The international protection of the majority of the world’s refugees has traditionally been the domain of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For some time, however, several operational humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have claimed territory in this area as well. They have developed protection policies and/or designated protection capacities within their offices and field teams. The question is, as a result, are these NGOs and UNHCR working as competitors or companions?
Humanitarian response in general is founded on two inextricably linked pillars: assistance and protection. “Humanitarian assistance” is aid to a disaster or crisis-affected population — in this case, refugees — that primarily seeks to save lives and alleviate human suffering. “Protection” of refugees, in contrast, aims to ensure full respect for the rights of this refugee population in accordance with international human rights law and refugee law.
While historically, human rights NGOs and refugee councils have always been involved in the protection of refugees, the interest of humanitarian NGOs in protection issues developed in the mid-1990s. In this period, several large humanitarian NGOs blamed UNHCR for focusing on the provision of assistance at the expense of its protection mandate, particularly in the Balkans. In Central Africa, too, UNHCR and NGOs were faced with a crisis in protection. Among the refugees in the camps in (then) Eastern Zaire and Tanzania were many who, in fact, should have been excluded from refugee status because they were implicated in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Humanitarian NGOs publicly questioned how UNHCR could execute its mandate in such a situation. Several of them published reports or made public statements in which they denounced violations of the rights of Rwandan refugees, and there were even a few NGOs that left the camps in Tanzania and Zaire.
Some eight years later, many of the same NGOs have a deep engagement in protection. They have realized that humanitarian action is more than providing relief, or “truck and chuck,” as one large NGO internally calls it. Humanitarian staff must have an eye for the human rights context in which they operate and for the impact of their operations on the rights of the people for and with whom they work.
Last December, representatives from some 12 large humanitarian NGOs and senior UNHCR officials discussed their relationship when it comes to protection. UNHCR’s main question for this meeting was how NGOs understood their role in protection. The NGOs wanted to know if UNHCR was really open to collaboration on protection.
Such UNHCR-NGO discussions are not new. The same questions came up in the past. In the early 1990s, UNHCR and NGOs drew up a highly ambitious plan for a “partnership in action” (PARinAC), which included recommendations for the coordination of protection activities, the joint development of protection priorities and strategies, and the strengthening of the complementarity of UNHCR and NGO protection activities. The PARinAC process, however, dealt more with the general and operational aspects of the UNHCR-NGO relationship than with the specific aspects of protection.
In the late 1990s, UNHCR involved NGOs in the “Reach Out Process on International Protection.” This process was set up by UNHCR to respond to the mid-1990s protection crisis and to find renewed commitment from states and others for the refugee agency’s mandate. Meetings with NGOs in New York, Bangkok, and Nairobi were, unfortunately, given little follow-up and the objective of “developing a common protection agenda” was never realized.
Nevertheless, some progress was made. A field guide for NGOs on refugee protection was jointly produced with UNHCR. In addition, UNHCR and various NGOs worked together on the “Global Consultations on International Protection” to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
As was recognized at the recent meeting between UNHCR and the dozen NGOs, there is every reason now to engage in further practical collaboration in a much more coherent fashion than ever before. At a time when international refugee protection is severely constrained for political and financial reasons, protection in the humanitarian sector is one of its weakest points. Basic failures still exist in field operations. The registration of refugees, a prerequisite for effective protection, is not always undertaken. Furthermore, many have noted the severe shortage of experienced UNHCR protection officers. In recent years, several NGOs have responded to these shortcomings by developing additional protection capacities, for example, the inter-agency training process on refugee law for NGO staff — the Reach Out Refugee Protection Training Project — and the International Rescue Committee’s Surge Project to strengthen UNHCR’s operational protection presence. However, such efforts alone cannot really provide a long-term solution to the problem.
Other protection measures, such a the separation of armed elements from refugees or the relocation of refugee camps away from international borders, cannot be carried out by NGOs or UNHCR because these measures go far beyond their mandates and capacities.
Under such circumstances, insecurity and violence can plague refugee camps and settlements. Refugee women and children are particularly at risk. In their efforts to prevent and stop human rights violations, NGOs have often reported on incidents of rape and other sexual and gender-based violence or forced abductions and recruitment, problems that continue in many African and other refugee camps.
NGOs activities can thus complement and support UNHCR activities for refugees, particularly when states fail to meet their international obligations. Unlike UNHCR and states, however, NGOs do not have a protection mandate. NGOs can nevertheless be present, witness, monitor, document, report, advise, influence, and “responsibilise” states and government actors, thereby contributing to the protection and well being of people affected by forced displacement.
Still, as was expressed at the recent UNHCR-NGO protection retreat, practical collaboration on protection in refugee situations remains uneasy. In the past, many controversies arose between UNHCR and NGOs because of a lack of dialogue or the feeling on the part of the NGOs that they were being left out of delicate debates between UNHCR and governments—debates where the NGOs’ positions would and could have been supportive of UNHCR and, not least, to the refugees.
Rightly or wrongly, NGOs often have the feeling that UNHCR’s policies are too submissive to the wishes of governments, instead of protecting refugees. UNHCR is a governmental agency, but it is also an agency that has a number of other stakeholders, most notably refugees and NGOs. The difficulty for the agency is that sometimes UNHCR gets caught between the contradictory desires of these stakeholders. The result is that UNHCR’s policy decisions can, indeed, be troubling from the viewpoint of NGOs that are interested in protecting refugee rights and not states’ interests. What can be more disturbing, however, is when UNHCR never engaged in a dialogue with its NGO allies to explain the rationale for its policies and decisions.
For information sharing, coordination, and cooperation on sensitive protection matters to take place effectively, UNHCR and NGOs must concentrate on developing confidence and mutual trust. Such a climate can only emerge if UNHCR and NGO staff meet on an equal footing, discuss their differences, and explore their commonalities in the protection of refugees.