As refugee crisis grows, UN agency faces questions

It took a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach to achieve what a United Nations agency with 9,300 staff and a budget of $4 billion could not: soften European views on the refugee crisis.

Reuters| Updated: Sep 16, 2015, 15:59 PM IST

Geneva: It took a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach to achieve what a United Nations agency with 9,300 staff and a budget of $4 billion could not: soften European views on the refugee crisis.

The chief of the UN High Commission for Refugees Antonio Guterres conceded as much on Sept. 4 when he described a fundamental shift in European attitudes that enabled him to push for the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the European Union.

"Thanks to the actions of the media, the public is getting mobilised in a way that I would say is unique in recent times in solidarity with the victims," he told reporters.

But even as Guterres welcomed the change, he faced criticism that he and his agency had not done enough to tackle the crisis. Critics, who include former UNHCR staffers and humanitarian policy experts, said the refugee agency should have been more assertive in opening doors in Europe, as it has done in past crises, such as the exodus from Hungary in 1956 and the plight of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and 1980s. 

"If that could be done in the past, it can be done again for the Syrians," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights in Syria and a chief of staff to Sadako Ogata when she ran UNHCR in the 1990s.

Sylvana Foa, who was recruited by Ogata in 1991 to overhaul UNHCR`s image, thinks Guterres has been too weak. Governments have been telling the UN "suck your thumb, and we`re going to find a nice negotiated diplomatic solution," said Foa, who also served as a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the 1990s. 

The heads of UN agencies with "well-nourished careers" prefer to "put out cutesy heart-warming videos" about individual refugees rather than criticise governments, she said. "They want another UN job ... And they won`t get it if they piss governments off. You have to start shaming governments. That`s how things get done."

UNHCR rejected criticism of its part in the European crisis, saying Guterres has been pressing European governments to take more refugees for years.

"Frankly we`ve been making these very similar proposals in the last two or three years," said UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "We have been constantly calling for strong reception and registration capabilities to be introduced in these countries. It`s not new that people have been arriving. It`s just become so dramatic."

Under Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who took over as head of UNHCR in 2005, the agency looks after a global refugee population of almost 20 million and speaks out on behalf of 40 million displaced within their own countries. Those figures include 4 million Syrians now registered in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and 7.6 million displaced within Syria.

Despite a trend of increasing government donations, all the UN`s humanitarian work remains underfunded because of a series of crises in recent years, and the $5.8 billion the UNHCR has raised for its Syria appeal is thinly stretched. 

The agency has moved with the times – commissioning flat-pack refugee shelters from furniture chain IKEA, for example – but has lost some of its political clout, UN insiders and critics said. 

While it has added lawyers and humanitarian experts, it has failed to develop new, more creative ways of "unlocking political solutions," said Alexander Betts, professor in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University. 

A March 2015 evaluation by the UN`s internal audit arm said the agency was hampered by being too focused "around an emergency response model" and was failing to get governments to see the benefits of integrating refugees into their own economies – the only option for long-term refugees who aren`t resettled or repatriated.

Norah Niland, a former senior UN human rights official and a lead author of a recent review of humanitarian protection for the United Nations, said that UNHCR has "too little forward thinking, and that`s what the European crisis shows."

But UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said the crisis in Europe was caused by "the chaotic way Europe has responded," not a failure to foresee the numbers making the trip. 

"We are not in the forecasting business," he said. 

UNHCR said last week it believed 400,000 refugees would cross the Mediterranean this year – a figure which has already been eclipsed – and 450,000 next year. The agency refuses to warn of greater numbers coming to Europe. 

"What that can create is panic and apprehension that millions of people are on their way. We don`t believe that millions of people are on their way," said Spindler.

But the regional head of another UN agency said it made sense to think in such terms.

"It certainly stands to reason that there could be millions and millions of more refugees leaving Syria to surrounding countries and ultimately to Europe and beyond," said UNICEF`s Middle East director Peter Salama.