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United Nations authority addresses refugee crises

Tori Roeck | Monday, March 19, 2012

In his Monday address, “The Responsibility to Solve,” United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) T. Alexander Aleinikoff said the international community must go beyond basic protection and assume responsibility for finding long-term solutions to major refugee crises. 

“The way we think about international protection [of refugees] is that it should be a bridge to a solution, not the ending of the effort made by the international community,” Aleinikoff said.

The UNHCR is most concerned with protracted refugee situations, in which 25,000 or more people of one nationality have been exiled from their home country for at least five years, Aleinikoff said.

Aleinikoff said there are 29 of these situations around the world today.

“In east Sudan that borders Ethiopia and Eritrea, there are between 50,000 and 100,000 refugees, some of whom have been there for 40 years,” he said. “Sixty percent of the population there has been born [to refugee parents].” 

Aleinikoff said the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest of its kind, also has an unfortunate amount of long-term residents.

“The saddest fact that I have learned in the time I’ve been at UNHCR comes out of Dadaab,” he said. “There are now 10,000 children in Dadaab who were born to refugees, who were born in Dadaab. That cannot be the way the world ought to face and think about refugee situations.” 

Although refugee camps are meant to be temporary remedies, Aleinikoff said the UNHCR seeks three types of “durable solutions” for refugees: returning them to their countries of origin, resettlement in a third country or local integration into the country in which they have been granted asylum. 

“The cause of protracted refugee situations … is because the usual solutions don’t work,” he said. 

Aleinikoff said the international community must focus more on getting refugees out of camps and giving them roots.

“There is a bias in the way American refugee scholars … have thought about refugee protection, that if we just get people safe and don’t return them to persecution, that’s enough,” he said. “[But] the end of the refugee problem is people being re-attached to a community. That’s the initial harm they suffered in being refugees.”

Without this re-attachment, Aleinikoff said the effects on refugees are “calamitous.” Refugees lack adequate health care and proper education, face physical safety risks and suffer grave psychological effects, he said.

But Aleinikoff said even though countries should be concerned about upholding refugees’ human rights, talk of individual rights does not motivate nations to step in and fix the problem.

“What I would suggest here is to find a rhetoric, or a moral fulcrum that moves the international community into action,” he said.

Aleinikoff said this “moral fulcrum” would be a responsibility among all countries to share the burden of refugee crises.

“A principle implicit in the refugee regime is one of international burden-sharing,” he said. “I’m suggesting a principle that members of the international community owe the other members of the international community.”

Aleinikoff said currently developed countries have an upper hand over undeveloped nations when it comes to handling refugee crises.

“Most refugees end up in developing countries paid for by developed countries,” he said. “In some ways, that’s the bargain, and it’s not always a happy bargain because sometimes developed countries use those kinds of funds as a way to keep refugees out of developed countries.”

More progress can be made in combating refugee crises if countries work together to provide long-term solutions for refugees based on a shared responsibility, Aleinikoff said.

“If we go into thinking now that there is a responsibility to solve these situations, lots of things become possible and lots of things get on the table,” he said. “We discover that people remain refugees not because they have to but because there isn’t the political will to not let them be refugees anymore.”