UNHCR Chief: We Must Fix Broken System, Not Export or Deny Crisis

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, speaks to Refugees Deeply about funding, politics and making sure refugees aren’t returned against their will.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on August 25, 2017 in Mexico City. Carlos Tischler/NurPhoto via Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland – The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, has nine months to bring a Global Compact on Refugees into the world.

In 2016, world leaders committed to developing two compacts, on refugees and migration, by the U.N. summit this September. UNHCR has been drafting the Refugee Compact ahead of consultations beginning next month.

The compact is meant to better share international responsibility for the world’s refugee population – now disproportionately shouldered by countries in the global South – and establish a model for more effective refugee response, emphasizing refugees’ ability to work, study and access national services, over camps and aid dependency.

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we spoke with Grandi about the aspirations of the compact and the challenges ahead for UNHCR.

Refugees Deeply: There is a very different political climate for refugees today than just a few years ago. The number of global resettlement places is contracting, not expanding. What is your strategy for turning the tide?

Filippo Grandi: There are several strategies. One is that we need to continue to leverage forces in public opinion and society that are positive towards refugees, immigrants and foreigners, and that are ready to support solidarity efforts, either personally or government efforts. We need to make them heard, convince them to be more vocal and to influence policies, just as the negative forces are doing (more effectively) at the moment. That is not just our strategy. In the U.N. and beyond, we really need to move in that direction.

We also need to look at different models and approaches to the refugee question, based on a comprehensive view of refugee crises, starting from the countries of origin, to the countries hosting large numbers of refugees, like Kenya, Pakistan and Ethiopia. We must ensure that those countries are adequately supported. This is where the problem is most acute; not so much in the rich countries. We need to make sure that public opinion and governments don’t turn around in those host countries – which are more fragile – and draw lessons [as they] watch the rich world restrict legislation and adopt more rejectionist approaches. We need to make sure that those countries stay the course – they really are the linchpin.

Third, we need to work more with Europe, and other countries that receive refugees, to make reception systems more effective for larger numbers than before. This was the big failure in 2015 and 2016. The system [in Europe] was designed for much smaller flows and cracked under the pressure. One of the main perceptions was that states were not able to handle these flows, and this caused a lot of negativity. If you’re not able [to handle the numbers], push refugees back, close borders, build a wall. Wealthy states, especially European states, can handle these flows, but of course it requires an effort. In the case of Europe, it also requires regional cooperation, something that is politically difficult.

Refugees Deeply: Where do you think the European reception system, or integration process, might be broken?

Grandi: In two places at least. One is that the European reception system is really not designed for large numbers. The processes of recognition, status determination and attribution of refugee status are very thorough, but costly and slow. This system has never really had an effective way to manage those who are rejected as asylum seekers, negotiate with their countries for them to go back, and so forth. So the whole reception system needs review and strengthening. We’re working with European institutions to do that, but it is a difficult discussion because of the politicization of refugees.

On the integration of refugees, I think Europe has a lot to learn from other countries like Canada that do it in a more expeditious way. If it takes five or 10 years or even more for a recognized refugee to integrate fully, to legally become a citizen, of course integration will be slower. There are parameters that need to be reviewed. Some leaders in Europe are stepping up to this. The situation is still complicated in France, but I think [French president] Emmanuel Macron is saying the right things in all these areas. Many of the European Commission leaders in Brussels are also working in the same direction. [German chancellor] Angela Merkel, while she’s now in a political pause, was very vocal on this in the previous government.

I think that there is a realization that this crisis both cannot continue and that it cannot be simply resolved by exporting the problem, pushing back or pretending that it doesn’t exist. The problem will continue to exist and be complex, and it needs solutions. I’m conscious of the difficulties, but I think there are ways forward.

Refugees Deeply: UNHCR’s main donors, the U.S. and the E.U., are pursuing controversial refugee policies. Can UNHCR effectively defend refugee rights without diversifying funding, or is that a constraint?

Grandi: These are complicated issues, when donor countries are also receiving countries. But we can diversify. We can discuss robustly with countries that are big donors about their refugee policies. I must say that, in general, countries do not “retaliate” with funding. There’s a certain maturity in European governments that are traditional donors.

What is really important in terms of how we discuss protection, asylum and resettlement issues is to remain engaged. Sometimes we give priority to negotiation in dialogue as opposed to public attack. We are not there to proclaim to the world how things are, we are there to try and obtain the best possible deal for the refugees. Of course, sometimes you have to speak out – advocacy is also important – but you have to calibrate it. This is how we are working. We are engaging with the Trump administration, we’re engaging with European governments, we’re engaging with Australian government, although it’s been quite complex with [refugees held offshore on Manus and Nauru islands]. We’re engaging, and they have all, so far, remained strong donors.

Refugees Deeply: What have been some of the benefits and challenges of working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) since they joined the U.N. fold in 2016?

Grandi: I think that the IOM is a very valuable organization. Traditionally, they have been involved in some aspects of refugee work – for example, transporting resettled refugees to their countries of resettlement and other mobility aspects – and that continues.

I think that, especially as the discussion on the two Global Compacts progresses, and with the IOM now having special status in the U.N., it is very important that IOM and UNHCR continuously clarify their respective roles, in order not to create any confusion in the situation in which migrants and refugees travel together, and generate flows that are difficult to manage. We have this discussion already with IOM. Perhaps the compact discussion, before or after the Global Compacts are finalized, is an opportunity for defining better these two roles, in this new world.

Altogether, there’s a lot of work to do. Migration needs a lot of attention. IOM is a migration agency, so there is plenty of work for everybody.

Refugees Deeply: What has UNHCR learned through historic experiences with Rohingya in Bangladesh about the best strategy to uphold the right to voluntary, safe return?

Grandi: In the 1990s, Bangladesh and Myanmar went about a repatriation operation, initially without involving UNHCR. Very soon they came back to UNHCR because they realized that it was important, in terms of support and expertise.

We believe that in terms of guaranteeing the legitimacy of this process, making sure that people go back voluntarily, it is crucial that UNHCR is involved. I have written to both leaders, to Sheikh Hasina and Aung San Suu Kyi, pointing out that this is important. Bangladesh’s response has been positive. From Myanmar, we still have a wait-and-see position: Yes, we’re considering, but not right now. The discussion, therefore, is still bilateral. I regret that, because I hope that we can be involved as soon as possible.

We cannot risk any involuntary return. Not after what we have seen this summer in Rakhine [state, Myanmar]. It would be dangerous for people to be repatriated against their will. It’s important to have an organization like UNHCR present at the point of return to monitor repatriations, another important request we have made, but so far without a response.

Refugees Deeply: Is there anything about the repatriation of Afghan refugees that concerns you?

Grandi: We’ve gone through phases there. Pakistan has carried out robust repatriation, especially in 2016 – not so much 2017 – but we have also seen very open legislation being approved in terms of registering the unregistered Afghans, and shifting to a visa regime for some of them. In my opinion, very forward-looking policies have been approved. Depending on the political situation in the region between the two countries, this issue resurfaces periodically.

We are presently talking to Pakistan with respect to the upcoming repatriation season, which starts in a couple of months, to ensure that voluntariness is respected. Some people want to go back. The numbers may not be as big as Pakistan would like. We ask Pakistan to continue to be patient, but we also ask the international community to invest more in Afghanistan, because those that go back need much more support than they presently get.

Refugees Deeply: What do you see as the main obstacles to reaching a Global Compact on Refugees that tangibly improves international responsibility-sharing for refugees?

Grandi: I am really optimistic that we’re making good progress. Very soon we will start the formal consultation process with member states and observer organizations. Everybody will play an important role. Even here in Davos, you hear a lot of interest from business leaders in participating in this effort. That there is an appetite for a broader model of response, and there I draw some encouragement.

We are testing out this model [the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework] in a dozen countries. I am worried that insufficient resources invested in these roll-out countries may send the wrong message to the host countries. They may become less encouraged to embrace this Global Compact. However, so far, the signals, with a few exceptions, are generally good.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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