As the World Abandons Refugees, UNHCR’s Constraints Are Exposed

The U.N. refugee agency lacks the funding, political clout and independence to protect refugees in the way that it is supposed to, says former UNHCR official and refugee policy expert Jeff Crisp.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Monsoon rains hit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in August 2018.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Over the past three years, the world has been confronted with a number of major new refugee emergencies – in Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Venezuela, as well as the Central American region. In addition, existing crises in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Syria have gone unresolved, making it impossible for large exiled populations to return to their own country. As a result, the global refugee population has soared to more than 25 million, the highest figure ever recorded.

This means that the role of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which is supposed to protect and find solutions for this growing population, is more important than ever. But is it up to the task? The proliferating crises have stretched it to the limit. Funding, most of which comes from a dozen key donor states, has not kept up with the rising numbers the agency is expected to support. In April, UNHCR said it had received just $2.3 billion of the $8.2 billion it needed for its annual program.

Things look unlikely to improve. UNHCR is losing the support of the United States, traditionally the organization’s most important government partner, whether under Republican or Democrat administrations. Since Donald Trump’s election, the country has slashed the number of refugees it admits through its resettlement program. In his final years in office, Barack Obama had raised the annual quota to 110,000 refugees. That is now down to 45,000 and may yet be reduced to 25,000.

There is also the prospect that the Trump administration will demonstrate its disdain for the U.N. and limited interest in the refugee issue by reducing its funding to the agency, as it has already done with UNRWA, a separate agency that supports Palestinian refugees. Given that the U.S. currently contributes almost 40 percent of the UNHCR budget, even a modest reduction in its support will mean serious cuts in expenditure.

The agency therefore has little choice but to look for alternative sources of funding and diplomatic support, especially from the European Union and its member states. But that may come at a price. One of the E.U.’s top priorities is to halt the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers who have transited through nearby countries such as Libya, Morocco and Turkey. Populist political parties throughout much of the E.U. are reaping the electoral benefits of taking a hard line on the issue of refugees and migration. Several European governments have shown little hesitation in violating the international refugee laws they have signed in their desperation to seal Europe’s borders.

The agency therefore has little choice but to look for alternative sources of funding and diplomatic support.

The E.U. thus looks to UNHCR for two things: first, the expertise and operational capacity of an organization that has years of experience in responding to mass movements of people; and second, the legitimacy that E.U. policies can acquire by means of close association with an agency deemed by its founding statute to be “entirely non-political and humanitarian.” In this context, it should come as no surprise that E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been at pains to point out that the E.U. and UNHCR “work together” and have a “close partnership” – and that the E.U. remains “the strongest supporter of UNHCR.

But this partnership (which involved $436 million in funding from Brussels alone in 2017) also involves an important element of compromise on the part of UNHCR. In the Mediterranean, for example, the E.U. is funding the Libyan coast guard to intercept and return any refugees who try to leave the country by boat. Those people are subsequently confined to detention centers where, according to Amnesty International, they are at risk of torture, forced labor, extortion and murder at the hand of smugglers, bandits or the Libyan authorities.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has publicly chastised the E.U. for its failure to improve the situation of migrants in Libya. By contrast, UNHCR has kept very quiet about the E.U.’s role in the process of interception, return and detention, despite the fact that these actions violate a fundamental principle of refugee protection: that no one should be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.

This reveals a fundamental tension in the organization’s character. Ostensibly, UNHCR enjoys a high degree of independence and moral authority. As part of the U.N. system, it is treated with more respect by states and other actors than NGOs doing similar work. It has regular access to heads of state, government leaders, regional organizations, the U.N. security council and the secretary-general himself (who was previously UNHCR chief).

But in practice, the autonomy enjoyed by UNHCR is at best a relative one. Almost 90 percent of the agency’s funding is provided by states, much of it earmarked for specific programs, projects and countries. UNHCR’s governing board consists entirely of states.

The organization can operate in a country only if it has the agreement of the government, which also has the ability to shape the scope of UNHCR’s operational activities, as well as the partners it works with. In countries such as Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria, for example, the organization is obliged to work with government departments whose priorities may well be different from those of UNHCR.

Almost 90 percent of the agency’s funding is provided by states, much of it earmarked for specific programs, projects and countries. UNHCR’s governing board consists entirely of states.

The tensions at the heart of UNHCR seem unlikely to diminish. Throughout the world, governments are closing their borders to refugees and depriving them of basic rights. Exiled populations are being induced to repatriate against their will and to countries that are not safe. As epitomized by the E.U.’s deal with Turkey, asylum seekers have become bargaining chips in interstate relations, used by political leaders to extract financial, political and even military concessions from each other.

Given the constitutional constraints imposed on the organization, UNHCR’s options are now limited. It can try (as it has done for many years) to diversify its funding base. It could assume a more assertive stance with states that violate refugee protection principles – and in doing so risk the loss of its already diminished degree of diplomatic support. And it can hope that the recently completed Global Compact on Refugees, a nonbinding declaration of principles that most U.N. member states are expected to sign, will have some effect on the way that governments actually treat refugees.

A final option available to UNHCR is to be more transparent about its limitations, to moderate the relentless self-promotion of its branding and marketing campaign and give greater recognition to the efforts that refugees are making to improve their own lives. In that respect, UNHCR’s favourite hashtag, “We Stand #WithRefugees,” could usefully be changed to “Refugees Are #StandingUpForThemselves.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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