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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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




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What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Reaches Europe

Written by June 13, 2014 0 Comments

The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria has led to an inundation of refugees in Syria’s neighboring and not-so-neighboring countries. Bulgaria, for instance, has processed over 9,000 asylum applications since January 1, 2013. The country with the lowest GDP in the European Union (EU), Bulgaria has nevertheless emerged as a leading destination for Syrian refugees in Europe: among European countries, its Syrian refugee population is exceeded only by Sweden, Germany, and Italy.

Bulgaria faces significant social and economic challenges. Its National Electric Company and its National Health Insurance Fund are on the brink of bankruptcy, and violent xenophobic protests have occurred in recent years.

By all accounts, the conditions of refugees in Bulgaria–from Syria and elsewhere–are punishing, if not dire. In one camp, Haaretz reports, there are no beds, only thick wooden boards scattered across the floors, and the indoor temperatures routinely dropped below zero. “Whatever the horrors of war they left behind,” a PBS correspondent remarked grimly last December, “nothing prepared these Syrians for a European welcome as warm as this.”

In January, UNHCR recommended the halting of transfer of refugees to Bulgaria under the Dublin II Regulation, an EU law that assigns asylum applications to EU member states on the basis of family ties and other criteria. UNHCR’s assessment at the time concluded that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria routinely faced arbitrary detention, lacked access to basic services (such as food and healthcare), and were denied fair and consistent asylum procedures.

Three months later, after undertaking a reevaluation of the country’s asylum situation, UNHCR amended its position, citing “numerous improvements that have been made to reception conditions and the asylum procedure in Bulgaria since the beginning of the year.” Although “there may be reasons precluding transfers under Dublin for certain groups or individuals”–such as asylum-seeking children or refugees in need of health care–these remaining deficiencies, the UNHCR report concluded, no longer justified a general suspension of Dublin transfers to Bulgaria.

UNHCR’s updated report on the situation of refugees in Bulgaria did not consider at length “push-backs” or the practice of preventing asylum-seekers from entering a receiving country in contravention of international law. (Some non-entrée measures, such as the collective rejection of a group of people without consideration of each person’s individual circumstances, are explicitly prohibited under EU law.)

Accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border have been rife and widespread. “Violence against refugees involving beatings, humiliation, and disregard of human dignity continuously takes place at the border, in detention camps, and on the streets throughout [Bulgaria],” Border Monitoring Bulgaria (BMB) reported back in April.

Later that month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report on the conditions of Bulgaria’s borders and migrant detention centers. The report, “Containment Plan: Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants,” catalogued summary expulsions and rejections of asylum-seekers, physical abuse by Bulgarian police (including beatings and the use of electric shocks), and the confiscation of personal possessions by border guards, culminating in the unflinching conclusion: “At almost every stage of their efforts to seek refuge in Bulgaria, [asylum-seekers] have faced physical and bureaucratic barriers, violent abuse, and hardship.”


The accounts of push-backs at the Bulgarian border should not be viewed in isolation: reports of illegal non-entrée measures have been documented across southern and eastern Europe, from Spain and Italy to Greece and Ukraine. This past April, Amnesty International published “Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear: Migrants and Refugees Pushed Back at Europe’s Border,” a report highlighting the expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving either in the Aegean Sea or at the land border between Greece and Turkey.

After interviewing 67 asylum-seekers (mostly Syrian refugees), the report found that more than half had experienced illegal push-backs at least once, with some incidents betraying “a complete disregard for the safety of migrants and refugees” on the part of government officials–including the abandonment of asylum-seekers at sea “in unseaworthy vessels.”

Citing the widespread mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers by Bulgarian and Greek officials, both HRW and Amnesty International recommended that the EU halt the transfer of asylum-seekers to both Bulgaria and Greece under the Dublin II Regulation.

The accounts of non-entrée measures by officials in Greece, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, as well as other abuses against asylum-seekers documented by news and human rights organizations, merit a solemn and diligent response from the national governments of both Greece and Bulgaria, including the tightening of oversight of state actions taken at national borders.

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“Bottom-Up Innovation” by Refugees

Written by May 29, 2014 0 Comments

There has been an “innovation turn” in the humanitarian world. A number of United Nations organizations, including UNHCR, have been pioneering the drawing upon of ideas and language more commonly used by the private sector in order to rethink humanitarian response. This work has offered an opportunity to transform old ways of working. Across the humanitarian system the dominant part of that debate has focused on improving organizational response. What has been neglected is a recognition that “affected communities,” including displaced populations themselves, engage in innovation on a daily basis, adapting to new markets, social networks, and regulatory environments as a matter of necessity.

At the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, we set up the Humanitarian Innovation Project in 2012 to inform this debate, focusing our research on innovation by affected communities, and in particular by refugees and displaced populations. We have been privileged to work in partnership with UNHCR on much of this work. Drawing upon ideas from human-centered design, indigenous innovation, and participatory methodology, we have tried to shift the lens from “top-down” towards “bottom-up” innovation, premised upon the recognition that refugees themselves have skills, talents, and aspirations, are frequently entrepreneurial, and often use and adapt technology.

We have begun with an initial focus on refugees’ livelihoods-innovation in Uganda, carrying out mixed methods, participatory research across three sites: the capital, Kampala, and two settlements, Nakivale and Kyangwali. Our decision to focus on Uganda has not been accidental: it is a country which, unlike many, allows refugees the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. It allows exploration of the boundaries of the possible when refugees are given basic entitlements and opportunities. A team of over forty refugee researchers and enumerators, led by Ugandan research coordinators, carried out qualitative research and a survey of over 1500 refugees, based on two core questions: 1) how do refugees engage with the private sector, and 2) how do they use technology?

The results have been fascinating, and our preliminary findings will be published next month in a report called Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions. The report organizes the data around five core “myths”: 1) that refugees are economically isolated; 2) that their livelihoods activities are homogenous; 3) that refugees are a burden on host states; 4) that they are technologically illiterate; 5) that they are dependent on international assistance. In each case, our data challenges or fundamentally nuances these ideas. It shows vibrant and complex economic systems that thrive despite the constraints placed upon them. Whether in the formal or informal economies, displaced populations adapt their own self-protection and self-help strategies, which include a range of highly innovative responses.

The economic systems we have encountered in Uganda are nested in much broader structures, with connections across communities, with the national host economy, and transnationally. Far from being isolated, we discovered, for instance, that the Congolese bitenge trade connects the refugee settlements to urban centers as well as factories as far afield as China and India. Refugees make a great contribution to the host state economy through their role as consumers, producers, employers, and employees. To take the example of employment: of urban refugees that employ others, 40% employ Ugandans, while 43% of urban refugees who are employed work for nationals of the host state.

In terms of technology, mobile phone and internet use is greater than in the general population, with 96% of refugees in urban areas and 71% in rural settlements having mobile phones, and 51% and 11%, respectively, having access to the internet, often using these technologies for income-generating activities. Many refugees adapt their own appropriate technologies – from Congolese wooden bicycles to sustainable rain-water cooling systems for maize-milling, to video games parlors based entirely on reassembled second-hand equipment – leading to a vast array of livelihoods-innovations. Far from being uniquely dependent on humanitarian assistance, only 1% lack any independent income-generating source, and in urban areas 78% receive no international assistance at all. In prioritizing needs, many want educational opportunities and business support rather than just financial assistance.

Through these findings and others, we have recognized that refugees have incredible capacities for innovation. Better understanding the economic systems of displaced populations offers a great opportunity to rethink the very basis of how we do assistance. It enables us to think about market-based interventions that build on what already exists, to remove market distortions, and to improve the ability of displaced populations to more effectively engage with markets. Unlocking this potential stands to benefits the displaced, hosts, and donors. With the right kind of facilitation, it may transform humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities.

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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—help.unhcr.org—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.

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Why the Resistance to Refugee Law?

Written by May 23, 2014 0 Comments

Why do so many states resist compliance with the Refugee Convention?  Indeed, why is it that some NGOs working with refugees in the field — and yes, even the UNHCR itself — often act in ways that are out of sync with the requirements of international refugee law?

One view is that refugee law is anachronistic—that the Refugee Convention no longer effects a sensible compromise between the needs of involuntary expatriates and those of the asylum states to which they flee.  Critics of the Refugee Convention argue for a shift to a regime that limits relief to those genuinely in need of protection; that ensures that the legitimate safety and security needs of host communities are front and center; that balances entitlements with responsibilities; and perhaps most importantly, that does not amount to a blank check, potentially impoverishing normally already struggling host countries (more than 80% of the world’s refugees are in the global South).

The irony is that such concerns are at the core of the Refugee Convention itself.  The definition of a refugee is flexible, but appropriately demanding:  the Convention’s definition enfranchises only those whose home country has failed to ensure their most basic interests and who are now within the protective competence of the international community.  It requires all states to deny refugee status to even at-risk persons who are fugitives from justice, who have committed serious international crimes, or who have committed acts contrary to the principles and purposes of the UN.  Indeed, it goes further, authorizing the removal of even genuine refugees shown to pose a serious threat to safety or security.  Refugees do receive rights, but only incrementally:  no more than truly basic rights – such as protection against refoulement, and access to the courts accrue immediately, with more sophisticated rights withheld until greater attachment to the host state occurs (and even then, normally only to the extent that the host country can provide comparable entitlements to its own people).  Refugees are also subject to the usual laws of the receiving state, and can be prosecuted and punished when they breach them.  As the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom recently affirmed,

[T]he Refugee Convention . . . represented a compromise between competing interests.  On the one hand there was the need to ensure humane treatment of the victims of oppression.  On the other there was the wish of sovereign states to maintain control over those seeking entry to their territory . . . .[1]

Most importantly, the premise of the Refugee Convention is not charity, much less a blank check that leads to dependency.  Contrary to the present dominance of mandatory encampment and handouts, the Refugee Convention is firmly committed to promoting refugee self-reliance, as is clear from not only from its internal structure,[2] but from the record of its drafting:

This phase . . . will be characterized by the fact that the refugees will lead an independent life in the countries which have given them shelter.  With the exception of the ‘hard core’ cases, the refugees will no longer be maintained by an international organization as they are at present.  They will be integrated in the economic system of the countries of asylum and will themselves provide for their own needs and for those of their families.[3]

Nor is there any impediment whatever to grafting a meaningful system of international burden and responsibility sharing onto the present Convention.  To the contrary, the treaty’s Preamble calls for just such a mechanism.[4]

Why, then, the resistance to honoring, and building on, refugee law commitments?  Why in particular is it that refugees are so often seen as threats, or at least as drains on resources?  Why is it that the agencies charged with protecting refugees so frequently act in ways that sap them of the ability to meet their own needs, and to be contributors to the states that host them?

To explore these questions, Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies convened a group of academics and doctoral students from across the University—including, for example, medicine, economics, architecture, law, and the social sciences, as well as the senior leadership of the non-governmental group, Asylum Access—to meet and engage with leading interlocutors from the world of refugee protection.  The Observations of the Stanford Working Group on Responding to Refugees, which I co-chaired with Dr. Roland Hsu and which are reproduced below, suggest that it may indeed be time to reorient our approach to protecting refugees—in no small measure by rediscovering the Refugee Convention’s commitments to refugee empowerment and self-reliance. (more…)

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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.

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Trip to Bangkok and Northern Thailand

In early November 2013, I traveled to Northern Thailand and Bangkok with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the current United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. The primary purpose of the trip was to visit the UNHCR staff serving thousands of refugees in Northern Thailand. The trip also coincided with a meeting in Bangkok of the agency’s “innovation fellows” — individuals selected from among thousands of UNHCR employees around the world and committed to finding better ways to carry out the UN refugee agency’s mission of offering legal protection, emergency relief, and long-term solutions to help the millions of displaced people around the world.



For years, I’ve been drawn to the problems faced by those displaced from their homes by persecution and violence. Not only are the lives of many of these individuals extraordinary, but their stories also showcase unresolved problems of transnational governance that are shaping our world. I’ve worked on refugee and migration issues as a lawyer, a government official, and a scholar at Stanford University, where I lead the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. In the last year, the Institute has worked in partnership with UNHCR to support innovation in the design of refugee communities, in the use of technology, and data analysis. Our initial efforts have brought together leading architects and UN planning experts, and helped connect Stanford students skilled in technology and design within UNHCR. This trip was a chance to learn more about the challenges UNHCR faces, and to plan further steps in our collaboration.


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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

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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.

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