How the Work of the UNHCR Can Better Reach Those in Need

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Imagine being forced to flee your home. Leaving your friends, family, and belongings behind. Traveling through any means possible to try get somewhere safe, even if it means putting yourself in danger in the meantime. Many refugees go through all this and more to end up in camps that can not provide much more security than where they were, or they find themselves in a country that treats them as less than human. A refugee is still guaranteed rights even if they can not count on the protection of those rights from their own government. The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was put into place to spell out the specific rights that refugees are entitled to. This UN Convention was rooted in the idea that humans are entitled certain fundamental human rights regardless of their association(or lack thereof) to a particular state. Some of these rights include property rights, freedom of internal movement, expedition of naturalization, and religious freedom. Despite these efforts, many refugees still face a tremendous amount of challenges. While the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was created to help mitigate some of these challenges, they lack the ability to enforce many of the policies that could be effective in protecting refugees. The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol does not extend these rights to internally displaced persons, or IDPs, despite facing many of these same challenges. Other UN organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund and independent organizations such as Refugees International work to help mitigate some of the challenges that refugees and IDPs face, but are unable to enforce refugee rights nor are they able to hold states accountable for violations of international refugee law. Due to this problem of lack of both enforcement and accountability, I will argue that that the UNHCR can best help protect the rights of refugees by supporting local efforts in order to empower communities directly impacted by the refugee crises, extending their protection programs to include internally displaced persons, and providing resources to ease the burden on wealthy countries taking in refugees.

The UNHCR has worked with Yemen in a variety of  ways. Yemen has been in a state of crisis for several years due to a rebel takeover of the capital and is therefore directly impacted by both refugees coming into the country, particularly from Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as those fleeing the country. Prior to the Houthi takeover,  the UNHCR worked closely with the Yemeni government in managing the influx of refugees. They took over the majority of the screening and relocation of refugees to assure that they were able to access the resources they needed and go through the proper channels. Even after the fall of the government, the UNHCR continues to work with local community groups to provide essential services such as food, shelter, clean water, and educational services. They aided in the establishment of several daycare centers to help address Yemen’s influx of unaccompanied children as well as provide a safe place for mothers to drop off their children while they were at work. Nicholas Martin-Archard discusses the important role of community centers in aiding refugees in Yemen. In this case the UNHCR worked with both the Yemeni government and local to establish and support local community centers until the centers are able to run on their own. The UNHCR took on the project of managing these community centers with the permission of and consultation with the local communities that they would be in Martin-Archard states that although the UNHCR prefers to have local organizations of community members run the centers from the start, in some cases, such as in Yemen, this is not always possible. Over time, the AL Gaith Association was able to take over management of the centers from the UNHCR and now design and implement their own plans and strategies in order to support refugees. Even after leaving, the UNHCR continues to provide financial support and supplies. Martin-Archard also emphasizes the importance of understanding the community. International organizations can provide supplies and funding, but in order for their efforts to be effective and sustainable over time, they must know and understand the cultural norms and traditions of the communities they seek to serve. For this reason, supporting local organizations will have a more longstanding impact than international organizations simply going into a country and setting up a program.

The UNHCR also works extensively in Turkey. They have worked with Turkish authorities since the 1960’s to aid in carrying out the procedures of processing refugees and allowing them to gain refugee status in Turkey. Originally, Turkey’s domestic policies only allowed refugees fleeing from other European countries to attain refugee status and does not allow refugees to resettle in Turkey permanently. By allowing the UNHCR to take over the procedures involving non-European refugees, they have been able to expand their scope to allow  individuals from non-European states to have refugee status in Turkey as well as help them ultimately resettle in other countries. (Scheel and Ratfisch, 2014). While this has been useful in providing great access and protections to refugees in a sense, Scheel and Ratfisch go on to discuss some of the unintended consequences of these types of policies. Primarily they discuss how this system creates a set of “villains” and “victims”. They state that “ Using the example of
Turkey, critical scholars have argued that the logic of this discourse implicates a split up
of the social field of migration into ‘refugees’, who are constructed as being in need
of protection and whose cross-border movements are recognised as legitimate, and
‘illegal’ migrants, whose movements’ legitimacy is denied” (Scheel and Ratfisch, 2014). This critique highlights an important factor in humanitarian work to protect refugee rights. The bureaucratic structure of the UN and subsequently the UNHCR, is, in some ways, preventing the UNHCR from protecting refugee rights and even causing more harm to individuals who are equally vulnerable but may not fit the exact specifications the be considered a refugee.

One of these groups are internally displaced persons or IDPs. An internally displaced person is a person who has been forced to flee their home, but has not crossed an international border, which is a requirement to attaining refugee status. Despite not having crossed a border, IDPs face a lot of the same struggles as refugees, particularly in conflict zones. While the UNHCR has done some work to provide services to IDPs, they are not sufficient to help IDPs reestablish their lives. Many IDPs end up in refugee camps and eventually do end up crossing an international border. Due to the fact that so many refugees begin as IDPs, the UNHCR has an opportunity to do preventative work to provide services and protect IDPs. This is not possible in all areas, particularly in areas that are in such a state of instability that the only option for many IDPs is to eventually flee to another country. Despite this, the UNHCR can still make an impact on the number of refugees by supporting IDPs before they are forced to flee the country. This will require a different approach to aid than what is used in refugee protection. In UNHCR’s role in IDP protection: opportunities and challenges, Erika Feller states that while refugees and IDPs face many of the same challenges, there are some differences as well. She states that “IDPs are frequently to be found in close proximity to areas of armed conflict and ongoing violence. Combatants and political actors are often hostile to the presence of humanitarian personnel. IDPs themselves may be widely dispersed or in hiding, and may be reluctant to identify themselves because of a fear that they will be the target of further human rights violations”. Because of this, efforts to protect IDPs must focus on providing a safe environment where IDPs can access services without feeling that they are putting themselves more at risk.

Despite the connection between refugees and IDPs, there is doubt among the international community that the UNHCR even has the authority to extend their protection mandate to IDPs. In UNHCR’s Involvement with IDPs – ‘Protection of that Country’ for the Purposes of Precluding Refugee Status? Bríd Ní Ghráinne breaks down the mandate to protect versus state sovereignty. The article explores the idea that since IDPs prelude refugee status that through the UNHCR’s protection of refugees, it may extend that to include IDPs. However, he goes on to state that since IDPs do not actually leave the country they are in, regardless of the conditions they are in, they are ultimately still under the control of the state and that due to state sovereignty, the “UNHCR therefore cannot in law be considered an actor of protection for the purposes of precluding the application of the refugee definition”( Ghráinne, 2014). This is where the UNHCR’s community based approaches can become even more effective and beneficial. Community centers, in particular, can become a place where refugees as well as IDPs can access resources and services. Because these centers are established to play a particular role in a community, those who access it can feel more integrated in the community. In addition, the community programs can take into account the specific challenges that are faced in that area and work to combat it on a smaller scale basis. These smaller scale projects can have a significant impact on the community and can work to combat some of the issued caused by the bureaucratic structure of the UNHCR as well as the problems associated with their donor structure. This also holds the UNHCR more accountable because they are beholden to the specific community they are working in and their needs.

While this method may lead to more success in protecting the rights of refugees, international organizations, in most cases can only work within a country if the government allows them to.This makes it difficult to support and protect refugees who are in countries that may not support the idea of international organizations coming in, as well as protecting refugees in countries where the host government themselves are committing some kind of human rights offenses. Despite this, Niahm Kinchin, In The Implied Human Rights Obligations of the UNHCR,  points out that although states still hold primary responsibility in protecting the rights of refugees under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, if an individual qualifies as a refugee under the criteria outlined in the Convention, they are entitled to protection from the UNHCR regardless of the signing status of the country that they are in. While the UNHCR, as well as other international organizations, have made a generally positive impact on the ability of severely impacted countries to manage the protection of refugees, some also criticize the UNHCR for not completely filling their obligations as the main authoritative body on refugee rights. Ridvan Peshkopia states that “the UNHCR has demonstrated itself to be unfit for this role”. He proposes that they are unfit because they are not held accountable to the domestic actors of a country and that they do not need to be popularly elected, leaving little room for criticism of their policies and humanitarian standards. He also argues that while they are not beholden to domestic actors, they are still under the influence of their top contributors, with their main source of funding coming from the United States. While the United States signed the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, it was never ratified by Congress, they did not ratify the UNHCR’s guiding document. This can create a conflict of interests in the bureaucracy of the UNHCR’s big donor states, such as the United States, and the states that are in need of assistance due to differences in how each party thinks these policies should be implemented.

The state’s most heavily impacted by the influx of refugee tend to be those in areas of conflict where the receiving countries themselves may be in a state of instability as well. However wealthy countries that are more removed from the conflict are also confronted by the issue of how to manage an influx of refugees. States such as the United States and those that are members of the EU were strong proponents of the 1951 Convention and continue to be on the the UNHCR’s top contributors. Despite this, Gabriel Kholer states that both the EU and the United States are, in fact, in direct violation of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol by going against the non-refoulment policy as well as their refusal to ensure the refugees’ rights once they’ve entered the US and EU. This speaks to the UNHCR’s general inability to enforce its policies even among its biggest contributors. Kholer goes on to discuss three main factors that make the protection of refugee rights difficult in places such as the US and EU. The first factor is economics: who will financially support refugees? How will the country adjust their budget to accommodate refugees? These economic concerns play a large role in the EU and the US’s more restrictive refugee policies. The second factor is how the refugees will adjust socially. Many refugees come from a cultural background that is different than the “western” perspective most European countries and the United states have. Citizens of host countries value their own culture and may view refugees as a threat to their own culture. The last factor is political. Citizens of the host country may assume that refugees hold the same political values as the country they are fleeing and that this will somehow impact the political norms of the host country (Kholer 2016). While many of these issues could be remedied through better education about and exposure to people from a diverse background, these issues remain to play a significant part in the general attitudes of the host country towards receiving refugees and their treatment once they arrive.

International organizations can play a role in both educating and putting systems in place that can help ease some of the burdens that host countries face. One way to do this is by utilizing regional support networks in order to spread some of the burden more evenly. Volker Türk and Madeline Garlick in their article From Burdens and Responsibilities to Opportunities: The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and a Global Compact on Refugees discuss the idea of solidarity among states in the same region to help share the burdens and support each other country in protecting refugees. In North and South America, the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 called upon all of the signing states to work in solidarity with the other states and share the burden in taking in a protecting refugees from Latin America. Similarly, in the EU the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union called upon member states to work in solidarity and sincere cooperation with each other (Garlick, Türk 2016). While these frameworks on solidarity are a positive step towards regional cooperation among wealthier countries, they do not go far enough in outline supportive structures that can be used to better manage and support refugees.

The UNHCR is, in theory, the highest authority in protecting and enforcing the rights of refugees, in practice, they are unable to do so with complete authority due to the nature of the United Nations as well as the principle of state sovereignty. In addition to this, the UNHCR’s bureaucratic structure and somewhat exclusive definition of a refugee make it difficult to protect those who are most vulnerable. If the UNHCR can expand their community based approaches programs, then they will be able to provide valuable resources to not just refugees, but IDPs as well, all while strengthening the community. These programs are unique to the communities that they are serving and address the specific challenges faced by these communities. In addition to this, the UNHCR can make efforts to ease the burden of wealthier states that may support the idea of protecting refugees, but are overwhelmed by the process. While the founding principles of the UNHCR are a step in the right direction, there is still work to be done in actually protecting refugees and IDPs.

In the second Q&A I felt that Erica had really well thought out questions. I felt that I personally was somewhat unprepared to thoroughly answer her questions. I think at the time of the second Q&A I had thought a lot about all of the surface information that I had, but I hadn’t really thought through the deeper implications of all of the information. I hoped to answer some of the questions that she had asked in this final Kairoshort because they were so important to the overall issue of protecting refugee rights.

  1. Koehler, G. 2016. “The fundamental rights of refugees – Where have they gone?” Global Social Policy 16(3): 311–14.
  2. Melikian, Lia G. 2014. “NO COUNTRY FOR SOME MEN?: STATELESSNESS IN THE UNITED STATES AND LESSONS FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION.” Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 43(281).
  3. Kinchin, Niamh. 2016. “The Implied Human Rights Obligations of UNHCR.” International Journal of Refugee Law 28(2): 251–75.
  4. Peshkopia, Ridvan. 2005. “Asylum in the Balkans: European Union and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assistance to Balkan countries for establishing asylum systems.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 5(2): 213–41.
  5. Martin-Achard, Nicholas. 2016. “The role of community centres in offering protection: UNHCR and Al Ghaith Association in Yemen.” Forced Migration Review 53.
  6. Türk, Volker, and Madeline Garlick. 2016. “From Burdens and Responsibilities to Opportunities: The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and a Global Compact on Refugees.” International Journal of Refugee Law 28(4): 656–78.
  7. Feller, Erika. 2006. “UNHCR’s role in IDP protection: opportunities and challenges.” Forced Migration Review.
  8. Ghrainne, B. Ni. 2014. “UNHCR’s Involvement with IDPs – ‘Protection of that Country’ for the Purposes of Precluding Refugee Status?” International Journal of Refugee Law 26(4): 536–54.