Head of UN refugee agency warns new approach needed as 110 million displaced

Filippo Grandi says aid organisations are struggling to respond to spate of natural disasters and wars

The National interviewed Filippo Grandi, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees

The National interviewed Filippo Grandi, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees
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Humanitarian workers are struggling to cope with the mounting number of natural disasters and wars, the head of the UN's refugee agency has warned.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency will have to limit its work in Sudan if violence worsens.

The war in Ukraine, earthquake in Turkey and Syria and disasters in Morocco and Libya have led to millions more displaced people this year.

“It is a bad moment in terms of crises around the world," Mr Grandi told The National in New York, before General Assembly week.

This constant, relentless pressure on humanitarian agencies ... is beginning to test very seriously our capacity to respond everywhere
Fillipo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

This summer, the UNHCR said the number of refugees worldwide had exceeded 110 million, “vastly higher than the year before", he said.

"We have observed this constant, relentless pressure on humanitarian agencies in terms of crises is beginning to test very seriously our capacity to respond everywhere," Mr Grandi said.

Speaking ahead of the High Level Debate, he said that “Sudan is probably at the moment our biggest emergency”, while the world is still dealing with the fallout of the Taliban takeover in Kabul, ongoing war in Eastern Congo and Ukraine, and other crises.

“Every six to eight months, we have a new crisis."

On Sudan, Mr Grandi said he had “hardly ever seen such a traumatised population … trauma was bigger than the physical needs and this, of course, continues”.

He warned that if the violence continues unabated, the number of displaced will greatly increase.

“If the conflict expands further, which we have seen constantly happening, and we have to limit our work inside the country, then this one million that we have now, I think two million may be conservative” by the end of the year.

“We think that four million are displaced inside the country since April. It's very bad."

'Forgotten Sudan'

Sudanese who fled the Darfur region pictured in Chad in July 2023. Reuters

He lamented how little attention is given to the Sudan crisis.

“I tried my best when I went to these places to really advocate for more support, for intensifying political efforts to bring to a ceasefire, but in the absence of much interest it is difficult," he said.

“What may wake up people in Europe is that people who are arriving in Lampedusa, Italy, more and more are Sudanese, some are coming straight from Sudan.

"Sorry to say, but sometimes it takes people arriving in rich countries to alert them to a crisis in a very poor country."

Mr Grandi also warned that the assistance needed for Sudan and surrounding countries is only 25 per cent funded.

He urged donors to meet pledges and ensure the humanitarian effort is met.

He said internally displaced Sudanese “are on the move following where the humanitarian agencies are present so they can get some support”.

'If you want people to go back to Syria, you have to give them security'

As for Syria, which Mr Grandi visited in April, “the situation is pretty bad, I would say worsening”. He said the lack of funding of humanitarian agencies has hurt refugees in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.

Mr Grandi described the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey in February, which killed about 60,000, as “horrible".

But he said it “opened up the possibility of understanding that more humanitarian aid was needed everywhere. So somehow, there was a moment of overcoming the political difficulties”.

That opening was followed with the readmittance of Syria into the Arab League.

Mr Grandi said: “This is political. And it's not for me to comment or to have public views upon. But I thought that in that space, first of all many people have humanitarian needs in and outside Syria. And then can we use that space of dialogue also with Syria, to see what needs to be done for refugees to go back."

This has been a major issue particularly for Jordan and Lebanon. A “dialogue" has since followed in Syria with the government, including a meeting between Mr Grandi and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

“He said people should come back but money is a challenge," Mr Grandi said. He acknowledged that funds are needed but also explained that the Syrian government must take many steps.

“If you want people to go back, you have to give them security, you have to explain better what these amnesties mean, you have to help them solve problems with houses and property that are occupied by other people," he said.

People protest in the Syria's southern city of Suweida on September 1 after President Bashar Al Assad's government ended fuel subsidies. AFP

He said Mr Al Assad “was receptive to that … now it's a slow discussion, but at least a little space has been opened”.

“It doesn't mean that people will go back tomorrow. No, but at least it's important to have that discussion, even in the absence of a political solution."

A major complexity is the issue of property, after land was taken from refugees and regime opponents.

"We are already doing work. In Syria, we've been doing it for years, quietly, legal work to help people, empower people to make their case to get back their property. But we need to scale this up, because this is one of the main issues and so is conscription."

Ukraine and the 'inclusion of refugees'

These refugee crises are compounded by other crises like those of Afghanistan and Ukraine. On Ukraine, Mr Grandi said that the way that Europeans opened up their doors to Ukrainians “proves a point”.

“It proves the point that inclusion of refugees, access to services, to employment, to documentation, to freedom of movement, is actually a much better way to respond, because it prevents much more clashes and divisions between communities."

However, his greater concern is for the many displaced inside Ukraine. He said there has to be prompt action on recovery and reconstruction even as the war goes on.

There is a marked difference with the situation in Afghanistan, where the Afghans have largely been left without much external support.

“I say this with a heavy heart: the resilience of Afghanistan is held together by the Afghan people who are by definition, super strong, but also by the humanitarians," Mr Grandi said.

Since the Taliban banned female workers in NGOs and humanitarian groups, some have decided to stop their work there.

However, Mr Grandi believes humanitarian organisations must carry on.

Working under the Taliban regime

“I do appreciate that working with the Taliban generates all sorts of questions, because of their policies and because of the choices that they make, but if we don't work with the Taliban, we cannot work in Afghanistan, and then we cannot provide even the bare minimum support to that resilience."

He was quite despondent on the near-term prospects for the country, as he does not see the move into a “development phase … any time soon”.

“My plea is, please, please continue support, because that's their only lifeline at the moment. There's nothing else."

Mr Grandi said the time has come to review how humanitarian aid is collected and focused.

“I'm wondering whether we have reached a kind of outer limit of what donors can do to support humanitarian work? I hope not."

He said humanitarian agencies also “need to do a lot of work to reflect on how sustainable all this is”.

During the high level week in New York, a great deal of focus will be on the Sustainable Development Goals and the delays in achieving them, which Mr Grandi described as “really the centrepiece of discussion”.

He explained that if “development was on a short path towards success towards achieving the goals, then we would have to worry less, because the sustainability would be there and we could intervene when there is a crisis”.

Afghan Taliban soldiers attend their graduation ceremony in Mazar-e-Sharif on 16 September 2023. The country has become far more difficult for aid groups to operate. EPA

But with a lack of sustainable development, “in many places, we pick up all the pieces”, Mr Grandi said, giving Chad as an example.

The country of 17 million people already hosted Sudanese refugees from the first Darfur conflict, and since April, they have received another 400,000 refugees from Sudan.

“Just like that: 400,000 in a country of 17 million, a small population in a poor country."

Last week, Mr Grandi visited Sudan with the World Bank, to try to start development programmes in Chad to improve the welfare of all.

Previously “we had tried to respond with humanitarian assistance, but the development [aid] doesn't come quickly enough, so they fall through the cracks”.

The effort now is to “start working on schools and clinics, on energy and food security, from the development point of view right away … if that works, we would have a good model to take inspiration from in many other places where humanitarian assistance reaches the outer limit and is not sustainable”.

He added: “People continue to suffer if they don't get other forms of support. I think that this is really one of the important parts of the discussion in New York this week."

The issue of funding is a major one. Mr Grandi said this could be the first year where funding goes down, rather than increases, from donor countries and philanthropic organisations.

But he is hopeful this can change. “So there's still hope, but most likely, the contribution will decline."

In the meantime, he said: "My appeal is that please, in a world where political solutions are so difficult, where crises are so multifaceted, with conflict, the economy, poverty, climate, it is important that at least the humanitarians are strong and can provide that initial relief to help people remain resilient until things improve."

Updated: September 19, 2023, 12:05 PM