Tag Archives: UNHCR

Somali Repatriation Pact: Insufficient Progress

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On 10 November 2013 the Kenyan and Somali governments signed a tripartite agreement with the UNHCR on the fate of Somali refugees following months of negotiations. The agreement is to allow for the ‘voluntary’ repatriation of more than half a million refugees from Kenya to Somalia over a three-year period. While this is a sign of positive collaboration between Kenya, Somalia, and the UNHCR, and emphasis placed on the ‘voluntary’ nature of repatriation is encouraging, the agreement insufficiently address the issue of protection for refugees.

The Somali government does not have the absorption capacity needed to receive and resettle significant numbers of refugees from Kenya safely and humanely. The institutions responsible for a task of this scale are either chronically weak or nonexistent. Many of the factors that led hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee Somalia remain. A high proportion of the refugees are from regions that remain under the control of Al-Shabaab. Recent security gains are fragile and punctured by repeated terrorist attacks.

Economic recovery is slow and barely reaching the most vulnerable communities in Somalia. The cost of living is soaring. Infrastructure is in shambles. Land disputes are common and often violent. The Somali government and private landlords are now forcefully evicting IDPs in Mogadishu, many of whom recently arrived and have nowhere else to go. The IDP population in and around the city continues to swell as the government and International NGOs renege on commitments to establish new, safe, and sanitary camps outside of the city. The conditions within Somalia are not adequate to commence large scale repatriation of refugees. Vulnerable refugees must be returned to secure settlements where they can reestablish their lives.

Kenya has legitimate security concerns, particularly following the appalling attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi. Rhetoric concerning the culprits of the attack, however, has endangered both the refugee and non-refugee Somali community in Kenya. The recent short-sighted statement by the Kenyan vice president, suggesting that refugees ‘have become a shield’ for terrorism, has further endangered an already vulnerable community.

The welfare of innocent Somali refugees must be factored into Kenyan domestic security concerns. Repatriation efforts must be carried out in phases. Conditions must first permit for a voluntary return of refugees with guarantees of full protection. Adequate housing should be made available to the returning refugees. Without sufficient planning refugees will simply become IDPs in their own country lacking the meager support they are entitled to in Kenyan camps. A comprehensive arrangement, taking into account the welfare of the refugees, the security of the region, and the ability of the Somali government to absorb them into the society, is the only viable and humane solution. We warned of a “hasty repatriation” in our report back in March, you can read the full report here.

 

Note: This blog was originally posted on the website of The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.

UNHCR – A Humanitarian Organization with a Mandate to Protect Civilians in Refugee Camps

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It is difficult to imagine a more humanitarian space than that of the refugee camp, whose foremost purpose is to provide refugees with temporary shelter, assistance, and protection until they are voluntarily repatriated to their country of origin, locally integrated in the host state, or resettled to third countries. The categorization of refugee camps as civilian and humanitarian is not, however, unproblematic. Refugee protection has always been deeply affected by greater security issues; rather than serving as civilian and humanitarian safe havens, camps for refugees (and internally displaced persons) have on a number of occasions become notorious for serious problems of insecurity, including armed attacks, arbitrary killings, torture, exploitation and military recruitment. But who can, and should, be held responsible under international law for these human rights violations?

This is the initial question discussed in my book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility. Here, I examine the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) international responsibility for human rights violations taking place in refugee camps. The book argues that UNHCR under certain circumstances can, and should, be held responsible under the International Law Commission’s nascent framework of the Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations. Specifically, UNHCR’s international responsibility will depend upon an evaluation of the host State’s ability and willingness to provide effective protection.

UNHCR and the Protection of Civilians in Refugee Camps

The book essentially finds that UNHCR’s mandate to provide refugees with ‘international protection’ includes the provision of physical safety and basic rights, and that UNHCR furthermore holds an affirmative duty to act and intervene to secure the basic human rights of refugees. That said, it is clear that UNHCR occupies a challenging place in the international arena when it is both entrusted with an ambitious mandate and also frequently caught in a vice between the preferences of actors such as donor governments and host states. It is to be a norm entrepreneur, supervisor and enforcement agency of refugee rights at the same time as it is expected to be a cooperative partner to states and NGOs, and the ultimate provider of material assistance. As Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps highlights, UNHCR’s protection role has become increasingly pragmatic, focusing more on the provision of food and shelter, and refugee security has as such had to give way for other competing priorities.

Considering the clear link between UNHCR’s international protection mandate and physical security, why, then, does the physical security and basic human rights of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR appear to be only a peripheral issue within the organization? The book presents several explanations. Firstly, UNCHR appears to believe that if it ‘flaunts’ its own responsibility, this risks detracting attention from the responsibilities of host states, who, after all, have the primary responsibility to protect refugees on their territory.  Secondly, however, because it surfaces at the crossroads between state sovereignty, national security and international human rights, refugee security is generally considered to be ‘high politics’ and exposes a tension between human rights norms and realpolitik. Organizations such as UNHCR tend to view attention to physical protection issues as a threat to their neutrality, impartiality and independence. Thus, for fear of jeopardizing relationships with governments, UNHCR appears to emphasize ‘soft diplomacy’ and prioritize less controversial tasks, such as the provision of material assistance, in the face of ‘hard’ human rights concerns. But, as even UNHCR itself has noted, it has a duty to fulfill its mandate regardless of ‘political circumstances and imperatives’. UNHCR’s challenge thus lies in staying true to its main principles, and not throwing them overboard as soon as it meets resistance. This logically means that UNHCR also cannot expect to please all sides.

Without downplaying the fact that UNHCR often has to make choices between bad and less bad options on the ground, it is arguable that without an increased focus on basic human rights and physical protection, UNHCR runs a real risk of ‘simply administering human misery’. More importantly, ignoring refugee security arguably affects the situation as much as confronting it. While UNHCR’s international protection mandate may be ready to be fully implemented in theory, because it appears not to be a current priority within the organization, it is far from certain that the mandate is fully understood, and applied thereafter, among the main actors concerned with protection and security within UNHCR.

Wide Scope for Improvements

Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps suggests that there is wide scope for improvements within UNHCR aimed at strengthening refugee protection. First, in order to ensure full and proper implementation, it is important to clarify UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis physical security both internally within the organization, and externally among its operative and implementing partners. In 2009, the UN Office of Internal Oversight (UN OIOS) undertook an extensive study of UNHCR’s approach to the safety and security of staff, operations and persons of concern. This study suggested that UNHCR’s mandate was often misunderstood among the main actors dealing with security issues.

A clarification of this mandate will hopefully also lead to a security focus that is more proportional between staff security and refugee security, and, on an international level, this may alleviate the current eclipse of UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities vis-à-vis physical protection of refugees and others of concern in refugee camps by the more pragmatic and operational activities of actors such as UN OCHA. In fact, recent years’ activities within the Security Council concerning the ‘protection of civilians’-framework have contributed to UN OCHA, whose mandate is essentially that of coordinating humanitarian response (and thus not protection), becoming the primary actor involved in refugee camp security. In a 2005 report by the UN Secretary-General, no mention of UNHCR’s role in protection monitoring is made – rather it is suggested that UN OCHA shall collect data on attacks against refugee camps and collate baseline information on issues such as security related to internally displaced persons.

A clarification of UNHCR’s mandate may also lead to improvements with regard to training and administering UNHCR staff: a shortage of protection staff seems to be an endemic problem within the organization, and is something which clearly has serious consequences in some operations where UNHCR has not even been aware of persistent rights violations. UNHCR must also reward staff who voice protection concerns – currently there appear to be no institutional incentives to do so.

It is also arguable that the current system of periodic rotation of staff between departments, headquarters and the field deprives UNHCR from any true expertise or staff specialization in the field of refugee physical security. Roughly speaking, there seems to be a general sentiment that each individual UNHCR staffer shall be able to tackle most of UNHCR’s various tasks, whether these tasks concern refugee camp security or material assistance. This system arguably impedes upon UNHCR’s possibility to use the skills acquired over the years to best effect. As one UNHCR staff argued in a 2005 study of UNHCR organizational culture: ‘Rotation is a serious problem … If a finance specialist has to move and become a programme person, it lowers things down to the lowest common denominator.’

Monitoring the human rights situation is an integral part of UNHCR’s exercise of its international protection mandate, and international protection cannot be advanced without full knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation. It appears as if UNHCR needs to reconsider the manner in which it collects, analyzes and, perhaps most importantly, uses the information on protection concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s experiences with security concerns in refugee camps are currently neglected or disguised through generalizations and shortcuts in the monitoring process. As such, new incidents can flourish. UNHCR’s internal evaluations have also shown that many field staff are not sufficiently aware of the relevant policies and guidelines, or about their monitoring roles and responsibilities. This was also emphasized in the 2009 UN OIOS Report, which inter alia found that UNHCR lacked adequate guidelines for security and protection officers in the field to enable joint assessment and physical protection of refugees and other persons of concern, and that the accountability framework, reporting mechanism, definition of security responsibilities and arrangements for monitoring the implementation of security measures were not adequately defined. It is clear that the protective effect of UNHCR’s protection monitoring depends upon how the gathered information is used.

More Protection, Less Material Assistance

A renewed focus on UNHCR’s international protection mandate might entail that UNHCR focuses less on providing material assistance. However, experience suggests that in cases where UNHCR has been unable or otherwise unwilling to provide material assistance, other organizations have stepped into the void. Such was the case in Thailand, when UNHCR sought to minimalize its involvement in the camps that were controlled by Cambodian military factions. This clearly suggests that there is an abundance of international and non-governmental organizations that can provide material assistance. Only UNHCR, however, has the mandate to provide international protection.

UNHCR’s accountability is the topic of an upcoming panel – organized by members of and affiliates to the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies – at the Humanitarian Studies Conference in Istanbul October 24-27, 2013. More information about the conference and the panel ‘UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: an examination of parallel regimes’ is found on http://www.humanitarianstudiesconference.org/. The book Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility can also be pre-ordered through Brill’s webpage: http://www.brill.com/products/book/protecting-civilians-refugee-camps.

PoC: Protection clusters and the formation of ambiguity- the view from Bor and beyond

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How come the policy realm of protecting civilians is increasingly being challenged on both conceptual and practical grounds, all the while efforts are being done in policy headquarters and in the field to refine its idea the implementation of it?

One such refinement seeking to alter established practices is the introduction of the protection cluster among humanitarian organisations in South Sudan in July 2010. Initially, the PoC unit of the United Nations’ Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) served as the link between the UN mission and various civilian UN and non-UN entities regarding civilian protection. The 2010 reorganisation advanced the cluster approach as a means to coordinate diverse and dispersed protection activities, with the aim to think more broadly about protection concerns drawing on interagency cooperation and coordination among the humanitarian organisations present in the area. In southern Sudan the protection cluster was to be led by UNHCR (and co-chaired with the Norwegian Refugee Council), now serving as protection lead and focal point for protection issues in the area. The cluster chair’s role is to facilitate a process aimed at ensuring coordinated and effective humanitarian response in relation to protection.

Cacophony and dissonance, however, seemed to prevail when I attended a protection meeting in Bor during my fieldwork in South Sudan’s Jonglei state in late 2010. While the distinction between the humanitarian community and the UN peacekeepers had become clearer as a result of the reorganization, the cluster approach had also brought a host of new actors into the protection folder and into the very same meeting room. The diverse and, at times, conflicting understandings of protection among the various humanitarian organizations now seeking to coordinate their efforts did not promote unity, harmony and dialogue. Rather, it seemed like all the actors involved instead used the meeting as a forum for presenting their own, distinct views and approaches to protection. In nourishing the particular and operational distinctiveness the organisations, in effect, prevented to consign to any overarching approach to or notion of protection. So, by the time everybody had presented their own work and how their organisation dealt with protection concerns, the meeting was over and people started to leave to attend to other duties.

The members of the protection cluster mainly saw it as an arena for exchanging information, without questioning each other’s diverging and sometimes conflicting notions of protection. Limited attention was paid to practical solutions, thus causing for some discontent among the participants. Although “protection” was what brought this diverse group together, their practical interface during the meeting revealed the absence of a shared understanding of what protection means and entails in and for practice. Perceptions differed not only between the humanitarian segment, government representatives and the UN mission (including its military commanders). Also among the humanitarian organisations themselves were there diverging and conflicting perceptions and usages of the protection discourse. Basically, all seemed to interpret the protection framework according to their own institutional culture without an eye for harmonisation and coordination.

I hold that these observations are not particular to the protection cluster in Bor. Indeed, I’ve come across similar ambiguities and challenges in other settings, including more central UNMIS levels, among other NGOs and at the UN headquarter in New York. As such, the observations in Bor could be seen as indicative for a larger and more general concern pertaining to the protection of civilians; that is, the lack of a common and shared conceptualisation of the term.

The ambiguity of protection relates to protection’s institutional trajectory within the UN starting in the late 1990s and the political challenges the UN had to overcome when initially dealing with it: on the one hand there was the need to establish a robust framework to secure civilian protection, on the other hand it was a need to have this framework adopted at the most authoritative level. Hence, when the protection framework – infused by the language of the humanitarian principles – was brought to the Security Council, the council refused to adopt it in fear of it becoming too binding and political. In shredding of the principles, the council rather opted for a milder version; that is, a non-binding ‘culture of protection’ to be disseminated throughout the UN. Hence, there exists no unifying notion of protection within the UN, and this ambiguity transfers onto the field level and the organisations involved. It seems that the lack of a clear definition of protection permeates the UN system which inevitably affects non-UN organisations when these seek to coordinate their efforts with UN entities.

The cluster approach seemed to have emerged as an effect of the lack of a stringent protection definition. This illustrates another phenomenon, i.e. the inversion of policy and practice: when the policy concepts that aim to direct practice are unclear, new practices tend to evolve and these practices can be counterproductive to the original policies. As such, the ambiguities of the cluster approach and the lack of a protection definition draw attention to the complex relationship between policy and practice. Nominally policy aims to direct practice, being the very raison d’être of policy-making and the answer to why policymakers invest so many resources into hatching and formulating policies. This positivist faith in planning and top-down approaches have, however, the unfortunate effect of producing a growing ignorance to the local variations and multiple contexts where these policies are being implemented. Such centralized planning is also largely dismissive of the many nodes and intersections any policy passes through when moving from the global to the local, and the unpredictable transformations the original planned intent may take in the diverse junctures between policy and practice. An adverse inevitability, at least from the perspective of the planners, is an ever widening discrepancy between the policy and the practice of it. And the more ambitious the scope is – and the idea of civilian protection based on a set of universal principles is indeed grand – the greater the disjuncture between policy and practice tend to become.

While the policy-practice discrepancy is seen as a challenge to policymakers at the central level, it might give opportunities to the practitioners and assist the beneficiaries at the local levels. As was the case in Bor where the lack of a stringent protection definition meant greater autonomy at the local level for the different agencies. It also meant that all humanitarian actors were included in the fold without having to pay attention to who passes an abstract threshold or not. The loose definition of protection, or the culture of protection, brought different people and agencies together. And although this produced cacophonies when trying to harmonise diverse protection agencies and approaches, it nevertheless allowed for operational variation and complexity that arguably was more in tune with the local needs than any centrally devised policies. And while such complexity and multitude might be a challenge to universal principles and ambitious policymakers, such plurality – indeed an effect of the ambiguous protection framework – might in fact be conducive to a more contextual, sensitized and effective approach to civilian protection.