September 16, 2015 / 9:30 AM / 2 years ago

As refugee crisis grows, U.N. agency faces questions

A message reading "Europe shame" is seen on cloth hanging on a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, September 15, 2015.Marko Djurica

GENEVA (Reuters) - It took a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach to achieve what a United Nations agency with 9,300 staff and a budget of $4 billion could not: soften European views on the refugee crisis.

The chief of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees Antonio Guterres conceded as much on Sept. 4 when he described a fundamental shift in European attitudes that enabled him to push for the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees across the European Union.

"Thanks to the actions of the media, the public is getting mobilized in a way that I would say is unique in recent times in solidarity with the victims," he told reporters.

But even as Guterres welcomed the change, he faced criticism that he and his agency had not done enough to tackle the crisis. Critics, who include former UNHCR staffers and humanitarian policy experts, said the refugee agency should have been more assertive in opening doors in Europe, as it has done in past crises, such as the exodus from Hungary in 1956 and the plight of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and 1980s.

"If that could be done in the past, it can be done again for the Syrians," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into human rights in Syria and a chief of staff to Sadako Ogata when she ran UNHCR in the 1990s.

Sylvana Foa, who was recruited by Ogata in 1991 to overhaul UNHCR's image, thinks Guterres has been too weak. Governments have been telling the U.N. "suck your thumb, and we're going to find a nice negotiated diplomatic solution," said Foa, who also served as a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the 1990s.

The heads of U.N. agencies with "well-nourished careers" prefer to "put out cutesy heart-warming videos" about individual refugees rather than criticize governments, she said. "They want another U.N. job ... And they won't get it if they piss governments off. You have to start shaming governments. That's how things get done."

UNHCR rejected criticism of its part in the European crisis, saying Guterres has been pressing European governments to take more refugees for years.

"Frankly we've been making these very similar proposals in the last two or three years," said UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. "We have been constantly calling for strong reception and registration capabilities to be introduced in these countries. It's not new that people have been arriving. It's just become so dramatic."

"WHAT THE EUROPEAN CRISIS SHOWS"

Under Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who took over as head of UNHCR in 2005, the agency looks after a global refugee population of almost 20 million and speaks out on behalf of 40 million displaced within their own countries. Those figures include 4 million Syrians now registered in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq and 7.6 million displaced within Syria.

Despite a trend of increasing government donations, all the U.N.'s humanitarian work remains underfunded because of a series of crises in recent years, and the $5.8 billion the UNHCR has raised for its Syria appeal is thinly stretched.

The agency has moved with the times – commissioning flat-pack refugee shelters from furniture chain IKEA, for example – but has lost some of its political clout, U.N. insiders and critics said.

While it has added lawyers and humanitarian experts, it has failed to develop new, more creative ways of "unlocking political solutions," said Alexander Betts, professor in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford University.

A March 2015 evaluation by the U.N.'s internal audit arm said the agency was hampered by being too focused "around an emergency response model" and was failing to get governments to see the benefits of integrating refugees into their own economies – the only option for long-term refugees who aren't resettled or repatriated.

Norah Niland, a former senior U.N. human rights official and a lead author of a recent review of humanitarian protection for the United Nations, said that UNHCR has "too little forward thinking, and that's what the European crisis shows."

But UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said the crisis in Europe was caused by "the chaotic way Europe has responded," not a failure to foresee the numbers making the trip.

"We are not in the forecasting business," he said.

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) speaks to media about the refugee crisis in Europe, following their bilateral meeting at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 4, 2015.Denis Balibouse

UNHCR said last week it believed 400,000 refugees would cross the Mediterranean this year – a figure which has already been eclipsed – and 450,000 next year. The agency refuses to warn of greater numbers coming to Europe.

"What that can create is panic and apprehension that millions of people are on their way. We don't believe that millions of people are on their way," said Spindler.

But the regional head of another UN agency said it made sense to think in such terms.

"It certainly stands to reason that there could be millions and millions of more refugees leaving Syria to surrounding countries and ultimately to Europe and beyond," said UNICEF's Middle East director Peter Salama.

FAILED MISERABLY?

One reason for the lack of bold early action in Syria may have been a belief that the conflict would be over quickly. Joel Charny, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice at InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based relief and development organizations, said too much faith was placed in the peace effort led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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"Complacency might be a little bit too strong, but until mid-2012 there was a sense that clear heads would prevail (in Syria)," he said.

In 2015, nobody in the U.N. is "sitting on their hands," said U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi. Annan's successor as U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is "underlining to all member states how vital it is that they unite and come together to find a way out of this mess,"  Fawzi said.

Even so, UNHCR should have done more to turn the crisis into a development opportunity, said Betts, the Oxford professor. Just 15 minutes from Jordan's huge Zaatari refugee camp, Betts said, is a special economic zone operating at 10 percent capacity that could be "an incubating space for Syrian businesses that could no longer operate in Syria."

Get it right, and such a project could help both Jordan and the refugees, who could receive training and "be empowered so that when they return they haven't been impassive for years or decades."

UNHCR has tried such projects in Lebanon, but struggled to win the financial support it needs from other institutions such as the World Bank. An independent evaluation of UNHCR's response to the refugee influx in Jordan and Lebanon published in January said such ideas had not yet succeeded.

"We have talked about humanitarian reform since 2005. We have failed miserably in bringing the financial institutions closer to the humanitarian system," said one former senior UNHCR official.

UNHCR rejected that criticism, saying the World Bank had been involved very early in the Syrian civil war, although its engagement was constrained because the countries involved were not eligible for concessional lending. Guterres had been "very active" in pushing for changes in the World Bank's lending criteria, said UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery.

WHO'S TO BLAME? 

Others said Guterres should have spoken more loudly, and stood up to donors and to Syria. Formerly a frequent visitor to Damascus to promote the interests of Iraqi refugees, Guterres has not visited Syria since the war started more than four years ago. Ogata, who was UNHCR head as Yugoslavia disintegrated, would visit every six weeks or so and did not mince words in criticizing governments, one former colleague said.

The most critical U.N. voice on Syria has been Valerie Amos. Last year the then-humanitarian aid coordinator said the Syrian government and the rebels were guilty of "flagrant violations of humanitarian laws."

"There was a point at which they just stopped giving her visas," the former senior UNHCR official said. "Maybe this is what made the others go quiet. They were all worried about their relationship in Damascus and being able to operate."

But Peter Sutherland, U.N. Special Representative for Migration and Development, said criticizing UNHCR was unfair. "I think a great deal has been done by UNHCR," he said. "You have to blame politicians. They've got the figures of the numbers that have died over the past 10 years in the Mediterranean. They shouldn't need a photograph to galvanize them."

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Edited by Simon Robinson, Sara Ledwith, and Richard Woods

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