Finding a meaningful future for refugees

By Elizabeth Gibson*
Deputy High Commissioner T. Alexander Aleinikoff

The United Nations’ refugee agency knows how to set up refugee camps, but finding long-term solutions to get refugees out of those camps is not easy.

The Deputy High Commissioner of UNHCR, T. Alexander Aleinikoff,** presented the 34th Annual Thomas F. Ryan Lecture at the Georgetown University Law Center yesterday, and he emphasized that the international community needs to rethink its response to refugee situations.

“Non-solutions have become the norm and literally hundreds of thousands of refugees have become forgotten people,” he said. “We have to move away from the paradigm of dependence that currently defines the refugee regime.”

Protecting the rights of refugees and providing for their basic needs is the bread and butter of UNHCR’s work—and it’s crucial, lifesaving work. However, no matter how much of a success you might consider Thai camps that provide shelter, food, medical attention, and education for families fleeing persecution in Myanmar, it is worrisome that the camp is 35 years old and still relying on food aid, Prof. Aleinikoff said.

As another example, the Dadaab camp for Somali refugees is now the fourth largest city in Kenya, with a population of 387,870 registered refugees, according to UNHCR. There are some 10,000 children who have been born in Dadaab to parents who themselves were born in Dadaab after their own parents fled Somalia. That is three generations of refugees, and the Deputy High Commissioner said that this is a statistic the world should find extremely saddening.

Aerial image of Dadaab by Oxfam International | Flickr
The international community has gotten very good at responding to crises and providing aid, but then people get stuck. The traditional solutions for refugees are return home, local integration, or resettlement. However, home countries can remain in a state of unrest for decades. Receiving countries may generously open their borders, but often hesitate to let refugees mingle will the local population. Meanwhile, even the largest third-country resettlement programs are barely making a dent in the problem.

All the while, people sit in limbo, and aid agencies carry on as if driven by inertia. Prof. Aleinikoff said that this situation is like deciding that the solution for domestic violence is putting survivors in shelters for battered women and then just leaving them in those shelters for decades.  He said well-meaning organizations are perpetuating an “industry of dependency” and the world needs to start coming up with creative solutions.

Organizations need to focus more on empowering refugees to become self-sufficient.  For example, with a grant from the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR has worked to provide livelihoods training for young refugees in Ethiopia. UNHCR also has paired Somali refugees with landowners of undeveloped property in Ethiopia so that the refugees can farm the land and split the profits with the property owners.

There needs to be a paradigm shift so that refugees are given the opportunity to be drivers of development rather than stuck in limbo with their potential left to idle. Prof. Aleinikoff pointed out that Albert Einstein was a refugee, after all.

Making this change requires new ideas, staff with new kinds of expertise, and, as with any international endeavor, political will. But the Deputy High Commissioner was optimistic and said that change is already underway.

"Over the past nearly four years I have seen more injustice than justice,” he said. “But more hope than despair." 

* Elizabeth Gibson is the Senior Online Content Editor of The Summit and interned for Deputy High Commissioner Aleinikoff during the summer of 2013.
** Deputy High Commissioner Aleinikoff also is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and served as the dean of the law center from 2004 to 2010. He has taken a leave of absence to serve as the Deputy High Commissioner. (View his academic profile.)


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