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FORUM: What’s holding back UNHCR accountability?

June 20, 2005

The opinions expressed here may not represent the views of RSDWatch or Asylum Access, and are distributed here in the interests of public discussion.

By Mark Pallis

Barrister, Lecturer in International Refugee Law

London South Bank University

Providing international protection to refugees was originally intended to be a supervisory, humanitarian task for UNHCR.  A ‘shepherd’ looking out for the ‘flock’: promoting international conventions and the admission of refugees, obtaining information about refugees from governments, and so on. But faced with long-term refugee crises, UNHCR began to provide protection directly to refugees, running refugee camps and deciding refugee status.

These activities grew to the point where today, when people think of UNHCR, their first thought tends to be of blue tents in a refugee camp. UNHCR is presently responsible for administering a total camp population equivalent, almost, to that of Norway. UNHCR is now the second-largest refugee status determination (RSD) body in the world.

Sex scandals in West Africa and allegations of corruption at the UNHCR office in Kenya seriously damaged UNHCR’s reputation, and raised the question of how accountable, if at all, UNHCR is to refugees. Given the power UNHCR often wields over refugees, it is worth asking why accountability has not been a stronger feature in the agency’s work.

Institutionally, UNHCR has three primary tools for creating accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, the Inspector General’s Investigations Unit, and the Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, as well as access to the UN-wide Office of Inspection of Internal Oversight Services. These mechanisms presently form a ‘managerial’ style system. There is, however, no democratic, bottom-up control – an essential element for true accountability.

So, at present, while refugees can sue a state or its agents, and can rely on UNHCR to represent their interests to states, they have little or no access to judicial remedies against UNHCR itself when things go wrong, and have scant opportunity to exchange views with UNHCR. This leads to the anomalous situation in which there may be more accountability for refugee rights violations when refugees are with the ‘wolves’ rather than with the ‘shepherd.’ How has this peculiar situation come about?

The first factor hampering the acceptance of the idea of greater accountability in UNHCR to refugees is the widespread and deeply entrenched perception that UNHCR only plays a supervisory role.  Even during the recent Global Consultations, there was little consideration of the ways in which UNHCR is itself responsible for implementing the Convention. There is simply little or no awareness of the fact that UNHCR is often directly responsible for the day-to-day protection of refugees.

An emergency mindset permeates all UNHCR’s areas of operation. This leaves little or no room for long-term planning. Viewing its RSD function as a temporary task means that it is not a natural protection priority for UNHCR, despite the grave consequences it can have on the lives of refugees. Accountability always comes second to ‘practical assistance,’ and it is no surprise that UNHCR’s budget priorities are food, water, shelter and staff. Funds to enhance accountability are relegated to being sought in special, supplementary appeals.

Moves towards greater accountability also must overcome the commonly held view of the benevolent character of humanitarian assistance. The underlying assumption is that refugees should never complain but should only be grateful for being helped in the first place. It appears that to UNHCR, a refugee is merely a recipient of the gift of aid, a beneficiary, an object of charity, rather than someone to whom accountability is owed.

UNHCR’s existing accountability mechanisms depend to a large extent on external pressure to generate the impetus for action, rather than being responsive to individual cases from the ground up.  NGOs often have a greater awareness of the problems of refugees and are theoretically in a strong position to highlight concerns, but they cannot be relied upon to do so because they are often wholly dependent on UNHCR for their funding.

Donors find UNHCR in many ways an ideal donee: it is well known, humanitarian and non-political.  The possibility to fund specific projects also allows governments to be seen to be responding to a particular crisis at a particular time. This reduces the incentives for states to contribute to less exciting projects such as long term accountability, which is often seen by donors as an institutional problem, rather than a protection issue.

Discernable pressure from the refugees themselves has been almost entirely absent.  Refugees cannot rely on their governments to lobby on their behalf and neither can they rely on UNHCR. Refugees may not have sufficient awareness of their rights, and they may not have faith in, or access to complaint mechanisms.  Finally, they may be unwilling to be seen to be taking a stand for themselves, lest it be perceived as ‘rocking the boat’.

Creating accountability to refugees within UNHCR will require overcoming these structural obstacles. The first step should be for UNHCR to create an accountability strategy; in doing so, UNHCR will recognise that because it directly affects refugees, it must therefore be accountable to refugees.

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One Comment
  1. Bisrat permalink
    March 6, 2012 5:32 pm

    I am a refugee and as far as I am concerned there is no law that makes UNHCR accountable to the refugees and there is no where a refugee can go to to seek redress for whatever rights are violated by UNHCR. UNHCR is like an absolute monarchy.

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