From Dependence to Self-Reliance: Changing the Paradigm in Protracted Refugee Situations

Written by February 25, 2015 0 Comments
I’ve drafted a new policy brief on Changing the Paradigm in Protracted Refugee Situations. This brief was prepared for the December 2014 meeting of the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) Transatlantic Council on Migration.  MPI will publish a full version, including five other reports prepared for the meeting, in spring 2015.


I.       Introduction

Let us begin with two facts: (1) more than 51 million persons are displaced because of conflict and violence in the world today;[1] and (2) the majority of the world’s forced migrants—refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)—are in protracted situations, with little chance that their displacement will end anytime soon. Taken together, these facts paint a deeply disturbing picture. Millions of persons have not only borne the injuries and costs of being forced from their homes; they continue to suffer those harms, their lives essentially placed on long-term hold.


These are unhappy facts, too, for host and donor states. The vast majority of the world’s forced migrants reside in developing countries, which expect and rely on the international community to help provide assistance to the displaced. This is particularly so for refugees who, unlike IDPs, are not citizens of the states that have provided them asylum. While emergencies may attract a significant amount of funding,[2] support tends to diminish over time. Long-standing situations are perceived to have neither the urgency nor likelihood of resolution that draws heightened donor interest. Funds are disbursed year after year with little enthusiasm, amid beliefs that not much more can, or should, be done.


Viewed with a modicum of perspective, it should seem curious that assistance provided to refugees several decades after their displacement is categorized as “humanitarian” by governments and multilateral international organizations. Humanitarian relief is usually associated with emergency relief—tents, blankets, food, and medical care for those who have been forced from their homes after a cataclysmic event (earthquake, tsunami, civil war, targeted persecution, threatened genocide). As the United Nations (UN) guidance goes, humanitarian relief should give way—in fairly short order—to reconstruction; as the flood waters recede, people should leave their emergency shelters and begin to rebuild their homes and their communities.


The relief-to-development mantra can make sense in cases of natural disaster, when a temporary shock has taken a community off its normal development course. And this logic links to the mot-de-jour: “resilience.” A resilient society is able to withstand shock and begin rebuilding more quickly. But these concepts are more difficult to apply in situations of long-term displacement. Refugee camps and settlements persist in host communities, usually as isolated, unproductive islands sustained largely by the international community—or neglected altogether. Host states are not likely to include refugees in their national development plans, meant for their own citizens, and are not likely to want international funders to divert development dollars to non-nationals. As a result, international assistance to displaced communities continues to be sourced from “humanitarian” baskets no matter how long the displacement continues. A hallmark of such funding is that it usually bypasses host states—although state refugee agencies may receive financial support and host communities may benefit from some local services, such as schools and water, sanitation, and health (WASH) projects. Development funding, meanwhile, is generally bilateral and provided to states according to their development plans.


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.

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.

World Refugee Day Remarks

Written by June 20, 2014 0 Comments

We announce today a startling and deeply disturbing fact: that there are now more than 50 million persons who have been forced from their homes because of conflict. On every continent, in every region, human beings flee violence and seek the safety that international law and international institutions help provide.

I mention law here not simply because I am trained as a lawyer. But because it reminds us, that while UNHCR and our partners are providing shelter and food and medical care and other forms of assistance, at the core of our work is our protection function. Of course, saving lives must be our highest priority, but once those force to flee have received emergency care we must immediately turn our attention to human rights.

The protection of refugees and other persons forced from their homes is not an act of charity; it is not an act of noblesse oblige; and it is more than a moral obligation that the fortunate owe the less fortunate.

It is a matter of rights.

  • Persons forced to flee have a right to seek and receive asylum.
  • They have a right not be “pushed back” at sea or arbitrarily detained upon arrival.
  • They have rights, under the Refugee Convention, to freedom of movement and to work within countries in which they have been recognized as refugees.
  • Persons forced to flee have a right not to be discriminated against because of their race or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
  • Women forced from their homes have a right not to be forced into survival sex.
  • Children forced to flee because of conflict have a right not to be forced to serve as child soldiers.

As persons forced from their homes have rights, so too the international community has responsibilities.

  • Nations must share the burden imposed on countries that have opened their borders to those forced to flee.
  • They are responsible for the humane treatment of asylum-seekers, and the development of fair and efficient asylum systems.
  • And the international community has a responsibility to provide solutions to refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons—who sometimes remain in uncertain legal status for decades.

These rights and responsibilities belong to all of us; they are affirmed collectively to provide for our protection and to remind us of our duties.

We recognize each World Refugee Day that we all stand in the shoes of those forced to flee; we are in a refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; we are crossing into Uganda fleeing violence in South Sudan; we have moved with our children to be safe from the new fighting in Iraq; we live in impoverished and distressed Rohingya settlements in Myanmar and Bangladesh; we watch our children and grandchildren grow up as refugees in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya and the Mae La camp in Thailand and the Sheder camp in Ethiopia; we are fearful that our daughters will be attacked and raped in the eastern DRC or kidnapped in Nigeria; we are on a leaky ship in the Adaman Sea, navigating the Windward Passage or nearing the island of Lampedusa; we know the children of our neighbors who have been smuggled and trafficked into Sudan and over the southwest border of the United States.

This World Refugee Day takes special note of refugee families. But we see ourselves in the faces and lives, the despair and resourcefulness, of displaced persons everywhere because we are part of the human family.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Geneva, June 20, 2014




Innovation at UNHCR

Written by May 28, 2014 0 Comments

Innovation” is an over-used and under-defined word.  I tend to use the term to describe strategies for problem-solving that rely on previously unused modalities and products and that seek to benefit from the “minds of many” both within and beyond UNHCR.  The relevant question, of course, is not what innovation is, but rather what innovation does.

We have established a small Innovation Unit at UNHCR that seeks to work with our field operations to identify problems (in providing protection, assistance and solutions to persons of concern) that need solving in new ways because the old ways haven’t worked.  Examples of projects we have undertaken include the development of a new kind of shelter that is more durable and livable but not much more expensive than tents; adapting a device used in the private sector so that we can track electronically the distribution of core relief items; working with anthropologists in a camp to help us better understand the needs and goals of a refugee population; and exploring of new forms of data visualization to better communicate information to decision-makers and the public.

DOWN TO EARTH – Flat-pack shelters for Syrian… by france24english

We have attempted to mobilize the “minds of many” by forging partnerships with outside organization.  For example, the new shelter was developed with the financial support of the IKEA foundation and the technical know-how of a dozen private companies; and the distribution tracking device is being supported by UPS.

We have also sought to develop an innovation culture within UNHCR by using the Mindjet/Spigit social networking platform (with financial support from Hunter and Stephanie Hunt).  With the platform, we launched a “challenge” in which 250 participants generated ideas for improving access to information and services for urban refugees.  (The “winning” proposal recommended creation of a website——that we hope to develop and launch over the next year.)  We are currently running a challenge on rethinking our “Core Relief Items” package—i.e., what relief items are more useful and relevant for persons of concern in emergencies.  You can watch Assistant High Commissioner Janet Lim’s video description of the Challenge here.

We have also established Innovation Fellowships within UNHCR, bringing together a cadre of staff interested in pursuing innovation projects.  These “iFellows” will be supported in their work aimed at crafting novel solutions to challenges in their home operations. Examples of iFellow projects include the development of tools to monitor refugee livelihood in rural regions, a vulnerability study to fix targeting issues with the food assistance programs, and the creation of a Corporate Social Responsibility program to link refugees seeking employment with the private sector.

Each of these developments is a crucial step in our effort to create and nurture a culture of innovation within UNHCR. Already, this century has presented a new set of refugee crises and a new set of challenges in serving the needs of displaced persons; UNHCR is committed to meeting these 21st Century challenges with the technological and problem-solving innovation that the our epoch demands.

High Commissioner’s High-Level Panel on Somali Refugees

Written by May 21, 2014 0 Comments
Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered at the transit centre in Dolo Ado in Ethiopia last month. UNHCR/J. Ose

Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered at the transit centre in Dolo Ado in Ethiopia last month. UNHCR/J. Ose

In November 2013, High Commissioner Guterres convened a High-Level Panel (HLP) on the Somali Refugee Situation. The Panel included experts and scholars from the international community, academia, and the private sector.

There are more than 1 million Somali refugees, and most are concentrated in states located near Somalia: Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and Uganda. This is a classic protracted refugee situation, as most refugees are not ready to voluntarily return to Somalia, and resettlement and local integration options are quite limited. As an element of High Commissioner Guterres’ Global Initiative on Somali Refugees, the HLP was asked to take a fresh look at UNHCR’s PRS (Protracted Refugee Situation) paradigm to see what new strategies might be developed.

The HLP took note of the tripartite agreement on voluntary repatriation between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and UNHCR, signed in November 2013, but recognized the “dangers of hasty or forced repatriation” and highlighted the need “to actively pursue other creative solutions.”

The Panel generally endorsed the overall goal of a “comprehensive plan of action” for resolving the protracted situation—a plan that would require the participation of hosting and donor states, the private sector, the Somali diaspora, civil society, development actors, and other international organizations. While leaving the terms of such a plan to be worked out among the various stakeholders, the HLP nonetheless identified a number of “principles” that could inform that process:

  1. Solutions for Somali refugees will be differentiated according to their diverse needs.
  2. International protection must be offered to Somali refugees as long as they need it.
  3. Refugee camps should be opened up through increased mobility and livelihood opportunities.
  4. Refugee participation will be maximized in all actions. Refugees are assets, not burdens; self-reliance activities can help achieve their potential and also prepare them for eventual return.
  5. Return must always be voluntary, safe and dignified. A realistic repatriation program will be piloted, and implemented where conditions permit.
  6. Help will be offered to refugee communities, host communities, and communities to which refugees will return.
  7. New actors will be engaged in finding solutions: including the private sector, the Somali diaspora, women’s groups, and development agencies; their contributions may be in asylum countries as well as in areas of return in Somalia.
  8. The Somali Federal Government’s commitment will be encouraged, at the same time as engaging regional administrations within Somalia.
  9. Modern forms of communications will be used to enhance refugee lives.
  10. Resettlement opportunities must be expanded.
  11. Naturalization should be considered for long-staying refugees.
  12. There should be an adequate interlink between solutions for refugees and IDPs.
  13. The xenophobia faced by Somali refugees around the world needs to be challenged.

If comprehensive solutions are not immediately available, members of the Panel generally supported a shift in strategy under which

asylum [w]ould evolve from a “care and maintenance” approach to one where human potential could be fully realized, and suffering, stagnation and marginalization reversed. This will mean a significant reconceptualization of the refugee experience with a view to making it a positive and transformative one through a focus on self-reliance, skill-building and access to livelihoods opportunities. This may in fact help to transform the situation within Somalia, and will certainly help prepare refugees for eventual return.

As next steps for the Global Initiative on Somali Refugees, UNHCR will organize a regional dialogue in Spring 2014 with affected states, and work towards a global dialogue on Somali refugees to agree a plan of action with the international community.

The Responsibility to Solve

Written by May 4, 2014 0 Comments

A bit of shameless self-promotion.  Stephen Poellot and I have co-authored an article on protracted refugee situations that will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Virginia Journal of International Law.

In the article, we contend that the international community has a legal and moral duty to seek solutions to long-standing refugee situations.  We call this obligation “the responsibility to solve,” and abbreviate it as R2S—an obvious play on the well-known R2P (responsibility to protect).

We suggest that R2S follows from the international community’s duty to promote human rights and human security, foundational principles of the international refugee regime (such as burden-sharing), and commitments implicit in the Refugee Convention and Protocol.

The Virginia Journal of International Law has kindly permitted us to provide a pre-publication link here.

The article was first presented as the annual lecture of the Program on Law and Human Development at Notre Dame University in March 2012 (co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Center for Civil and Human Rights).

Exhausted and uncertain about the future, a line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration centre set up by UNHCR and partners just outside Arsal. UNHCR/ M. Hofer/ November 2013

Exhausted and uncertain about the future, a line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration centre set up by UNHCR and partners just outside Arsal.
UNHCR/ M. Hofer/ November 2013

Welcome to UNHCR’s Global Views Blog

Written by May 3, 2014 0 Comments

Last month UNHCR announced that the millionth refugee has been registered in LebanonAcross the region UNHCR has counted nearly 3 million Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, crises in Syria, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan have displaced tens of thousands of persons. The violence from which these refugees flee is horrific, the hardships they and their families endure are tragic.

These emergencies emerge alongside long-standing (“protracted”) refugee situations. As noted in UNHCR’s Mid-Year Trends 2013, the number of global refugees has passed 11 million, and there are more than three times as many internally displaced persons (21 million) as there were a decade ago.

These emergencies, these numbers, these long-term crises call for massive protection and assistance efforts by the international community. And while many states have been generous—in providing millions of dollars in assistance, asylum space, and resettlement opportunities—the human needs still far out-strip the relief efforts. The practical measures of assistance and the end of conflict required are well described in numerous UN and NGO reports—I will not rehearse them here.

What we seek to provide in this space is a place for practice and research to come together. What is the best we know about the causes of displacement, the needs and concerns of refugee communities, the scope and nature of mixed migration flows, effective strategies for self-reliance, and innovation in refugee protection and assistance?

I will welcome outside contributions to the discussion, running the blog in a “moderated” format. Visitors are encouraged to comment on contributions. I invite you to join us in this discussion—and this journey.