UNHCR says new partnerships key to handling long-term refugee situations

Soaring protracted conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo are forcing many to find home away from home. Photo by: Eunice Ohanusi / UNHCR

NAIROBI — As urgent crises around world, such as the brutal war in Syria, drag on for years, the humanitarian sector’s ability to build new partnerships will be key to handling long-term displacement of refugees, Catherine Wiesner, regional refugee coordinator for Burundi at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Aid & International Development Forum Africa Summit in Nairobi, Kenya.

The humanitarian sector needs to structure its responses to refugee crises with alliances that go beyond traditional partnerships, such as between U.N. agencies, international, and local nongovernmental organizations, and look at a more holistic approach to handling refugee crises, she said. This includes partnering with more development-focused partners and working to integrate refugees into national systems right from the onset of their displacement.

According to UNHCR, some two-thirds of all refugees were in a protracted refugee situation at the end of 2016. The agency defines this as when 25,000 or more refugees from the same country have lived for more than five years in a host country.

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Global efforts to craft a more comprehensive approach to the refugee crisis were pushed forward in 2016, when the U.N. member states adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. One of the commitments within the declaration included the implementation of a “Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.” This includes assurances for refugees such as a rapid and well-supported reception, protection, health, education, assistance to local host governments and communities, among other efforts.

UNHCR was tasked to work with governments and other partners to test and apply this framework globally. The framework has already been rolled out in several countries. This fall, a global compact on refugees will be proposed.

These efforts are focused on increasing the international responsibility for responding to refugees, rather than making neighboring countries shoulder the majority of the burden, and to work to have a development-minded approach to protracted refugee situations, she said.

“It really signifies the expansion that we are looking for away from just UNHCR and a few humanitarian partners being responsible for refugees,” she said. “The idea of international responsibility sharing is really that proximity shouldn’t equal responsibility.”

The key behind this will be to avoid creating parallel system within host communities, whereas local children might go to national schools while refugees would go to camp-run schools, for example. Instead, refugees would be integrated into national social services as soon as possible when they arrive in-country, she said.

To accomplish this, humanitarian actors should forge partnerships with various government ministries, including those responsible for planning and social services. UNHCR is also strengthening its relationship with the World Bank, to partner in areas like household surveys. This will help the agency measure indicators of cross-government ownership such as access to education and work opportunities for refugees. The World Bank has also created a number of new financing facilities in the last few years, specifically for refugee hosting countries, both low- and middle-income.

“Unfortunately, humanitarian funding is simply not keeping up with humanitarian crises, so that’s one reason we need a more sustainable approach,” she said.

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.