Climate change: Failing to plan is planning to fail

Written by November 16, 2014 0 Comments

Few issues have such far-reaching global implications as climate change. Climate-related displacement is a pressing issue that is increasing in scope and challenge every year. Between 2008 and 2012, sudden-onset disasters displaced an estimated 144 million people.[1] In 2013 only, 22 million people were displaced by disasters brought on by natural hazard events. Developing countries bear the brunt, accounting for more than 85 percent of displacement.

In 2010, the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) invited Parties “to enhance action on adaptation under the Cancun Adaptation Framework. . .by undertaking. . . [m]easures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels.” [2]

While people should be allowed to remain in their original settlements, governments may determine through vulnerability and risk-assessment activities that a community needs to be physically resettled to be protected from the effects of climate change. States will increasingly use this policy option as a last resort to move populations out of harm’s way in the face of foreseeable hazards.

In March 2014, UNHCR joined with the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration to organize an expert consultation on planned relocations in the context of climate change. The consultation brought together 43 experts from 21 countries and produced a report that identifies preliminary guidance and remaining gaps. Planning for relocation requires the consultation and participation of affected communities, including both host and relocating communities. It also requires creating an enabling environment for a legal basis for undertaking planned relocation, capacity-building, institutionalization, and a whole-of-government approach to ensure a human rights-based approach to this process.

For more information on what UNHCR is doing in this area, please visit UNHCR’s thematic web page and download the new overview on UNHCR, the environment and climate change.


[1] IDMC. Global Estimates 2014: People displaced by disasters, September 2014, available at:

[2] UNFCCC, Paragraph 14 (f) of Decision 1 CP/16, 2010, available here :


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Humanitarian Emergencies: An Innovative Funding Formula?

Written by October 30, 2014 0 Comments

In a recent speech to his governing board, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres made an intriguing but little-noticed proposal — that the humanitarian response to major emergencies should be partly funded in the future by assessed rather than voluntary contributions.

But what exactly did he mean by that?

Since its establishment in 1951, UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has had to beg for almost every dollar that it spends in protecting, assisting and finding lasting solutions for the world’s displaced people. Each year, the organization issues a Global Appeal, asking governments and other donors to contribute to the UNHCR budget. When new and unexpected crises erupt, UNHCR is obliged to launch an emergency appeal, hoping that donor states are willing and able to provide UNHCR with additional resources.

There are a number of reasons why this longstanding system of resource mobilization has become an increasingly inadequate one.

First, emergency appeals are almost never fully funded, and in many cases the response falls well short of what is required to provide refugees and other displaced people with their basic needs. The current refugee emergency prompted by the armed conflict in the Central African Republic, for example, has received only one third of the funding requested by UNHCR. At a time when so many other crises have erupted — Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine — humanitarian funds seem certain to become even more tightly stretched.

Second, the voluntary system of funding encourages states to earmark their contributions to UNHCR. Rather than providing the organization with core funds that it can use in the way it thinks best, donor states are able to specify the countries and activities they wish to support. In 2012, for example, only a quarter of the funds received by UNHCR came in the ‘unrestricted’ category. The evident disadvantage of this arrangement is that some countries and activities are more popular with donors than others, leaving UNHCR unable to prioritize those activities which it considers to be the most urgent.

A third reason for considering alternative ways of humanitarian funding relates to the very limited number of states that make significant contributions to the UNHCR budget. According to the data from 2012, more than 70 per cent of the organization’s budget was provided by just 10 donor states, led by the United States, member states of the European Union and Japan. While the Syria crisis has prompted ‘non-traditional’ donor states in the Middle East to increase their contributions to UNHCR, the organization’s funding base remains a very narrow one.

Fourth, the voluntary system of funding for emergency operations inevitably leads to inter-agency competition within the UN system, with UNHCR vying for resources with organizations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program. While such competition arguably acts as a stimulus for operational efficiency — donor states are always looking for the best value for money from the agencies they fund — it can also hinder coordination and encourage humanitarian agencies to spend considerable amounts of time and money in the effort to gain greater visibility.

As a result of these issues, recent years have witnessed some significant developments with respect to humanitarian financing in general, especially with the establishment of ‘pooled funding’ arrangements such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Managed by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, CERF collects funds from donors on a continual basis, setting them aside for the immediate use by humanitarian agencies when new emergencies strike. As well as disbursing funds very rapidly, CERF is also able to target resources at the world’s most neglected and underfunded crises.

In his recent speech, Antonio Guterres suggested that the UN should now consider the establishment of a ‘super-CERF’ which would provide UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies with immediate funding when particularly large-scale crises erupt. As with the UN’s peacekeeping operations and other core functions of the world body, the super-CERF would be funded not by voluntary contributions, but by levies on member states based on their national income.

Such a fund would not be a panacea to the problem of humanitarian financing. As one analysis concludes, “arrears are a chronic problem for the United Nations. Many poorer nations cannot afford their full assessment. Other countries…have delayed or withheld payments for reasons unrelated to their ability to pay.”

Even so, the Guterres proposal has a number of important attractions. It would help to improve the quantity and timeliness of humanitarian funding. It would make such funding more predictable and enable the most urgent humanitarian needs to be met. And it would increase the number of states contributing to major emergency operations, thereby reinforcing the principle that the international community as a whole has a responsibility towards  people whose lives and livelihoods are at grave risk.


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Camp Currency and Local Economies

Written by October 28, 2014 1 Comment

In a recent article in the Journal of Refugee Studies, Brent Ranalli confronts a persistent problem facing global refugee camps: the lack of hard currency. As Ranalli notes, the dearth of currency causes a shortage of needed and desired goods, exacerbates inefficient camp economies, and perpetuates divisions between refugees living in the camps and locals living in neighboring communities.

Ranalli proposes introducing local camp currencies to address these problems. He posits that, if officials could create a well-regulated camp currency and convince both camp service-providers and neighboring residents to accept it, local demand could be met with local supply and barriers between refugees and neighboring communities might even be surmounted. Finally, pride among camp residents would increase. Indeed, Ranalli points to successful instances of new currency introduction in similarly cash-strapped, localized contexts, though he notes that there has never been a pilot program introduced in a refugee-camp context.

Ranalli’s idea is precisely the type of innovation project that UNHCR and this blog have championed and his proposal is both thoughtful and novel. I am concerned, however, that this is an untested and imperfect resolution to a crippling problem when a simpler and better solution may exist. There have been several instances of the successful introduction of cash grants (in the form of the host country’s currency), which seems far preferable to the creation of local currency.

Ranalli’s idea is predicated on both the regulation of local currency and the acceptance of the currency by camp and host country residents.  The regulation alone is problematic: printing currency and taking anti-counterfeiting measures presents an unnecessary cost and could be quite inefficient. That inefficiency is only compounded by the need to sensitize potential participants to accept camp currency. My concern is that until a critical mass of acceptance is achieved, the use of a distinct “refugee” currency might only serve to perpetuate stigmas and divisions between refugees and locals. Finally, there may be legal obstacles to introducing a localized currency that would compete with host country currency; not every host country would be amenable to Ranalli’s proposal.

Ranalli does raise an important point about host country currency flowing outside of the camps rather than circulating within them. However, the concept of local currency does not strike me as a solution to this problem. Until local currency becomes widely accepted by service-providers outside of the camp, it will function a lot like an imperfect voucher system, redeemable only for certain goods at certain places. Further, once it is widely accepted at businesses outside of the community, it becomes vulnerable to the same “capital flight” as host country currency, albeit in a more concentrated area immediately surrounding the camp.

I encourage readers to revisit Alexander Betts’s post and the corresponding report by Betts’s Refugee Studies Centre, which present a compelling case for integrating refugees into the real local economy, for the benefit of both the refugees and the local community. The idea of cash grants – which have worked well in Lebanon and Congo – coupled with further refugee integration into the local economy, seems like a more efficient and desirable way of addressing the problems Ranalli identifies.

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Domestic Laws and Refugee Protection

Written by October 5, 2014 0 Comments

On September 22, a nine-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Israel issued a groundbreaking decision, ruling that the Israeli policy towards asylum-seekers and migrant workers violated the constitutional guarantees of the country’s Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. The decision mirrors a judgment by the same panel last year and has its origin in originates with a recent influx of refugees and migrant workers from Africa. In 2012, the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) amended the country’s so-called Anti-Infiltration Law to allow the state to detain undocumented migrant workers – many of them potential asylum seekers – for up to three years, and implemented harsh new penalties for aiding such individuals. In September 2013, the Court struck down the law, ruling it a violation of the Basic Law to hold asylum seekers for prolonged periods, and rejecting the use of detention policy as a deterrent for others seeking asylum. In the 2013 decision, the Court asserted, “Hard as the task with which Israel is forced to contend might be, we must remember that those who are already within our gates – are present among us. They are entitled to the right to freedom and right to dignity conferred by the Basic Laws to every person.”

In response to that decision, the Knesset passed a law allowing migrants to be held for up to a year in an open facility, and the state established the Holot facility in the Negev desert for this purpose. Holot currently houses about 2,200 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, each of whom must be present for three daily counts and none of whom may work. The Court’s recent ruling soundly rejected the Knesset’s revised approach and ordered that Holot be closed within 90 days. One of the Justices noted that “Many legal solutions can be considered — but they must be constitutional… A constitutional solution must reflect the balance between the general welfare and the individual’s welfare.”

(Stock Flickr Creative Commons)

(Stock Flickr Creative Commons)

The decision is notable for its use of domestic law to protect the refugees: while it may be safe to assume that international human rights and refugee protection principles played into the Court’s reasoning, the crux of the opinion seemingly grows out of Israel’s own domestic law and jurisprudence. In this regard, the case is reminiscent of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy. In upholding the rights of Libyan asylum seekers intercepted at sea, the Court closely considered the Refugee Convention, but ultimately decided on the basis of Italy’s domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR noted “Refugees attempting to escape Africa do not claim a right of admission to Europe. They demand only that Europe, the cradle of human rights idealism and the birthplace of the rule of law, cease closing its doors to people in despair who have fled from arbitrariness and brutality. That is a very modest plea, vindicated by the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Several months ago, James Hathaway wrote on this blog of states’ resistance to compliance with various provisions of the Refugee Convention. He pointed out the severe negative consequences of this reticence, and they are certainly troubling. Nevertheless, Israel’s recent decision and the Hirsi Jamaa case are welcome reminders that sometimes domestic and regional laws can do the trick. Domestic laws protect refugees, and – while it is desirable for states to fully embrace the Refugee Convention – their failure to do so does not leave asylum-seekers without rights or courts without the power to enforce those rights.

Of course, courts have sometimes ruled the other way. The Israeli Court’s decision and Hirsi Jamaa stand in stark contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, which upheld the President’s executive authority to repatriate intercepted Haitians seeking asylum following a bloody coup. The Sale case does, however, demonstrate the far reach of domestic courts’ decisions in cases regarding refugees. As discussed at a recent conference, the Sale case had global implications and was used to justify repatriation of asylum seekers worldwide. One can hope that more decisions protecting refugee rights through domestic law would have a similar impact.


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UNHCR’s New Policy on Alternatives to Camps

Written by September 21, 2014 0 Comments

As noted recently by Jeff Crisp, UNHCR has recently adopted a new Policy on Alternatives to Camps.  Jeff suggested that UNHCR had been “secretive” about the policy.

Hardly.  I attach it here.

I view the policy of singular importance, adding another element to UNHCR’s move away from “care and maintenance” and toward rights and self-reliance.  Recent events show that in some cases camps remain the most effective and efficient means of providing protection and assistance to vulnerable refugees; and hosting states may, despite UNHCR’s best efforts, adopt encampment policies.  But the policy’s mandate that UNHCR “pursue alternatives to camps, whenever possible” has transformative potential by changing the heretofore prevailing “default” assumption of UNHCR operations.

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Protecting “Crisis Migrants”

Written by August 18, 2014 0 Comments

How can the international community ensure more adequate and effective assistance, protection and solutions?

This post is co-authored by Susan Martin, Sanjula Weerasinghe, and Abbie Taylor.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied and separated minors from Mexico and Central America have fled their homes in the face of growing violence and undertaken treacherous journeys to other countries in the Americas since the end of 2011.[1] A groundbreaking report published by UNHCR in March 2014, based on in-depth interviews with 404 children who had recently arrived at the US border from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico found the majority (58%) had suffered or faced harms that indicated a need for international protection. While the reasons for flight were complex and interrelated, two main factors could be discerned: fear of violence by organized criminal armed groups and/or fear of violence in the home. In terms of immediate responses, a key finding is that unaccompanied and separated minors from these four countries must be screened individually for international protection needs. To obtain asylum, however, they need to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of specific characteristics (race, nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) if returned home. A well-founded fear of generalized violence will not necessarily qualify them for international protection even though they may well face life threatening conditions if required to return to their countries of origin.

More broadly, the situation in the Americas is indicative of the extent to which the world is witnessing unprecedented humanitarian need and challenges pertaining to mobility that do not fit within existing legal protection frameworks. According to UNHCR’s most recent Global Trends report, by the end of 2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. As the High Commissioner noted during his opening address at UNHCR’s June 2014 Consultations with NGOs, the scale and intensity of humanitarian need isn’t due solely to new conflicts, or old ones that never die, but is a product of a complex multiplicity of factors including mega trends, disasters, climate change, and other stressors that make life unsustainable in certain parts of the world.


Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –


Just in recent memory, the ongoing conflict in Syria has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions both within the country and across borders, while others remain trapped inside dwellings without access to basic assistance. In 2013 and 2014, in the Sahel, the intersection of drought and conflict has displaced millions and left others food insecure, with a growing risk of famine in South Sudan. In 2012, in villages in northern India and Nepal, seasonal rains prompted floods and landslides, overwhelming communities, killing thousands, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster in 2011, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. As highlighted above, the ongoing intense violence in Mexico and Central America has killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands to flee within and across borders to escape an ‘omnipresent’ war, often undertaking perilous journeys in their bid to reach safety. And in the Arctic and South Pacific, rising temperatures are threatening the habitats and livelihoods of coastal communities, forcing them to seek out permanent relocation.


The Crisis Migration project, launched by Georgetown University in late 2011, sought to identify commonalities across movements and protection needs triggered by diverse humanitarian crises, as a first step towards enhancing protection and assistance. Among the preliminary findings are the following:

  • The project posits three principal ways in which movement occurs in the context of crises: displacement as a direct result of a crisis, anticipatory movement in the context of impending crises, and planned relocation, particularly for those who might be otherwise trapped in life-threatening situations. The ways in which people move may expose them to harm, such as those who put their lives in the hands of smugglers, boarding unsafe vessels to cross dangerous seas.
  • Underlying reasons for movement are multiple, interconnected and complex, making it difficult to determine the underlying “cause” of movement in many situations and bringing into question the merits of articulating responses based solely on this basis.
  • People experience different levels of vulnerability throughout the lifecycle of a humanitarian crisis and during and following movement, based on demographic, socio-economic, and other factors such as legal status. Coping capacities also erode or evolve according to the lifecycle of a crisis and the stage at which people move.
  • Beyond traditional categories of vulnerable populations, specific and targeted responses may be needed to address certain groups such as non-citizens, those who travel by sea, those who are trapped in place and require assistance to move out of harm’s way, and those who move to urban areas.
  • Protection and assistance needs exist at all phases of a crisis and during all phases of movement and a continuum of responses are needed that address preparedness, resilience and mitigation, assistance and protection during a crisis and during movement, and sustainable solutions.
  • Existing legal and institutional frameworks, including the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as they are currently interpreted and operationalized cannot accommodate all those with protection and assistance needs. Even where frameworks exist, in practice, there are often considerable gaps in implementation. So, while efforts should be undertaken to ensure that existing frameworks are duly used to accommodate so-called ‘new phenomena’, new responses are also needed that pay less attention to the reasons why people move but rather, examine the willingness and ability of the country experiencing a humanitarian crisis to assist, protect, and find solutions. This underlying philosophy is in line with the rationale of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide surrogate protection where an individual is unable or unwilling to benefit from the protection of his or her country of origin or habitual residence.

To learn more about the Crisis Migration project and its products and activities, click here.

[1] In the United States, the number of border apprehensions of these minors has increased exponentially, from 4,059 in FY 2011, 10,443 in FY 2012, 21,537 in FY13, and an estimated 60,000 by the end of FY 2014. This does not include numbers of adults, or adults and children from Mexico, of which numbers have also been rising. Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2013, UNHCR recorded a 712 percent increase in the number of children and adults from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras claiming asylum in Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize. For more information, visit UNHCR Washington:

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Climate Change & Migration

Written by August 15, 2014 0 Comments

Rising sea levels. Protracted drought. More frequent and powerful storms. The adverse effects of climate change are all too familiar. “Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people,” as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted in its most recent report. Not only will natural hazards increasingly force affected populations to temporarily flee affected areas, but more gradual, irreversible changes will likely result in the loss of traditional homes and ways of life, forcing permanent displacement.

The authors of the report note that climate change can also indirectly raise the risk of violent conflict, precipitating further displacement. Indeed, the latest “Global Trends” report from UNHCR reveals that a majority of the estimated 51.2 million “persons of concern” live in “climate change hotspots.”

The fact that climate change and dramatic climatic events are likely to cause significant forced migration has led some to adopt the term “climate refugees” to describe such forced migrants.  UNHCR does not favor the term for two reasons. First, most displacement will occur within – not across – international borders. Second, a person who flees because of climate change is not likely—by that fact alone—to have “a well-founded fear of persecution” within the meaning of the 1951 Convention.  A decision by the New Zealand’s Court of Appeals in May provides an example.  The case rejected the appeal of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who sought to become the world’s first “climate change refugee.” Citing the rise in sea level and environmental degradation rendering his home in Kiribati unlivable, Teitiota claimed that he was subject to “persecution” under the Refugee Convention. The court determined that returning Mr. Teitiota and his family to Kiribati would not expose them to persecution, even if their living conditions were inferior to those in New Zealand. Moreover, the court found Teitiota’s argument to be an impermissibly broad interpretation of the Refugee Convention, emphasizing a need for human agency and a clear link to one of the Convention’s five enumerated grounds to constitute persecution.  (UNHCR would therefore feel more comfortable with terminology such as ‘external displacement’ to refer to cross-border movements driven by disasters or environmental factors, until States settle the terminology.)

This is not to say that existing international and regional refugee instruments could not be applicable in situations where the impact of climate change is an exacerbating factor of conflict, violence or public disorder. Thus, there can be a case for refugee protection in situations where harmful action or inaction by a Government in dealing with climate‐related events is related to one or more of the Refugee Convention grounds, such as denial of humanitarian assistance to a minority group.

UNHCR supports the Nansen Initiative, a state-led consultative process launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway. The Initiative’s primary goal is building consensus on key principles and elements regarding the protection of people displaced across international borders in the context of disasters, including those linked to the effect of climate change. Its steering committee is made up of nine countries, and it is currently conducting regional consultations with states, NGOs, academic institutions and other actors.

UNHCR is working within an inter-agency context with a range of partners, especially members of the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility along with a number of other multilateral and civil society organizations, including IOM, NRC/ IDMC, UNU, UNDP, ILO, OHCHR, Sciences Po (CERI) and Refugees International.  The Advisory Group focuses on human mobility both as an adaptation strategy and as a dimension of loss and damage, with the aim of leveraging evidence and enhancing knowledge and understanding of human mobility prompted by climate change. The group’s work informs several major interrelated policy processes on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development that are expected to culminate in agreements in 2015.

While forced migration due to climate change will not ordinarily be a basis for protection under the 1951 Convention, is there nonetheless a philosophical argument that the principles underlying the concept of refugee support extension of international protection to such persons?

An article by Matthew Lister,* forthcoming in the Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, provides such an argument. While Lister agrees with the New Zealand court that the Refugee Convention, as it stands, does not permit the inclusion of climate change migrants, he explores the normative justifications underlying the Convention to find that the its rationale may extend beyond its legal language.  He argues that an approach that grants refugee status to a limited portion of climate change migrants would avoid the need for any fundamental shift in the prevailing understanding of refugee protection.

Lister defines “refugee” by looking at the obligations of the international community under the current refugee regime. He identifies two primary principles of that regime: non-refoulement and the provision of a durable solution. If any climate change migrants require both of these protections, they should fall within the same definition as refugees seeking protection on one of the five Convention grounds.

Distinguishing between short-term displacement, such as that experienced after a natural disaster, and long-term displacement, such as that expected in low lying nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu, Lister concludes that the latter circumstance follows the logic of the Convention. Residents forced to flee a sinking country are both unable to return to their country of origin and require some sort of durable solution in another country. In other cases, such as that of rising sea waters in Bangladesh, displaced residents will be able to relocate internally and would therefore also fall outside the definition of refugee.


* The Global Views blog is meant to serve as a forum for refugee policy discussions. UNHCR does not necessarily endorse the views expressed by Professor Lister. 

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Volker Türk on International Protection

Written by July 7, 2014 0 Comments

I recommend perusing Volker Türk’s statement on International Protectiondelivered this week at the UNHCR Standing Committee meetings. Volker, as readers of the blog may know, is the Director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection. His statement provides a full and up-to-date review of UNHCR’s wide-ranging protection agenda, including  protection in conflict, mixed migratory movements and protection at sea, detention, gender equality, durable solutions, and statelessness.

I welcome your comments on Volker’s statement, which can be found here.

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Cancer in Refugees in Jordan and Syria

Written by June 25, 2014 0 Comments

Refugee situations in the 21st century are increasingly diverse, and expanding from low-income settings to both low- and middle-income settings alike. While infectious disease and acute malnutrition remain major challenges for millions of refugees, the existence and treatment of worldwide, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, are relatively neglected. Cancer in refugees causes substantial strain on the health systems of host countries, due to factors including high expense of treatments, dependence on specialty physician skills, and the challenges of continuous care and avoidance of treatment interruptions due to displacement. The UNHCR’s Exceptional Care Committees (EECs) have developed standard operating procedures to address expensive medical treatment for refugees in host countries, creating standards for eligibility and maximum payment.

Paul Spiegel (MD), Adam Khalifa (MD), and Farrah J. Mateen (MD) have authored a paper addressing these issues entitled “Cancer in refugees in Jordan and Syria between 2009 and 2012: challenges and the way forward in humanitarian emergencies.” They present data from funding applications for cancer treatments for refugees in Jordan (2010-2012) and Syria (2009-2012), and suggest a series of recommendations to improve prevention and treatment, including, for example, innovative financing schemes, balancing primary and emergency care with expensive referral care, and electronic cancer registries.

The full paper may be accessed here.


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Home Alone?

Written by June 23, 2014 0 Comments

“Ninety-nine percent of refugees in the world want to go home.”  “The one thing that all refugees want is to go back to their own country.”  “Most refugees desperately want to go back to where they came from.”

Such statements, drawn from UNHCR publications produced over the past decade, initially appear to make perfect sense. Having been forced to leave their own country in an involuntary manner, it seems logical that refugees would want to return to their homeland once it is safe for them to do so.

An Iraqi woman from Mosul carries her son at the Garmava Transit Camp, which is located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

An Iraqi woman from Mosul carries her son at the Garmava Transit Camp, which is located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But the reality can be quite different.

There are a number of reasons why refugees might not choose to repatriate, even if they are offered transport back to their country of origin and reintegration assistance once they arrive there.

First, refugees are spending increasingly long periods of time in exile—20 years or more in many cases. Even if they are not officially allowed to integrate in their country of asylum and be recognized as citizens of that state, they may nevertheless establish successful livelihoods, develop strong social networks, and give birth to children who have never been to or even speak the language of their putative country of origin. For such refugees, going “home” might be more of a wrench than staying put.

Fourteen-year-old Twermeh studies in the middle school in the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Northern Thailand. Twermeh is a Karenni refugee from Myanmar and was born in exile in the camp.

Fourteen-year-old Twermeh studies in the middle school in the Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Northern Thailand. Twermeh is a Karenni refugee from Myanmar and was born in exile in the camp.

Second, even if conditions at home have stabilized, the violent nature of the events that refugees have endured and which forced them to flee in the first place might have been so traumatic that they simply cannot think of returning to the place where those atrocities took place.

Such scenarios are envisaged in an often neglected clause of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which states that refugees should not be expected to return to their own country if they can demonstrate “compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution.” Many refugees from current conflicts involving intense cruelty and large-scale killings, such as those in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, seem unlikely to repatriate for precisely this reason.

Third, we live in an increasingly mobile world, and refugees are no exception. A growing proportion of the world’s exiled populations do not want to go home, but want to move on—by means of resettlement or migration—to places that offer them greater safety, better opportunities for them and their children, and the chance to be reunited with family members and diaspora communities.

Ashraf (R) and Hany (L) enjoy a special moment, briefly escaping from their suffering and loss. Both have a bleak future as the war enters a fourth year in their blighted homeland of Syria.

Ashraf (R) and Hany (L) enjoy a special moment, briefly escaping from their suffering and loss. Both have a bleak future as the war enters a fourth year in their blighted homeland of Syria.

And once they have moved on, such refugees will probably not choose to go home until they have acquired the nationality and passport of an industrialized state, meaning that they will have the option of leaving should their previous country of origin descend into chaos again.

Unfortunately, the international community has failed to take adequate note of these trends, and have grown increasingly attached to the notion that repatriation is the only logical outcome. Thus in 1951, when the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was established, the organization’s statute gave equal billing to two solutions for refugees: “the voluntary repatriation of refugees” and “their assimilation within new national communities.”

In successive decades, however, the states which govern UNHCR through its Executive Committee increasingly prioritized the former of these approaches. In 1983, for example, the Committee stated that repatriation was “the most desirable solution for refugee problems.” And in 1996, it described voluntary repatriation as “the most preferred solution” to refugee situations.

As indicated by the quotes at the beginning of this blog, the international community continues to think about solutions for refugees in this very limited way. And that is unfortunate.

The time has passed when refugees are prepared to live in camps for years or decades on end, in the distant hope that they might be able to return to their own country one day. Increasingly, they are leaving their camps or bypassing them altogether, taking up residence in cities or moving on to other countries and continents where they find a more productive way of life.

New arrivals from the Horn of Africa travel by truck at the Kharaz Refugee Camp in the south of Yemen.

New arrivals from the Horn of Africa travel by truck at the Kharaz Refugee Camp in the south of Yemen.

That is exactly why refugees from so many countries—Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria, to name but three—are now making their way to Libya and other North African countries, hoping to cross the Mediterranean and begin a new life in Europe. And that is exactly why refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka have been making their way to Australia, rather than remaining in Indonesia.

Given the experiences they have been through in their countries of origin and transit, and in view of the aspirations which they have developed, we should not expect such refugees to be queuing up for what others have erroneously deemed to be the best solution for them.

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