Forced to flee one’s home and leaving everything behind without knowing whether one would ever return is the situation that millions of people around the world are facing today. In 1950, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established as a specialised agency of the General Assembly to address the urgent needs of refugees.
On the first day of our Study Tour, we had the chance to meet with Mr Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, the Senior Policy Advisor to the UNHCR. He informed us about the historical background of the organisation, the major ongoing humanitarian operations and the challenges the organisation is facing today.
Since the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the situation of refugees has dramatically changed. Back then, the number of refugees was 1 million people, mostly Europeans, as a consequence of World War II. Today, the number of people who have been forced to leave their homes has increased to 32 million people, most of them are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The mandate of the UNHCR, however, still is primarily concerned with people falling under the definition of refugees set out by the 1951 Convention: people who feel compelled to leave their homes because of a genuine fear of persecution due to ethnical, political or religious reasons. This definition draws a clear distinction between refugees and economic migrants. The second category that is covered by the organisation’s mandate is stateless persons, a group that is much less known and whose situation is much more complicated than refugees. Stateless persons live without any legal documents and nationality and are thus hardly to be identified, since the host country is often reluctant to release information. While refugees and stateless persons have been part of the UNHCR’s official mandate since the beginning of UNHCR operations in 1951, the organisation increasingly deals with IDPs. IDPs are people who had to leave their homes because of the same reasons as refugees, who stay, however, within the country. This phenomenon has become especially relevant due to the changing nature of conflicts since 1990, with internal conflicts becoming the major conflict structure and thus leading to a change in forced displacement.
Within this changing environment of conflicts, the UNHCR is committed to providing legal assistance and individual advice to refugees about states’ and refugees’ obligations under the 1951 Convention and monitoring state behaviour. As most refugees flee to poor neighbouring countries (most of them in Africa), the work of the UNHCR also includes providing material support and establishing refugee camps to assist the recipient countries in dealing with incoming refugees.
The UNHCR is committed to finding permanent solutions: many refugees enjoy their rights only on paper, however: many are not allowed to work, or even to leave the camp. To address this situation, the UNHCR encourages voluntary return as the most favourable option after war has ended or the ‘agent of persecution’ is gone. As an alternative, the UNHCR promotes the local integration of refugees in the host countries. This implies changing the status of a refugee to a resident or even a national citizen status. Another alternative constitutes the resettlement of refugees to a developed third country with better economic and security options.
32 millions of people that have fled their homes today – this makes the work of the UNHCR more necessary in even more places than ever before. Mr Vargas Llosa highlighted the devastating situation in Iraq with 2 million IDPs and 2 million refugees that have mostly fled to Syria and Jordan. The initial hope for a possible return in 2003 was quickly disappointed, only the past 6–8 months have shown some improvement in the situation.
Another enduring humanitarian refugee crisis is the situation in Darfur in Sudan, where the continuing conflict has caused 2 million IDPs to leave their homes and 200,000 refugees to flee to Chad, where they also have an impact on the internal conflict there. The logistic challenges of the country and the role of the Sudanese Government make the work of the UNHCR increasingly difficult and challenging: aid workers have to travel in helicopters to get around the country and the Sudanese President recently expelled 13 of the most important international NGOs in retaliation against the warrant of arrest issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March this year. Most of the time the UNHCR workers have to negotiate with the Sudanese Government to be able to deliver aid – they also tried to persuade the government to reverse its decision with the help of influential countries such as China – without success, however. A joint UN/Sudanese Government needs assessment showed that there is not enough capacity among the remaining NGOs. As a consequence, it is again the IDPs and refugees in the region who suffer.
A third country Mr Vargas Llosa mentioned is Colombia, a country that has often been overlooked despite an ongoing, low-intensity conflict between the state and leftwing guerrillas. Despite some improvements under the Uribe government, figures estimate that at least 3 million IDPs and 250,000 refugees have fled mostly to Ecuador and Venezuela, with some fleeing to Panama and Costa Rica.
How should the UNHCR protect the space for asylum in the context of a globalised and insecure world? Today, over 200 million people are not living in their own country, but only 1 in 10 falls into the category of a refugee. States receiving (illegal) economic migrants try to increase their border control mechanisms, which also has consequences for refugees. It is difficult to distinguish refugees from economic migrants and thus special attention is required. After September 11, governments have reacted by ensuring that people threatening their country’s security could not enter, with unintended consequences for refugees.
In ensuring refugee and IDP protection in the near future the most important challenge for the UN is, according to Mr Vargas Llosa, to restore the UN’s neutrality and its perception as an independent actor. The Organization’s credibility, currently questioned by some radical groups, is necessary to ensure the safety of UN staff on the ground. The bombings of the Baghdad headquarters in 2003 and the Algiers headquarters in 2007 as well as the kidnapping of a UNHCR worker in Pakistan show how the loss of credibility makes the UNHCR’s work on the ground more difficult. Some groups’ resentment of the political bodies of the UN, such as the Security Council, has long range consequences for the work of the humanitarian bodies and the security of UN staff on the ground. Only an organisation that is perceived as neutral and independent can successfully protect its personnel and the people it is intended to care for: refugees and IDPs.