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.

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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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