How is the UNHCR involved in Africa and what challenges are faced?
The UNHCR deals with the consequences of violence and civil wars, not with the legal or political side of conflict resolution, but the consequences. The consequences are people who have been internally displaced due to conflicts and crimes against humanity.
From the UNHCR’s perspective the main challenge is the protracted refugee situations in various regions across Africa. This creates a situation where people unable to return home, and are forced to live in refugee camps for thirty, maybe even forty years. To cite more concrete examples, this is often the tragic reality for the 350,000 inhabitants of the biggest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab camp in Kenya. This pattern is repeated in Algeria, where refugees from Western Sahara are hosted.
There needs to be more effort into conflict resolution and peaceful initiatives, particularly across Western Sahara. Another challenge is posed by urban refugees – refugees who flee camps and live in big city slums. The UNHCR loses contact with these people, they disappear and it becomes impossible to keep track of them. It is important when you discuss refugees and immigration to remember firstly that 80% of refugees are in developing countries, and secondly that there is a confusion in the Western mind – Europe and USA – between refugees and migrants. Refugees are often seen only as voluntary migrants and not as being asylum seekers. Migrants are not forced to flee their homes, but come to Europe to look for a better economic future.
Although you mention that the UNHCR does not deal with the legal side of conflict resolution, it would be wrong to ignore the legal power the UNHCR wields worldwide. It is the sole international agency entrusted with monitoring state compliance with the 1951 Convention and the UNHCR Handbook is cited authoritatively the world over in asylum determination procedures.
Given this background, it is necessary to explore some of the dominant criticisms of this role. The Handbook has spoken with clarity on several human rights issues, but the silence on socio-economic claims is conspicuous in its absence. How would you respond to this, particularly since human rights standards are now widely used as a benchmark for persecution?
Of course we have a very legal role to play in refugee determination. One of the main tasks of the UNHCR across the world is to help assess whether a person is a real refugee and our priority is to give legal protection to someone who has fled their home country.
Unfortunately, poverty is no reason to seek political asylum. There is no international convention to allow someone to freely migrate somewhere else because he is poor and cannot support his family.
This is beyond dispute, not least because poverty is a relative term. However, socio-economic claims are just as important as civil and political wrongs and often persecution is pursued through economic means.
The simple retort would be that whenever persecution is proved then it is possible to claim for asylum and the concept of persecution has widened since the 1951 Convention. It would be necessary to negotiate an appendix to the Convention and we haven’t reached that stage of agreement where we should be discussing economic and social causes.
Change is possible but there is a problem generating consensus. It is a political problem, and I can see quite a lot of problems with governments recognising socio-economic claims because it might blur the boundary between voluntary migrants and forced asylum seekers.
Other issues have heightened priority, progress has been made in other areas; we are getting closer to agreeing that victims of natural disasters are going to get refugee protection – that’s the ‘breaking news’ when it comes to defining who is eligible for refugee status and UNHCR support. Before that we have widened the concept to include sexual minorities, and that only happened in the last 10 years. Until quite recently, IDPs were not covered by any convention or any mandate.
This links nicely to another important facet of forced migration - climate change. It is often seen as an ‘exacerbating factor’, one that will make the refugee problem a lot more urgent. Could you tell us more about these new developments?
In essence, there is an understanding amongst the UN agencies that they will share responsibility for supporting those affected. Prior to this agreement, there was an ad hoc situation every time an emergency arose but now tasks and roles have been clearly defined – one that will streamline response time.
This is an agreement within the UN, but has there been any progress or input from states?
No, there is no formal appendix to the Convention in that sense. It is just an operational agreement.
How then would this impact upon states? Could you oblige states to take these refugees in?
Usually it’s a question of people being internally displaced and this agreement is aimed at making the relief effort more efficient. If people have to cross an international border into another country due to a natural disaster or volcano for example, then the UNHCR is obliged to give them temporary protection. The UNHCR will assume responsibility for them if the country they are fleeing to cannot.
Moving to another UN operational agreement, the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs): IDPs are not a new phenomenon but their international recognition has been very recent and very sudden. What are the factors behind this?
It has been recognised that internal displacement has become such an urgent issue that it can’t be ignored. A refugee who has been forced to flee within their country is as much at risk than a person who has been forced to flee across the borders.
IDP flows are different all over the world - some are very obvious and large-scale but for example the desplazados in Colombia travel more stealthily to avoid recognition. How difficult is it to keep track of them and determine when these vulnerable groups are safe?
It’s very difficult, and it's an issue which affects not only just the UNHCR but the whole UN and international aid community. In Chad, where I have some experience, you have some 160,000 IDPs in the east and it will take years of patient conflict-resolution activities and supporting negotiations between the ethnic communities.
Where does the UNHCR’s main source of funding come from?
Mainly from the governments that form the Executive Council of the UNHCR. It is 67 UN member countries that contribute with a fixed sum of money every year. Among the biggest contributors are the US, Japan and the EU.
Several commentators have said that the recent concentration on IDPs is purely dictated by Western interests, to avoid these people claiming asylum and keep them within their own countries. How do you respond to such claims? Is it the best solution for the refugee, how has this come about?
We have a situation in Western Europe where public opinion is very much against immigration and this leads to various attitudes by the governments of these countries. This has an impact on policies, especially the aid they give to international agencies to the countries where the refugees are. You can of course suspect a political agenda behind that. By throwing money at refugee camps in Africa, you can keep refugees there and prevent them coming to Europe. That seems to be one agenda, but as a UNHCR official I can’t comment on political speculation.