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Briefing on UNHCR

Prior to the actual NMUN conference in New York, a tour was organised by our faculty advisors with the valuable help of collaborators in New York, in order to provide us with deeper insight on the UN. On the first day of this tour – held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center (New York Tolerance Center) - we had a presentation on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). University of Potsdam was present as well. The main body of the speech was delivered by Mr John Solecki, enhanced by a power point presentation. Mr Solecki is a senior UNHCR staff member, whose long field experience added a very welcome element of vividness to his analysis. The combined fields of expertise of the speaker provided the audience with a more wholesome experience.

At first a brief history of the organisation along with current actions and future prospects gave a comprehensive overview of its overall activity. Its three main courses of action in dealing with refugee situations were mentioned: Local integration, resettlement and voluntary repatriation. Particular emphasis was laid upon the voluntary character; the organisation strongly denounces refoulement – and subsequently urges all member states to avoid expulsion practices when the lives of refugees are under threat in their country of origin. The scope of UNHCR was further elaborated, specifically its assistance and protection to women, children and elderly refugees. Its work with internally displaced persons was also highlighted.

Another aspect of the organisational efforts underlined was the constant readiness to respond to emergencies and crises. Regarding personnel the organisation is able to mobilise 300 aid workers in no more than three days time. Regarding supplies it has warehouses stocked with essentials for the most urgent needs of a population under such strenuous circumstances including warehouses filled with rolls of plastic sheets used in particular to provide quick efficient shelter and protection. In addition to tending to the needs of the refugees directly it enhances the capacity of refugee states by training national authorities on refugee issues.

From a certain point on the presentation began to move to more specific issues both of practical as well as encyclopedic interest. The audience anticipation to delve deeper into such matter meant that questions began to be posed before the predestined time for them, channeling nevertheless a more vivid interactive tone to the procedure. Upon being asked on the educational background provided to him by the UNHCR in order to become an aid worker, Mr Solecki expressly stated that during the hostage situation that he had to endure while heading the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta (Pakistan), he felt that it was this training he owed his life to. He then presented briefly his background with the organisation. Among his many posts he had been occupied as a head official at a field office in Saudi Arabia and at a suboffice in Pakistan and developed multiform support activities in aid of the respective needs of the refugee populations he had to deal with, paying specific attention to gender and cultural needs and trying to create communication bridges between the refugees and the host nationals.

Further questions called for the expertise of Mrs Druke, professor of United Nations courses in Hannover, Boston and Harvard Universities, as well as a UNHCR employee herself. The issue of refugee camps and their effective administration was then brought under focus. The main problems that the UNHCR have to face are the suitability of the camp’s location and its access to all necessary means of proper running as well as its security from external and internal peril, all of which require the co-operation and willfulness of host state. Furthermore, other than the wellbeing of the camp, the overall stability of the area has to be taken into account. Thus the phenomena of degradation of the surroundings of the camp due to deteriorating hygiene conditions, lack of water supplies, insufficiency of waste disposal areas and most importantly deforestation are major causes of concern both to the inhabitants of the camp as well as the local governments.

By the end of the conversation the speakers were presented with some tasteful gifts by the head delegates of ours and obliged us by being kind enough to answer even more detailed questions that the audience had. It can safely be said that people walked out of the room that day having acquired the knowledge of not only how the UNHCR is theoretically structured but also of how its policies are implemented and their effects experienced by its own personnel.

Polyvios Pararas