Five key challenges for new UN refugee chief

By Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

Getting back to work following the end-of-year break can be tough. But spare a thought for Filippo Grandi, who arrived in Geneva this week to begin his five-year term as head of the UN’s refugee agency.

Not only is he replacing António Guterres, who held the office of High Commissioner for the past 10 years and was widely revered, but he is doing so at a time when record numbers of people around the world are fleeing persecution and conflict and in need of UNHCR’s protection and support.

Unlike many of his predecessors, he is not a former politician. Instead, he has had a long career with the UN, including a stint as head of UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees. His experience in the humanitarian and refugee sectors made him a popular insider’s choice for the role of High Commissioner, but he will also need considerable diplomatic skills to be effective as UNHCR’s chief fundraiser and refugee advocate at such a crucial time in the agency’s history. 

Here are five of the greatest challenges likely to preoccupy him in the coming months:

1. Providing protection and support to more than 60 million forcibly displaced people – Preliminary figures suggest 2015 was another record-breaking year for forced displacement, with five million people newly displaced between January and June. Figures for the second half of the year are not yet available, but the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless and internally displaced people who fall under UNHCR’s mandate is expected to surpass 60 million. Of those, just over 20 million are refugees, the highest number since 1992.

2. Dealing with protracted displacement – The rate at which refugees are able to safely return home is at its lowest level in more than three decades. Speaking at his final press conference last month, Guterres recalled that when he first took office a decade ago, UNHCR helped one million people return home. In 2014, only 124,000 people were able to do so. As conflicts and displacement become increasingly protracted, Grandi and his staff are faced with the task of continuing to support refugee populations beyond the emergency phase. To a large extent, this will mean helping refugees find ways to sustain themselves through livelihood support programmes and advocacy with host governments reluctant to extend refugees the right to work or live outside camps.

3. Doing more with less – As the global refugee population continues to mount, one of Grandi’s main tasks will be to persuade donors to fund the soaring cost of supporting them. UNHCR’s programmes are almost entirely dependent on voluntary contributions from governments and private donors. Over the past five years, the agency’s budget has more than doubled, peaking at $7.2 billion in 2015. Donor contributions have not kept pace, meaning that 53 percent of the 2015 budget had not been funded by the end of the year. With a proposed budget of $6.5 billion for 2016, Grandi urgently needs to find new, creative ways to address the growing funding gap as health, education, livelihoods support, and even basic assistance programmes face cuts. He is likely to look to the private sector and other non-traditional donors as one way of broadening the agency’s current reliance on a handful of governments for the majority of contributions.

4. Threats to refugee protection posed by growing security concerns – Grandi is taking the helm at UNHCR at a time when attitudes towards refugees have never been so polarised or politicised. Partly, this is the result of one million asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2015, stoking fears among local populations that job markets and public services would be swamped. But those fears have been compounded by security concerns, particularly in the wake of the November terror attacks in Paris and news that at least one of the attackers entered Europe via Greece by posing as a Syrian refugee. A number of member states, including France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, have since imposed border controls that make it more difficult for asylum seekers to move through Europe. In this increasingly xenophobic and hostile climate, Grandi will need to champion a response that preserves asylum seekers’ right to international protection in the context of increased security checks and border controls. UNHCR released a number of recommendations as to how this could be done in a paper last month. 

5. Addressing root causes of displacement – The only way to reverse the current trend of ever-growing levels of global displacement is to tackle the major drivers, the biggest of which is conflict. "We must work towards instilling peace in troubled regions… the outcome of talks and current peace processes on Syria, Libya, and Yemen will have a big bearing on the progression of displacement in 2016,” said Guterres at his final press conference. Ahead of his selection as the new High Commissioner, when he was one of several candidates, Grandi set out his approach to the role in a lengthy response to questions from ICVA, a global network of NGOs. He wrote that while “UNHCR is not a political or development actor” it “must step up its advocacy with those who are – world leaders, other organisations and civil society – and call for urgent action”, and that in doing so “it must become more sharp and convincing”.  

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