International Affairs Forum: Despite little research on the topic, forced migration itself has been recognized as playing a role/having a significant effect on state fragility. Why is this so?
Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond: This is a big topic, but in short, UNHCR’s pressure to confine refugees to camps until they can be repatriated results in all kinds of negative effects upon these populations, such as politicizing them. Repatriation is actually rarely voluntary. For example, research could document a direct link between the forced repatriation of Burundi from Tanzania to the outbreak of war in that country. This process has been repeated again since May/June 2009 through to the present and all of this is being covered up by resounding acclaim to Tanzania for having naturalized a small portion of this refugee population.
IA-Forum: Whose interests do refugee camps serve? Are there feasible alternatives to this method of aid?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: These subjects are vast and cannot be summed up in a short answer. For an in-depth answer for a discussion of whose interests it’s in, I would suggest reading ‘Counting the Refugees’ in the Journal of Refugee Studies, in my review of Ogata’s book, and in Chapter 8 of Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugee (see www.forcedmigration.org). Another good source for information is the USCRI ‘anti-warehousing campaign’.
The problem is that nowadays everyone takes Ngara and Goma and the Rwandans as their example, but refugees usually do not arrive en masse. Even there in Ngara, before anyone else came, the local officials in Tanzania were telling the Rwandans to keep moving inland; even WFP in Goma was giving the same message, until UNHCR came and trapped both populations with aid.
IA-Forum: Repatriation has always been the international community’s preferred solution and since the end of the Cold War it has also been the dominant operational solution. However, would you agree that in the past decade, we have seen an increasingly nuanced understanding of the limits of repatriation amongst international organizations? Is this in direct contrast to states' continued pressure for refugee return?
Dr. Harrell-Bond:: I don’t agree that we have seen an ‘increasingly nuanced understanding of the limits of repatriation.’ UNHCR’s most recent urban policy is not an indication of this in my view.
In response to the second question, only Rwanda is pressuring for the return of refugees. This isn’t seen in Afghanistan, Columbia, Ivory Coast, Burma, or even southern Sudan where refugees could have voted in absentia.
IA-Forum: Forced migration has historically been addressed by the international humanitarian community as a question of aid delivery and legal protection. However, states have tended to view forced migration as also being a political issue involving questions of entitlement to national membership and inter-regional security. Do you believe the humanitarian approach to forced migration to be under threat from an increasingly securitized public political discourse surrounding all forms of migration?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: The issue of refugees is going off the radar completely due to the mixing of refugee categories and the mission creep of UNHCR. An advisor to the High Commissioner, Alistair Boulton, had the audacity to say to me in June 2010 that ‘refugees were a dying industry’, yet the persecution and torture of victims of those who oppose government policies in too many countries is increasing. Look at the statistics and you’ll find that 193 countries produced persons seeking asylum in 2008 (www.srlan.org/beta)
IA-Forum: In addressing forced migration flows the international humanitarian community constantly refers to the concept of protection. However protection has proven difficult to define in detail. What do you believe to be some of the difficulties – ethical, conceptual and practical – of negotiating the politics of state-based protection while simultaneously attempting to preserve the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian space?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: You are speaking about UNHCR’s role in promoting the Convention, and this unfortunately is a task for which it is charged in its statute but is almost completely neglected over the past decades. However, it is the donors who are really to blame for putting their economic interests before concern for human rights. No funds are available to assist a government in absorbing refugees, to enact domestic refugee legislation, and to reform domestic law in line with international human rights standards. All funds for refugees go through UNHCR through emergency budgets and they are distributed through their NGO ‘’implementing partners’, never to governments.
IA-Forum: What are some of the conditions needed to secure the sustainable return of refugees as part of post-conflict reconstruction?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: Funds are needed for serious development in these countries that creates an adequate infrastructure, schools, medical facilities, energy sources, and so on. When there are possibilities of a livelihood and security, refugees will come home.
IA-Forum: Only a very small number of studies consider the situation of refugee children and adolescents in broader, socio-cultural terms. In what ways are children and youths affected differently from adults by conflict, and forced migration?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: This is a broad question for a short answer but consider positive interventions that could make the experience broadening for such children. For example, why not use the International B. curriculum for secondary schools in refugee-affected regions? What about dual citizenship for returning refugees? Why not more language training on languages spoken on both sides of the border? What about standardizing professional qualifications across borders?
IA-Forum: How has urban displacement posed new challenges in meeting the humanitarian needs of refugees?
Dr. Harrell-Bond:: The new urban refugee policy will require that UNHCR staff completely revolutionize their thinking about ‘where refugees belong’. From the 1997 Comprehensive Urban Policy days until now, refugees belonged in camps and only those ‘out’ with ‘permission’ could be considered refugees; self-settled refugees were not counted.
IA-Forum: How can researchers and policymakers reform global migration governance regimes so that these structures can better empower and thus protect the peoples of fragile states?
Dr. Harrell-Bond:: There has to be more attention directed towards donors, who after all, are the major ‘villains’. They must be convinced that funds should be directed towards helping ‘fragile’ states to reform their domestic legislation in line with international human rights standards and helping host states absorb refugees by directing and tying their aid to ‘beneficiary blind’ projects. This will assist them to absorb refugees and the poor nationals (i.e. expanding health facilities, schools, water and electricity infrastructure and so on).
IA-Forum: Distinctions have been made between refugees as political entities and the economic and voluntary migrants. Do you believe that this dichotomy has been used to serve the interest of those states interested in managing migration rather than refugee protection?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: Refugees and ‘voluntary migrants’ are distinct and different sets of international law are applicable to each. As I discussed earlier, the problem is that refugees are going off the radar completely. They must be treated as a separate category if genuine refugees seeking asylum are to be protected.
IA-Forum: Is there a need to revisit forced displacement within a framework of political economy? The major challenge for development policymakers and researchers interested in forced migration will be to understand how to use the agency and economic capacities of the displaced within reconstruction programs, encouraging rather than limiting human mobility.
Dr. Harrell-Bond: The emphasis should be on removing the obstacles facing refugees in making their economic capacities. This entails giving them the right to work, recognizing their professional qualifications, providing opportunities for them to retrain and fit into the local economy, ensuring the education of their young, and ensuring their freedom of movement including transferring their skills to another country if work is available. In short, it means returning to the approach during Nansen’s period.
IA-Forum: In your opinion what form of rights to protection should be accorded to the environmentally displaced and what form of international regime can best address environmental forced migration?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: What is clear is that natural disasters such as the recent Pakistani floods cannot be handled by a flood of small NGOs frantically competing for funds without either the skills or the logistical strength to manage such a situation. On day 2 of such a disaster, the entire army of a country should be mobilized to move into the crisis to rescue and assist these people. Moreover, such a force should be retained to rebuild in the stricken area.
IA-Forum: On what basis might states be persuaded to re-open asylum space? When and how can resettlement strategies be successfully pursued? Do you believe that Western government policymakers, including those in the UK, need to be more responsive to research evidence demonstrating the continued need for resettlement as a solution to forced migration?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: States in the global south will only be moved by the example of the richest states. “Western’ governments” approach to “development” aid to countries in the global south has had the effect of weakening those states to the point that their only power is the control of violence that is being used to hang onto dictatorial power, while they are helpless to take on the legitimate roles of the state and caring for the needs of their citizens. Violating of the rights of ordinary citizens, persecution, and torture are increasing in these countries and victims are trapped with no way to escape.
Donors must address the economic causes of these wide-scale violations that leave people with no other choice than seeking asylum. As host states in the global south take on the restrictionist policies of the richer states, it is essential in the short run to open more resettlement areas in countries like the UK. This is “band aid” approach however, and serious attention must be placed on addressing the causes. Ultimately, resolving this issue will require a revolution in relationships between the rich and the poor nations.
IA-Forum: What is your greatest criticism of humanitarian agencies and bodies such as the UNHCR?
Dr. Harrell-Bond: The lack of moral leadership from the High Commissioner to stand up against the pressures from its donors and refuse to allow UNHCR’s work to be controlled by the political interests of the richest states.
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