For all the billions of dollars in donations it receives and for all its glossy brochures and self-congratulatory speeches its officials deliver, the United Nations might very well be the worst thing that ever happened to refugees. Certainly, the World Food Program and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have done good and, indeed, life-saving work over the years but their accomplishments are increasingly overshadowed by the political, diplomatic, and bureaucratic compromises successive UN Secretaries-General have done.
In the wake of World War II, a conflict that generated tens of millions of refugees, the United Nations founded the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which two years later became the International Refugee Organization (IRO). The IRO had a terminal mandate; it closed its doors in 1952. UNHCR, founded in 1951, had no such end date associated with it; perpetuation of its existence and bureaucratic empire-building became just as important to its leadership as relieving the difficulties faced by refugees. The UNHCR, however, is a bureaucratic saint next to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), founded in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees. Initially, UNRWA was also supposed to be finite in its operations. In 1951, it outlined a plan to resettle Palestinian refugees within three years and then close its doors. Why it did not was a story of bureaucratic self-interest, diplomatic venality, and a broad desire by Arab states to use Palestinian refugees as a wedge. Long story short, six decades later UNRWA still exists and Arab states, with the exception of Jordan, continue to refuse their integration. The human potential — let alone the lives lost — in subsequent decades of conflict should be a permanent shame to UNRWA and the United Nations more broadly. If the United Nations were serious in its concern for refugees, it would end UNRWA, apply the same definition of refugee to all peoples regardless of their nationality, and fold the cases of those who remain refugees into the UNHCR framework.
That’s not to say UNHCR is above reproach. As aid specialist Mauro De Lorenzo noted in the Washington Post, “UNHCR protection officers routinely use secret evidence against refugees, reject claims for no stated reason, fail to provide qualified interpreters, and provide no appeal system for negative decisions.” This means that if the UNHCR officer make a mistake — or brings to the table a personal political agenda — he or she has the power to send legitimate refugees back to their countries of origin where they might face death or, conversely, to offer refugee status to those who are economic migrants or motivated by other factors. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. While UNHCR seeks donations for food and other aid, its policies undercut self-sufficiency for refugees. De Lorenzo explains:
…Refugee camps are in fact one of the biggest stains on the conscience of the international community. The inmates of these facilities lack freedom of movement and have no right to work. They are sometimes not allowed to grow their own food and must depend on rations from humanitarian agencies. Those rations do not always come on time and are rarely sufficient. Refugees are forbidden to sell or barter them for other products they need, such as soap or underwear. Biological anthropologist Kenneth Porter found that Burundian adolescents born in refugee camps and raised on humanitarian assistance in Tanzania were significantly shorter than poor Tanzanian children in neighboring villages who received no assistance at all — a difference that suggests malnutrition while under international protection.
Indeed, UNHCR’s culture of impunity has even led it to violate the Geneva Conventions. Once again, De Lorenzo explains:
UNHCR has even imposed collective punishment on refugees under its protection. In the hellish Kakuma camp in north-eastern Kenya, some refugees protested their conditions by destroying the enclosures through which refugees are herded to collect their food, once in April 1994 and again in April 1996. UNHCR cut off all food distribution, including to women and children, until the enclosures were rebuilt by the refugees. The suspension lasted 21 days in the first case and 14 in the second. Such measures are forbidden even in wartime by Article 33 of the Geneva Convention.
The problem is not limited to UNHCR, however, and rather goes straight to the top. The Sahrawi refugee problem may not be of the same scale as other refugee situations, but it is similar to others in that the UN has done more to exacerbate the problem than resolve it. In short, Sahwaris have wallowed in refugee camps in Tindouf, south-western Algeria, for almost a quarter century, the Polisario Front, a Cold War Algerian and Cuban proxy agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco. The United Nations established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) with a mission to arrange a referendum among the Sahrawi about self-determination. It was a relatively straightforward mission, but Algeria and the Polisario Front have effectively kept the camp residents hostage and thrown obstacles in the way of any census of legitimate Sahrawis displaced from the Western Sahara, a process necessary to determine eligibility.
Enter UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, a man more comfortable traveling the world and penning op-eds than conducting any serious reform of UN operations. Robert Holley, a retired American diplomat who was once the State Department’s point man on the problem has outlined what the Secretary-General should say but won’t:
…He [should] tell [Polisario leader] Abdelaziz, and whoever is listening in Algiers, that it is time to let the people in these gulags choose their own destiny. Some might want to stay on under the Polisario’s self-serving rule, but clearly thousands of those in the camps would like nothing better than the opportunity to go home to Morocco with their families and belongings. They are clearly welcome there, as is perfectly evident in the treatment of the 8000 or so who already have done just that – slipped away, most often in stealth mode, having voted with their feet and gone home. It’s time for the Polisario to get out of the way and allow the UN High Commission for Refugees to launch a voluntary repatriation program to assist those in the camps to return home if they so choose. Why not? Why shouldn’t they be free to leave and why shouldn’t UNHCR be allowed to help them do that? If not, they are pretty clearly just what Morocco calls them –hostages.
It’s time to dissolve MINURSO rather than allow it to develop into the mini-me of UNRWA. When the UN is not able to achieve its mission, it should bow out graceful rather than allow itself to be used by autocratic states to perpetuate problems. Alas, whether with regard to Hamas leaders, Algeria’s autocratic government, or Syria’s murderous regime, it seems that Ban Ki-Moon, the UN, and UNHCR are more intent on business as usual than in any serious reform. It’s that perpetuation of poor practices which has led the UN and its professional bureaucrats to be more a threat to legitimate refugees than their savior.