Most refugees don't go far because they want to return.. but let's not hurry to push them back too quickly, says UN refugee chief

The head of the UN refugee agency says there are ways for every country, rich and poor, to cope with an influx of refugees. Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of The National meets Filippo Grandi, a man with a plan

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi gestures as he speaks during an interview with AFP at the National Assembly in Paris on January 17, 2017.
Shipwreck in the Mediterranean sea, France's welcome of the refugees, situation concerning the exile of minors : Filippo Grandi, calls to face the migrant crisis. / AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT
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Filippo Grandi is having a busy week. Among the many topics on the agenda at the UN during the General Debate this week, that of refugees and migration is one of the most compelling. With 65.5 million people displaced in the world, 22.5 million of them refugees, at a time when ultra-nationalism is on the rise, the United Nations' high commissioner for refugees has been speaking on behalf of those who have no voice, and advocating for those who have no other advocate because they have no state.

His mandate is a difficult one. In an exclusive interview with The National at the United Nations building in New York on Thursday, Mr Grandi set out his ideas for an international plan for coping with refugee flows that can be adopted by all nations. It is a plan fit for the 21st century and he wants it in place next year.

Out of last year’s UN New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, an agreement was reached to have two compacts endorsed by the General Assembly by 2018 -  one on migrants, the other on refugees. Mr Grandi and the UNHCR are tasked with preparing the compact. An appendix in the New York declaration sets out what the response to a refugee crisis should be.

Some elements have always been there, Mr Grandi explains,and some are new. "It says refugee emergencies are humanitarian emergencies, so people need food and medicine and blankets and shelter but not just that, they need education. Soon they will need to become self-sustaining and have jobs."

Humanitarian aid is "short lived," says Mr Grandi. "So that whole element of long term means bringing in other actors, more experts and those who have resources for that."

The UNHCR has built partnerships with the World Bank, Ikea, Vodaphone and Google, among many others.

"This is very exciting," Mr Grandi says. "That is why it is called a comprehensive framework, because it is broader than what we do right now."

So the framework is there: the issue remains of how to implement it. Mr Grandi says there are two key elements: the policy and the practical elements. On the practical side, the UNHCR is seeking countries that are willing to be models. There are already 11 countries looking at applying the comprehensive approach to refugees.

"Uganda was the champion from day one. They have all these South Sudanese refugees, it is very tragic but they are very open because they let people have land, have access to schools, so they are already doing half of what is in that agenda, but they need support for the other half from the international community."


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Mr Grandi hopes to present practical examples of success to the General Assembly, to say, "You see, it is possible." He concedes that not everyone is on board with the plan, and some countries want to limit the number of refugees they take in. "Ultimately, this is a state process. UNHCR is doing it but states have to apply it."

And there will be multiple versions of the plan, depending on the circumstance of each country. "With some people fleeing central American states like Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, these people are fleeing gang violence, which is very different from people fleeing civil war in South Sudan. so elements of the compact must keep some adaptability’.

He hopes to present his report next year and have member states sign up or it. It will not, however, be binding. "But it refers to other instruments that are binding, like the Refugee Convention and international humanitarian law. It will take time, but I hope having created positive precedents, having shown that there is an advantage, there will be more and more embracing it’.

Then there are the political complications. In his address to the General Assembly, US president Donald Trump said the US would send financial aid to keep refugees "in their home region." Mr Grandi was unsurprised.

"‘It is not just the US president, we hear this more and more, in Europe, in Australia, in all the rich world." He counters such statements with three of his own. "Firstly, refugees are already near their countries of origin. Ninety per cent of refugees only go as far as the country next to theirs. They don’t want to go further away, they want to stay relatively close so they can go back. And these neighbours are not rich countries, they are poor or middle income, like Uganda or Jordan."

Secondly, he wishes leaders like Mr Trump would acknowledge that, "Absolutely, yes, it is good to help them stay there if they can, but that means the support we give to those [host]countries must be much more. I want these leaders to do what they say. What is happening now is insufficient, the assistance given to big host countries like Uganda, Pakistan, Mexico, is insufficient."

As to the third point, "There will always be people that go further than that, not a big number, but they are there. That is more tricky, they leave for various reasons and the door has to be open." Nor should helping people in their region mean closing all doors to third country resettlement.


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The main issue regarding third country resettlement for refugees is how they are resettled, how to  avoid people resorting to smuggling routes or traffickers.

"We need to offer a way for those who feel compelled to leave to do it through legal paths, safe ways to move on. This is resettlement." But those safe paths are few. Of the 22.5 million refugees in the world, only 162,000 — less than one per cent — were resettled last year. The UNHCR estimate that 10 per cent of refugees are vulnerable enough for resettlement and are waiting. Some become desperate enough to take the risky routes.

"The Canadian model is very, very good, because Canada has a state programme — and it is important that the state programme continues, as states have to take their responsibilities — but they strengthen it by having communities get involved, NGOs, companies and others. This adds places and creates awareness in the community." The Canadian model provides community support for a year and then the refugee has to become self-supporting, an approach Mr Grandi praises as " it does not create dependency."

Turning to Syria, where the war has produced one of the greatest refugee and humanitarian crises ever seen, Mr Grandi warned against a rush to push Syrian refugees to return. Syria remains "a mobile war," he said, in which the internally displaced move from one area to another, according to safety.

He was in Syria earlier this year. "We see some internally displaced people going back because the area they came from stabilises, but they need help as often they go back to utter destruction. Other times, people go back because the area they moved to [for safety] becomes more destabilised. And there are some areas where there is new displacement, like from Raqqa, It is a very fluid situation."

"What we have not seen in significant numbers is the return of refugees.For Syrian refugees, it is still safer to stay where they are than to go back."

The problem is that funding for the Syria crisis is now on the wane, compelling the UNHCR to use their own core funding, instead of special funding for Syria, to keep their projects going. The UNHCR's surveys on "intentions to return" show most Syrian refugees say they do want to go back, but not now. So Mr Grandi appeals to host countries to "please be patient. don’t push, it must be voluntary. If you ask me, I would say, please wait. It's a waiting time for everybody, the political situation is very uncertain, the military situation is very uncertain."

This uncertainty extends to Iraq, where internally displaced Iraqis are unsure about what will happen to them if the Kurdistan region referendum goes ahead. "Of course there are concerns, anything in Iraq can unsettle that very precarious balance and can cause conflict and displacement. So we do hope they will come to a political agreement and move on in a spirit of unity as they should. Iraq has to explain it is a diverse country made of different people who have to live together. Anything that goes against that will be unsettling and we have to be careful.

"Iraq is a much faster moving situation. The military offensive against ISIS progressed and at the moment of fighting, quite a large number of people moved, but also many people went back as soon as fighting was over. However, the more destruction, the less return. We were ready for the displacement, we have been able to host all those who were displaced and we have been able to help those who want to go back. But there are some complicated protection issues there. When the government takes back control of areas controlled by ISIS, how they rule is complicated … the government is much more careful."

Mr Grandi is also deeply concerned by the plight of the Rohingya Muslims forced to flee Myanmar and become refugees in Bangladesh. He says that at its heart, the conflict is "a citizenship issue which has never been appropriately resolved." This crisis was "almost inevitable" ’ as there is no recognition of the Rohingya. They are stateless people.

But the UNHCR is mandated to resolve statelessness. Mr Grandi has spoken to the government of Myanmar, calling for "authentication" to end the ongoing tragedy. "There is high communal tension and one of the most appalling levels of poverty I have ever seen." In Rakhine, the situation is complicated by "the very radical position on the Buddhist side and eventually this provoked radicalisation on the Muslim side."

He adds, "We should have intervened earlier."


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