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U.N. Refugee Agency Must Change Course or Risk Obsolescence

UNHCR faces deep budget cuts, interagency competition and violations of the Refugee Convention, says Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre, who charts a course that would see the agency survive and thrive.

Written by Alexander Betts Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
African migrants protest in front of the UNHCR office demanding asylum and work rights from the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014. For weeks now, African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have staged a series of demonstrations demanding they be recognized as refugees, a status that would give them residency rights. Israel sees many of them as economic migrants and has tried a number of tactics to stop the migrants' influx or keep their numbers down. It has built a fence along the border with Egypt, passed a law that allows for the migrants' detention and offered financial incentives to urge them to leave. AP/Ariel Schalit

It must be a very challenging time to be running the U.N. Refugee Agency. The organization faces major challenges on several fronts.

First, the Trump administration has instructed the State Department to reduce U.N. funding by up to 50 percent. This would mean removing as much as a billion dollars a year from UNHCR funds.

Second, with the International Organization for Migration’s entry into the U.N. system, there are ongoing discussions on where and how the line will be drawn around UNHCR’s mandate. In gray areas like climate change-induced migration, the uncertainty is pronounced.

Third, there is now systematic noncompliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, over which UNHCR has supervisory responsibility. From Australia to Kenya to Hungary, unambiguous violations are evident, and the old institutions are no longer a guarantee of international cooperation.

Against this backdrop, UNHCR is at a crossroads; what it does next will determine its very organizational future. Will it thrive or fall into obsolescence? This depends upon the organizational strategy adopted by its senior management.

In navigating the current world order, it faces a spectrum of options. At one extreme, it could choose inertia: to minimally adapt and seek to preserve existing mandates, priorities, and business models. At the other end of the spectrum, it could choose reform: to recognize and adapt to a changed world, and seize the opportunity to build an organization fit for the 21st century.

The U.N.’s high-level dialogue on refugees and migration in September 2016 created a roadmap for two global compacts to realize the abstract commitments made by states in the New York declaration: one on refugees and one on safe, orderly, and regular migration.

It is now clear that these compacts are very different. The migration compact is an intergovernmental process, cochaired by Switzerland and Mexico, with a timetable of consultations and an ambition for transformative impact. The refugee compact is a UNHCR-led internal process with no intergovernmental process and with minimal scope for formal consultation. Many NGOs see UNHCR as holding up a very clear “keep off” sign as far as the refugee compact is concerned.

The content of the refugee compact is work in progress, but its centerpiece is the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The initial discussions contain some important ideas. On a context-specific basis, it will seek to engage business and civil society, to work with the wider U.N. system and the World Bank and look across the board at ways to find sustainable solutions, including – wherever possible – going beyond camps.

The organization has come up with specific innovative ideas: in Uganda, for instance, it will place a small secretariat in the government’s own civil service and the high commissioner has appointed a special envoy to work on behalf of Somali refugees, both of which move towards much-needed capacity for political engagement at country-level. The CRRF will be rolled out in pilot countries like Uganda and Afghanistan.

Many of the ideas in the CRRF go in the right direction, offering country-specific responses with an emphasis on more integrated and collaborative approaches, including with development actors. And UNHCR has shown willingness to listen privately to ideas for the CRRF. But at field level, UNHCR staff recognize that it basically represents business as usual: showcasing and systematizing things UNHCR is already doing, while averting external demand for substantive reform.

Despite the CRRF, the key metrics of what any organization does – its allocation of staff and money – show that UNHCR’s priorities and activities are largely unchanged. It refugee-related activities still focus overwhelmingly on two sets of activities: providing humanitarian delivery in refugee camps and providing legal advice to governments.

But the competences most needed to yield sustainable responses are economics and politics, and yet fewer than five staff in an organization of 9,000 have been recruited as economists or political analysts. Effective refugee response needs to create jobs for refugees and hosts, and this requires knowledge of development and economics and, to a lesser extent, business and technology. Working with the World Bank is obviously important, but so is having in-house capacity.

Furthermore, the entire history of UNHCR shows that it is at its most effective when aware of political context; so why not restructure its human resources to reflect this? UNHCR, by any metric, is failing to achieve what international institutions are for: collective action. Responsibility for this lies largely with governments, but the purpose of international organizations is to broker bargains that channel the reciprocal interests of states into mutually beneficial outcomes, even when their electorates are challenging.

On an operational level, UNHCR is absent from many of the places where refugees actually are: it provides assistance to less than 10 percent of refugees in Turkey – which hosts more refugees than any country in the world – in part because it still struggles to operationalize its Urban Refugee Policy and because it is still adapting to be operational in middle-income countries.

At a system level, the wider refugee regime created in the aftermath of World War II has major gaps in its ability to meet the contemporary challenges. It has missing models: much is still adapted to emergency relief primarily in camps. It has missing providers: There is no coherent normative framework for responsibility-sharing. It has missing people: The “persecution” standard within the 1951 convention is often interpreted in ways that exclude people fleeing today’s fragile states. All of these things should have been part of an ambitious refugee compact.

A truly open, intergovernmental refugee compact process would allow deeper reflection about the type of U.N. refugee agency and system needed for this century. But this would also pose risks for the organization: to the security of its unique monopoly mandate over refugees and possibly to the residual resilience of the 1951 convention.

So UNHCR must find a balance: one that embraces reform and sees challenging circumstances as offering opportunities for change. One that takes down the “keep off” signs and is also prepared to accept constructive criticism from its friends who want the organization and its many extraordinary staff to thrive, but fear for its current trajectory.

Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s new book Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System is published by Allen Lane.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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