Urban IDPs: A Useful Concept?

Written by November 28, 2014 0 Comments

During the past five years, growing attention has been given to the situation of urban refugees, much of it stimulated by the release of UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas. But now, the spotlight is being turned on another phenomenon, that of internally displaced people (IDPs) in urban areas. In October 2013, for example, the Brookings LSE Project on Internal Displacement published a report on this issue, observing that “while urban environments often provide a conducive setting for internally displaced persons to rebuild their lives, they also present important protection, development and security challenges.”

In many senses, this is a very logical and progressive development. It is well known that in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia, large numbers of people flee from the violence that is taking place in the countryside and take up residence in cities and towns in order to find better security and alternative livelihoods opportunities.

The Afghan capital of Kabul, for example, has been growing at a rate of almost five per cent in recent years, and much of that growth is the result of an influx of people displaced by armed conflict. Many of them live in dire conditions in informal settlements dotted around the outskirts of the city, deprived of the basic necessities of life.

In February 2012, the New York Times revealed that more than 20 IDP children, all of them less than five years old, had frozen to death in Kabul, where they lived in tents and mud-walled shacks with plastic roofs.

Humanitarian officials in Afghanistan explained how this situation had arisen. The IDP settlements did not qualify for development aid because they were regarded as temporary facilities, and because many Afghan officials were opposed to their presence. Providing assistance to their residents, it was thought, would simply encourage the IDPs to remain there and attract new arrivals from rural Afghanistan.

At the same time, and because the settlements had been established a decade previously, they did not qualify for emergency assistance. According to the head of one local NGO, “they don’t have access to anything: health, education, food, sanitation, water. They don’t even have an opportunity for survival.”

There is an evident need to ensure that such scenarios are not repeated, whether in Afghanistan or in any other war-affected country. But there is also a need for a degree of care when targeting programs at urban IDPs.

It is not always easy to differentiate urban IDPs from other poor rural-to-urban migrants. Indeed, many of the people who are described as urban IDPs in cities such as Kabul, Bogota (Colombia) and Mogadishu (Somalia) have moved not only to escape from armed conflict, but also because their livelihoods have become unsustainable and because they have been affected by natural disasters such as floods and drought.

In cities such as these, very large numbers of people, whether displaced are not, are living side-by-side, confronted with the same daily challenge of eking out a living in the informal sector of the economy. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that displaced people are confronted with some specific challenges.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, for example, IDPs in the Congolese city of Goma, “cite greater housing safety and security as a reason to move to the city, but their actual accommodation status in the city is often precarious. IDPs frequently have low tenure security in Goma. Low rates of property ownership, lack of  written lease agreements and an often indeterminate contract duration means that the tenure arrangements of IDPs are highly insecure, leaving IDPs at risk of forced  eviction, harassment and other threats.”

A further dilemma derives from the fact that some of the people who feel obliged to move from rural to urban areas, especially those from minority groups and those associated with particular political factions, may not wish to be identified as ‘urban IDPs’. In Colombia, for example, such people are often stigmatized, and so they prefer to remain anonymous rather than being labeled as a displaced person.

Given these complexities, how can humanitarian organizations address the phenomenon of urban displacement?

First, emergency assistance must be available to the most vulnerable IDPs, host families and other urban residents. And as a matter of principle, the concern that such assistance might act as a ‘pull factor’ for additional IDPs and rural-to-urban migrants should not be an obstacle to action. It is clearly unconscionable for babies and toddlers to be dying because their parents cannot afford to buy fuel wood or erect weatherproof shelters.

Second, community-based development assistance is required, so as to ensure that all urban residents, irrespective of whether they have been displaced or not, are able to benefit from adequate services, infrastructure and livelihoods opportunities, especially those living in slums, shanty towns and informal settlements.

Third, targeted interventions are required to address the specific protection risks encountered by urban IDPs, such as those that have arisen in the case of Goma.

And finally, there must be full respect for the wishes of those people who have moved to cities and towns in order to escape from armed conflict and other forms of violence, but who prefer not to be categorized as an IDP.


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.


Home Alone?

Written by June 23, 2014 1 Comment

“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.