Saturday, October 6, 2007

Protracted refugee situations: When the quality of mercy sours

Source: Refugees International

One of the most disturbing aspects of protracted refugee situations ---- when people have been sitting in camps waiting for some resolution of their plight for a decade or more ---- is the mutual resentment and distrust that builds between the refugees and those trying to assist them. The relationship gradually deteriorates under the weight of the despair of seeing no end on the horizon.

I recently completed a visit to the camps for Bhutanese refugees in Jhapa district in eastern Nepal, where more than 100,000 people have been living since the early 90s. While the camps themselves are in many ways model communities, with schools, training centers, medical facilities, and small shops, the refugees are increasingly frustrated. They point to cuts in rations and a switch from kerosene to charcoal briquets for cooking as evidence that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and its implementing partners are starting the slow process of abandoning them. Individuals under threat within the camp for pursuing the possibility of resettlement to the United States and other countries, rather than waiting for return to Bhutan, accuse UNHCR staff of dismissing their fears and shuttling them off to uncaring Nepali police to seek protection and redress.

For their part, UNHCR staff come dangerously close to blaming the victims. They maintain that their noble efforts to assist the refugees are rebuffed and misinterpreted. Providing special protection and assistance to individuals chased from the camps would only provoke a greater outflow of people seeking similar treatment. They start to lose their sense of humanity and perspective, and hide behind excuses that sound bureaucratic, claiming that they have no mandate to provide assistance outside the camps and that their protection role is a purely legal one. When RI raised the material needs of a specific group of refugees, the frustrated response was "We all have material needs," as if the needs of refugees could be compared to those of an international civil servant.

From my perspective as an outsider to this dynamic, I accept that both aggrieved parties to the deteriorating relationship are partially justified in feeling the way they do. And the irony is that the Bhutanese camps have been in many ways a model of international cooperation. The refugees should be proud of their self-help efforts and high level of social organization. UNHCR should be proud that it has been able to maintain this operation for 17 years, while retaining a level of basic services to the refugees as high as any in the world.

Ultimately in such situations UNHCR has a special responsibility to transcend the negative dynamic, overcome the pressure of feeling besieged, and retain the core focus on the well-being of individual refugees while working with local and international support to find permanent solutions. In the case of the Bhutanese refugees one solution --- third country resettlement --- is very close to being implemented, which will bring a measure of relief to all parties. But implementing the process well depends on maintaining respect for refugees as people rather than clients. HCR staff in Nepal need to take a symbolic deep breath and remember that refugees are not scam artists but human beings trying to find the best possible future for themselves and their families.

--Joel Charny
Vice President, Refugees International

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