Amos, the head of OCHA, told the Security Council last week that aid convoys are stopped at 50 checkpoints on the 310 kilometer journey from Damascus to Aleppo. She also said that each aid truck requires a permit signed by two government ministers to pass through government checkpoints.

The top donors to the humanitarian appeal are Kuwait, $324 million; the United States, $214 million; the European Commission, $162 million; and the United Kingdom, $117 million.

A full list of the funds committed and outstanding pledges is here.

- Denis Fitzgerald

Breakdown of $1.5 Billion Raised at Syria Aid Conference

Feb. 4, 2013 – Thirty-eight countries plus the European Commission pledged more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria at a donors conference in Kuwait last week.

The amounts ranged from $20,000, from Cyprus, to $300 million, by three countries – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. 

Japan, $65 million; Finland, $4.5 million; Poland, $500,000; and Botswana $50,000 were among the donors.

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About one-third of the funds raised are targeted for the UN humanitarian response plan for delivering aid inside Syria. That plan requires $519 million from January to June 2013 to assist 2.5 million Syrians. More than 50 percent of hospitals inside Syria have been damaged and about one-third are out of service. The National Hospital in Damascus has been completely destroyed, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. There are also shortages of food, fuel and medicines. The disbursement of aid is contingent on donor countries following through on their pledges.

The remaining funds are targeted to assist the ever growing number of refugees in neighboring countries. The number of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries currently exceeds 750,000, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

At least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011 when the government started using lethal force to suppress anti-government protests.

Denis Fitzgerald