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

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

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Oct. 23, 2015 – Among the candidates to take over from Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as the next high commissioner for refugees is Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist, former government minister and founder of a healthcare NGO in her native Pakistan.

Sania Nishtar UNHCR candidate
Nishtar is the only non-European of the four candidates who have applied for the job and agreed to answer five questions posed by the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a global network of NGO’s with a long history of work on forced displacement issues.

She told ICVA that while candidates for top UN posts typically come from donor countries, selecting a candidate from the world’s top refugee hosting country would send a signal that all stakeholders matter and it would be empower the most affected countries to contribute.

Nishtar said her first refugee experience was in 1979 when relatives from Afghanistan arrived to stay with her family in Peshawar.

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The CEO of Save the Children International, Jasmine Whitbread, who holds dual UK and Swiss nationality, told ICVA that with many donor countries facing an influx of refugees for the first time, there is an “unparalleled opportunity to re-frame the issue for good.”

“I believe that the very difficulties of the situation we are facing may prove the galvanising force for change we need,” Whitbread said. “UNHCR is well placed to help catalyse this movement, and I would aim to bring all my experience and skills to bear to ensure we do not miss this opportunity.”

She also said UNHCR must throw its full weight behind breaking down the artficial divide between humanitarian and development work.

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Former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, told ICVA that if she gets the post she would continue the good work started by Guterres on supporting stateless people. She noted that while much of the attention of UNHCR’s work is on refugees and the internally displaced, there are some 10 million people without citizenship.

Thorning-Schmidt also said she was concerned that even though thee are twice as many internally displaced people as refugees, they are not afforded the same protection.

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Filippo Grandi, the former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, noted that his humanitarian experience dates back to the early 1990s including in Iraq, DRC and Afghanistan.

The Italian, who as head of UNRWA was responsible for the welfare of five million Palestinian refugees, also told ICVA that the high commissioner, as a senior adviser to the secretary-general, is “an important participant in the global discussions on conflict prevention and resolution, sustainable development, human rights and climate change.”

He noted that funding will continue to be a challenge for the refugee agency with only 12 governments providing over 80 percent of UNHCR’s funding.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

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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.

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

UN ‘Dysfunction’ at Heart of Slow Response to Humanitarian Crises

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July 8, 2014 – The global humanitarian system is failing to appropriately and rapidly respond to crises and the UN is at heart of this failure, according to a new report from Medecins Sans Frontiers.

The organization reviewed three recent crises – the refugee emergency in Upper Nile State, South Sudan from Nov. 2011 to Nov. 2012; the M23 mutiny in North Kivu, DRC, from April 2012 to April 2013; and the influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan from July 2012 to June 2013.

“The UN was at the heart of the dysfunction in each of the cases reviewed. There, historical mandates and institutional positioning have created a system with artificial boundaries (for example, between the coordination roles of UNHCR for refugees and OCHA elsewhere), to the detriment of those needing assistance and protection,” the report states.

“Further, the triple role of key UN agencies, as donor, coordinator and implementer, is causing conflicts of interest, especially in recognizing and correcting mistakes.”

Significantly, the report notes that “insufficiency of financing was not identified as a major constraint on performance in any of the three emergencies reviewed.”

Instead it says that disbursement of funds is slow and bureaucratic and the process for receiving funds in the field takes up to three months “which means it cannot be properly considered ‘emergency response.’”

The report specifically criticizes the UN Refugee Agency’s role as coordinator, implementor and donor saying this triple role led to considerable “conflicts of interest” and this in turn made it difficult for “UNHCR itself to admit to bigger problems or to ask for technical assistance from other UN agencies, for fear of losing out on funding or credibility.”

It says that refugee status and not need or vulnerability was the primary determinant of assistance and that those registered with UNHCR and living in UNHCR camps were prioritized over those living in host communities.

The MSF report also states that “risk aversion” is a major problem in the global humanitarian response system and “populations received assistance in large part based on how easy they were to target and reach.”

“While the humanitarian system has grown massively, this had not led to a proportionate improvement in performance during emergencies,” the report concludes.

A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs responded that it welcomes the contribution by MSF ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit which is being convened because of the “unprecedented strain on the international humanitarian system” and that “many of the report’s conclusions are reflected in OCHA’s own reviews of humanitarian operations.”

“The UN has already been addressing some of the concerns raised by MSF. We are working to improve our security management,” OCHA’s Clare Doyle said in an email to UN Tribune. “Aid organisations are using rapid mobile response teams, for example in South Sudan, to reach the most remote locations. Over 800,000 people have been reached by these teams since March 2014.”

She added that research does not indicate that aid workers are becoming more risk averse. “Figures from the Aid Workers Security Database do not support MSF’s assertion that humanitarian workers are becoming more risk averse, but indicate that the risk acceptance of humanitarian workers is increasing slightly.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UNHCR

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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.

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