Notes from Geneva: Middle East & North Africa

23 06 2011

Annual Consultation with NGOs: 2009

Middle East & North Africa Bureau

The vast majority of refugees in the MENA region are in urban areas, where ensuring their protection remains a challenge for UNHCR and its partners. Against this background, the focus of the MENA regional session will be on the protection of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR in an urban context. The discussion will be geared towards identifying ways and means to maintain and further develop the protection space in the region.

Moderator: Zina Khoury, Jordan River Foundation

50 per cent of all refugees are in an urban context. 25 per cent of refugees are in the MENA region (more if you include the Palestinians under UNWRA).  The region is faced with political turmoil and security issues that make refugee protection more difficult. On top of this the vast number of refugees are hosted by developing countries, however all key players – host countries, UNHCR and NGO’s share the responsibility of urban refugees in this region.

Mr Radhouane Nouicer, Director – MENA Bureau

Key focus of UNHCR is to secure a safe space for refugees in this region, to develop and expand the humanitarian space.

You are talking about a region that is hosting millions of refugees; talking about a geopolitical and economic strain of hosting the largest numbers of refugees on earth. Refugees must be respected, not threatened with refoulement. How do we regard the situation? There is no political ideal. We hope the security and day-to-day situation will help refugees to return home.

There is a good, sound level of assistance in Syria and Jordan, but it is not preventing return. It is the security and social conditions in Iraq. We won’t encourage return unless it is dignified. That’s why we are not encouraging return, the conditions don’t allow it, but if asked, we will help.

  • Region is looking to build comprehensive protection mechanisms including in the areas of asylum developments, access to safety, border protection and rights once in a new country.
  • UNHCR is carrying prime responsibility for registrations and seeking of solutions.
  • Syria,JordanandYemen are hosting the majority of the refugees in the region who are originating from Iraq.
  • Urban refugee situations are costly, complicated and labour intensive for UNHCR in this region
  • UNHCR has few memoranda of understandings with States and lack comprehensive legal frameworks to work within, the majority of times they are working on an ad hoc arrangement with States.
  • The protracted situations in the region are placing undue constraints on States and creating negative attitudes of host communities. Integration is not an option and hence resettlement is the only option.
  • Access for UNHCR has become more difficult for UNHCR in some protracted instances.
  • Push back strategies of States receiving mixed flows of migrants and refugees is of great concern for UNHCR. As is new border control mechanisms that fail to allow a fair assessment of claims. International responsibilities are not being adhered to.
  • Statelessness continues to be a challenge in the region because of historical and political factors of the region.
  • Improvements have been made in same national legislation frameworks to improve asylum access (Syria,Morocco & Libya)
  • MENA Bureau wanting to work more closely with all organizations via increased dialogue, open transparency and State relationships to improve capacity building & refugee registration.
  • Progress made with SGBV especially inIraqandYemenbut more needs to be done for comprehensive AGDM mainstreaming and to bring the concerns to the centre of all operations.
  • Two key initiatives being undertaken by the bureau 1) Sensitization of Human Rights 2) A research study on statelessness commissioned and to be used as an advocacy tool to promote changes to legislation to reduce the incidents of statelessness.

Questions from the floor:

  • What will be the impact of the US military withdrawal from Iraq, what are UNHCR doing to monitor the situation and what impact with it have on UNHCR operations?

UNHCR Response: the situation in Iraq is due to 30 years of oppression and tyranny, not just the war. There are huge social re-structuring required. The strategy for Iraq is a) Priority given to establishing and maintaining asylum space in asylum countries and then providing assistance to those host countries b) Attention to returnees by preparing ground for safe and orderly return by helping the government to focus its attention to the problem of returning refugees by helping them to realize that this is in national interest c) Resettlement remains at the same pace because many will not be able to go home as their links have been cut. d) Refugees inside Iraq receive as much attention and protection. With regard to how UNHCR is monitoring the situation and impact their operations, they will take their orders from New York with regard to staff security.

  • How many Iraq refugees have been resettled? And how are the UNHCR helping the IDPS that are living in horrible conditions?

UNHCR Response: 75,000 Iraqis have been submitted for re-settlement, only 50 per cent have been resettled – this slow pace is a big concern.  The IDP’s are living in worse conditions and the same question should be directed to the Iraqi government.

Comment from Andrew Harper (Head, UNHCR Iraq Support Unit)

Strategy to improve Human Rights in Iraq; working with communities, working with NGO’s, more analysis on where they are from and where they want to go, more staff in Iraq and developing a more tailored approach to the activity

The security situation in Iraq is very difficult, creating a more challenging environment for UNHCR to fulfill its mandate. The ability to move around is restricted because of security concerns. There will be a vacuum, manouevering prior to the 2010 elections. The whole, displaced territory needs to adopt the UN as a whole; look at holistic measures and other players including the World Bank, IMF, European funding, for a much improved picture.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: That plan is perfect, but the reality is the global financial crisis will cut budgets. What is the UNHCR’s plan to fulfil its policy aims, especially for Iraqis?

UNHCR response: At the conclusion of our programme evaluation with Iraqi refugees in the urban context, we have a lot to learn regarding the engagement of the population; while we have helped the protection space situation, it is far from satisfactory; UNHCR officers rose to the challenge of identifying refugees; used mobile registration; surveys (IPSIS); working engagement with multiple actors more than used to; increased partnerships with national NGOs, so it’s not just an international competition. What is our service delivery in urban settings? We use cash, ATMs and other technologies; we resort to state services rather than duplicate. We have lots to show from two years of solid engagement. We bring to the table experience – MENA tested these new approaches when the book was not yet written sand there was a policy vacuum.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: How is cooperation between governments and UNHCR? There are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 800,000 in Jordan and a further 1.5 million IDPs. They are not refugees. They are our guests. How does UNHCR see the situation after the US withdrawal? What will Iraqis get? In Syria, services are good, they won’t give them up. How will you encourage return from Syria and Jordan? The problem in Yemen is they are not integrated and there are no services other than UNWRA, but there is no assistance for many. I believe you should train Palestinian staff.

Response from M. Nouicier:

Both 2007 and 2008 started slowly, but we fully funded our Iraqi programmes. We have shown results and people still understand that many millions are suffering. The budget for Iraq is $271 million. Iraqi government contributes $28 million; US commits 60 per cent of the total.

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