Q&A: UNHCR's Kelly Clements talks 'doing things very differently'

By Amy Lieberman 22 September 2016

Kelly Clements, the deputy high commissioner of the United Nations refugee agency. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

Kelly Clements, the deputy high commissioner of the United Nations refugee agency, knows firsthand that refugee response isn’t business as usual these days. With more than 65 million people “on the move,” as she says, the largest numbers since World War II, there is also an increased demand for long-term, realistic solutions.

“The average life cycle of a refugee is 26 years,” Clements explained. “We have to be doing things very differently with that in mind. We can’t say, ‘OK, here’s a blanket and here’s a tent.’”

On the heels of the United Nations Summit on Migrants and Refugees and the adoption of the “New York Declaration,” Devex talked with Clements down the street outside of the private sector forum of migration at the Concordia Summit about how the outcomes of talks in New York this way will look in practice.

It seems like many of the political discussions have shifted away from how refugees from Syria, for example, can return home, and instead toward long-term plans to accommodate flows of refugees. Do you feel like the dynamic in these talks has taken on a new tone?

We always have to be prepared. We did not see the [European migrant] crisis really until last year. People were staying close to home. They do not want to leave Syria. When refugees find their way to neighboring countries and further on, they have been displaced multiple times, because they have been trying to find places within Syria to go first. They want to stay close, they wanted to tend to their businesses, to make sure their houses, their land, is intact. We have seen the breaking out of this [model] with the continued violence; people are finding other solutions.

How much do you think the New York Declaration will influence the work UNHCR is doing on the ground? Was any part of the final agreement disappointing to you?

Actually, we are very excited about what came out yesterday. We have respect for human rights of people. We have clear recognition that this can’t be business as usual. ... Now we will see what comes out of it, what financial commitments are going to be made, and what policy changes. Will it become possible for refugees to work, to have freedom of movement, to find other ways to support themselves while they are in refugee or displaced situations?

We have got a lot of work to do over the next two years, because basically what happened yesterday was the intention to sign a global compact in 2018. We will lead a process, which is being called the “comprehensive refugee response,” and it is a framework which involves private sector, development, humanitarian actors, governments and refugees themselves, first and foremost. It will be trying to drive a much more predictable response to this phenomenal displacement.

Can you explain how this compact will work?

There are two compacts — one on refugees and one on migrants. The compact on refugees is essentially the addendum to the New York Declaration and basically says you will work on the comprehensive refugee response for the next 18-20 months, and we will formally adopt the compact then in two years time. The migration compact is a completely different channel in terms of negotiations.

Are they working with a particular budget, or funding goal at this time?

The gap between need and response is growing, just because the number of people in need are increasing very significantly. There is not a budget, per se, but obviously a budget will be required to implement the comprehensive refugee response, so obviously we will be rolling that out in the course of the next 18-24 months. But the way this is going to work is to see that there is a tangible response from the international community.

With the inclusion of the private sector in these compact, and at various events this week on migration and migration, do you think this signifies a new way of doing business?

Yes. There is across the board recognition that no one sector can do it alone. Governments cannot do it without the public and private sector partners coming together.

We have seen the political backlash that migrants and refugees have faced in some parts of Europe, and now from some in the United States. How do you think that plays into the role — and need — of private sector inclusion and financing?

It is not just about financing. One thing that is important to us is a long-term partnership, because we don’t see forced displacement as an issue that is going away anytime in the near future. It is the long-term commitment from business, looking at it from the perspective as business not just doing good, but it is good for business.

We have been talking a lot about Uganda, certainly in the last couple of days, and last few months, and how they put refugees and displaced people within their national framework, the development plan, and the real benefits of that. When you employ refugees, or provide tools and solutions to particular issues, there is an economic benefit to doing this for the host community.

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About the author

Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.

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