Furio de Angelis: UNHCR’s man in Ottawa

| January 5, 2015 | 0 Comments

DIPLOMAT_1-2-2015_0025Furio de Angelis is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Ottawa. His job here is to raise awareness of his organisation’s mandate and role in the world, and inform Canadians about the plight of refugees worldwide. There were 51 million displaced people in 2013, a record number since the end of the Second World War. He sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell.

Diplomat magazine: Your diplomatic mission was established in Canada how many years ago?
Furio de Angelis: This office opened in the mid-1970s and it opened in a crucial moment of refugee history. Directly after the contribution of Canada for the settlement of the Chilean refugees after the crisis in Chile, [Chileans fled their country after a military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973] but also during the time of the Indo-Chinese “boat people.” Canada was a big contributor to that operation in the late ’70s.
In the mid-’70s, this office was formed and a representative was accredited. It’s always been a small office. This is not what we call an operation — where we actually manage refugee operations in places such as South Sudan, Lebanon, Turkey, where there are real operations, where we are on the ground and we deliver actual assistance.
Here, this office is mainly involved in relating to the government and supporting the government with policies with respect to refugee management. The government in Canada has the structures, capacity and resources to do all the work in terms of implementation of refugee assistance. There are large numbers of NGOS and service-providers who are helping newcomers.
Canada is, and has always been, an immigrant country, so it has the services and networks to receive 250,000 immigrants per year, of whom only part are refugees or persons in need of international protection. We are only involved in that component of the larger immigration intake. These are the parts that engage Canada from the international point of view, regarding its international obligation, which derives from the treaties to which Canada is party. In this context, it’s the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. That’s our entry point to the immigration debate.

DM: What do you see as your main responsibility in the job?
FdeA: The work of our office in Canada is mainly related to two different functions. We liaise with government departments involved in the implementation of legislation. We appreciate the fact that we have this dialogue with the departments. In that respect, our partners are Citizenship and Immigration, Canada Border Services Agency and the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Our work with the ministry of foreign affairs relates to the support that Canada, as a donor country, has given to UNHCR global operations. Canada has increased its support considerably in recent years. It has been a regular donor to UNHCR in the last three years and this is very important as we look at the situation around the world. There is a record number of displaced persons in the world — up to 51 million in 2013. This is a record number since the Second World War and UNHCR is at the centre of that, with other partners, of course. We are part of the international response.
It’s very important that we maintain interest and contributions of important donors, not only as financial contributions, but also as an expression of interest in global governance. It’s important that Canada helps us respond to the crises, but it’s also important that countries [such as Canada] show leadership in the world with respect to tackling a humanitarian problem. That’s what UNHCR requests.
We appreciate the contributions Canada is making and, of course, we continue to seek assistance because the needs are so large. This year will probably bring another record.
Another important function of this office is more general public information. For the government to act, it’s important that the public in general is aware and understands why. The Canadian public has responded very well to our requests for private support. We hit a new record in 2013 of private contributions [from Canada], which have, for the first time, been over $2.3 million in terms of private contributions. The previous year, it was $2 million. These numbers show there’s a lot more potential for private and corporate donations. A good response from the citizens to humanitarian crises is able to generate renewed attention from the public opinion and, of course, will influence also government’s decisions. And again, I should restate that Canada has been increasing its support.
We also have a function to support the resettlement programs of the government of Canada. Canada, together with Australia and the U.S., is one of the leading countries in resettlement. When we talk about resettlement, these are refugees who are in other countries, but who cannot stay in those countries and are accepted into Canada through an organised program. This is different from the refugees who arrive spontaneously. This is important because it demonstrates the willingness of a country to do more than its legal obligation [which is to consider those who arrive spontaneously.]
We choose from the refugee population those who are in need of resettlement.

DM: What do you see as the most troubling situations for refugees worldwide? How big is the problem?
FdeA: The numbers speak for themselves. More than 51 million displaced is a huge number, of whom 33 million are internally displaced — this means the conflicts are more and more of an internal nature. These are people displaced,  but remaining within their countries. A further 10 million are refugees who are displaced in a country other than their own. [The balance are asylum-seekers, those who are submitting applications to become refugees, those who are stateless.]
This is not only in terms of numbers — we are also seeing very high-level emergencies in the newspapers every day. We are talking about Syria and Iraq, with all their political geo-strategic complications. We are seeing conflicts in central Africa, which are devastating. South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is collapsing into strife and internal war. What is happening in the Central African Republic is also terrible, with a half million displaced internally and another half million refugees.
These are the crises that have consumed UNHCR in terms of resources. Syria/Iraq is a big operation and we’re seeing the effect on a country like Lebanon. It’s only twice as big as Prince Edward Island and it now has more than a million refugees. If you take a half million refugees and put them in Charlottetown, you may have an idea of the impact of this situation. It’s really incredible.
On one side, we’re seeing that the resilience and the capacity of the host community to receive refugees in this dramatic situation is enormous. Sometimes we, in the West, feel we’re shouldering the burden, but it’s absolutely not the case. In fact, [according to a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the executive committee of UNHCR in September 2014], almost 9 out of 10 refugees in the world today are living in developing countries. This has increased proportionately. Some time ago, only 70 percent were in developing countries. Now it’s 90 percent.
We are trying to raise awareness of the fact that global displacement and wars are becoming more and more entangled. The world is becoming smaller and all problems impact on each other.

DM: What are various countries spending? Who are the top donors?
FdeA: The U.S. is the big donor. After that, there’s the EU, the Scandinavian countries. Canada is an important donor. In 2013, Canada gave $77.3 million and it was ranked 11th in the world. It’s always around there.

DM: What is the solution to this huge problem?
FdeA: The high commissioner [António Guterres] always points out when he visits Canada that prevention and solutions are the magic key words in this context. But both of these words are relevant only if they are implemented through political will.
Humanitarian situations can be addressed as an immediate response. That’s what UNHCR is doing, but countries have to really promote a culture of political solution, of capacity, of international co-operation and a policy to solve political problems.
Without political solutions, all the different crises that are producing humanitarian needs won’t go away on their own. We are seeing old crises as well — civil strife in Somalia and ongoing issues with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  [More than 1.1 million Somalis were displaced internally in 2013 and another million are in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen thanks to civil strife and tensions between competing warlords and attacks from the terrorist group, Al Shabab. In Afghanistan, turmoil caused by a war against terrorism and the Taliban and al-Qaeda have led to 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees who have fled to countries such as Pakistan. These are crises that have been there decades. Political solutions are in the hands of government, and governments have to act to find them.
Within UNHCR, we look at the solution for refugee problems and that is voluntary repatriation [returning home] — the most preferred solution, because it shows that the original problem that created the displacement doesn’t exist anymore. Other solutions are to remain and locally integrate in the country of asylum or otherwise, resettlement in a third country, which is a solution for a very limited number.
These are solutions for the refugee humanitarian problem. The other solutions are on the political level to address the problems that cause the humanitarian crisis to begin with.
An example of how prevention could have avoided a humanitarian crisis is the situation in Central African Republic: In 2011, the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Central African Republic warned that a lack of support to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate former combatants and reform the security sector could put the country back on the “brink of disaster” with serious repercussions for the region. She appealed for $20 million dollars to conclude this project — a tiny fraction of the cost of the recent conflict. But her call went unheard. The consequences are there, for everyone to see. Stronger international resolve and commitment to prevent conflict and forced displacement would be in everyone’s interest. One thing is clear: In the absence of the political will and foresight required for effective prevention, all that the international community can do is react to new crises, lament the suffering they cause, and try to come up with higher and higher amounts of money required to cover the resulting cost.
High Commissioner [António Guterres] has made a strong appeal to bring humanitarian assistance and development assistance closer together, knowing that humanitarian assistance is only a fraction of what developed countries invest in development assistance. The latter is slow to arrive and more difficult to implement, and it comes through different channels. When the crisis happens, humanitarian assistance arrives and sometimes, as a humanitarian response, you also cover needs that aren’t strictly related to a humanitarian response, for instance building houses. If the international community brings these two things together, the impact will be more evident.
The humanitarian budget is just one tenth of the overall development assistance from the international community. So you see there are a lot of resources there that could be better managed. Development, if well targeted, can also address elements of potential conflict [and possibly prevention]. You understand the likelihood of conflicts and can respond.

DM: Can you offer some examples and descriptions of people and conditions around the world?
FdeA: I’ve seen this all my life. Not now [in Canada], but I’ve been with UNHCR 25 years. I served in Geneva at headquarters for a period, but besides that, this is the only country in which I have served that is not a direct operation. I was in Kenya during the last crisis of internal displacement due to electoral violence at the end of 2007. I was in Nairobi. That was particularly challenging because we had the refugee program itself, which was already a very large program with Somalis and other refugees from the region, and on top of this came the internal displacement with different dynamics and problems.
UNHCR was part of a larger response. It was a year full of work, but also full of images and experiences that are very touching from many respects. In the past, I also worked on  the Central African crisis. I was in Burundi and Rwanda. I was in the Balkans during the war.  I was in Afghanistan. I’ve seen many different aspects of crisis.
What remains is always, in a sense, the resilience of refugees and the community that hosts them. The capacity to respond to the needs is amazing. There is also the fact that people who are the victims of the violence are just looking for very normal things. The life they are trying to rebuild and re-establish is full of what you’d call normality, but in an abnormal context. So sometimes you just want to facilitate this normality — going to school, being healthy, having a normal amount of food and offering leisure opportunities in camps, to organise a social life. What is most discouraging in refugee camps is seeing young people of school age with all this time on their hands. It can have a strong psychological impact. They feel their life is being wasted.

DM: Do you have any memories of individuals in particular?
FdeA: Well, there are so many, but maybe the ones that remain most in my memory are the families that end up being split, for whatever reason. Often it’s the death of the parent, usually the husband. The capacity of the mothers to carry on and really care in very difficult situations is sometimes amazing. The strength of a woman with a few children, and sometimes more than a few. A woman with a family to look after — the strength and the resilience and also the support they give to each other is really impressive.
Another point — from one continent to another, people react very similarly. It’s an important truth. We are all the same. There is absolutely no difference in our reactions when it comes to moments of difficulty. It’s a good lesson for people who believe traditional customs make people different. It’s not true.

DM: So this is the worst situation since the Second World War.
FdeA: It’s a record, I would say, since the Second World War, a record in the modern era of refugee management, since the creation of the United Nations and the treaty that established, for the first time, a universal declaration of who is a refugee.
Sometimes critics say times have changed and the convention no longer relates. But what still works is that the convention still meets those basic needs that are immortal and eternal with respect to protection. In crisis, those are the reasons for which people are persecuted or victims of certain situations. Technology can change but in the end, people fight over resources, control of territory, ownership of land. This creates the displacement.
What is maybe more relevant in modern times is that weapons are more deadly. And what we’re seeing now, however, is that attacks on civilians have become commonplace in times of war.

DM: The current crisis in Iraq/Syria has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. What needs to be done there?
FdeA: It’s surely the worst humanitarian crisis at the moment. With 3.2 million refugees — that’s a large, large number and the impact on the region is already very serious. Jordan and Turkey now have a number of refugees, which could really bring about other crises, but so far, they’ve managed to adopt a policy of welcoming and acceptance.
The region has been accepting of the situation, but the possibility for deterioration is always there. Without additional support, we don’t know how long this is sustainable. And again, the political solution isn’t there. There is a danger of a protracted situation, which is risky because we are seeing Somalia, which has been in conflict for a long time, is now a failed state.

DM: When you compute how much money is needed for  supplies and shelter, what is your estimated cost to properly deal with the crisis in Syria and Iraq, and the situation worldwide?
FdeA: Worldwide humanitarian funding in 2013 has been the highest ever in recent history. It was $22 billion — this is the global humanitarian funding. But we’ve said that this is only one-tenth of development funding and it isn’t enough. The high commissioner for refugees has appealed to the international community and used very strong words. He has said the entire system is nearly bankrupt. All the major operations — Syria, Central African Republic — they are all about 40 percent funded so far for this year.
UNHCR brings forward the amount we need for 2014, and now, in October, we’re only at 40 percent. But even with that, it’s a record amount. That’s why the high commissioner says the system is bankrupt. So what to do? Maybe the strategy is to organise it better — maybe the development funds should be better managed and co-ordinated in a humanitarian context.
For developed countries that have the most resources, the key is for them to offer political solutions that cost nothing. How difficult is it for countries to get along with respect to issues of ideology, issues of political power and hard power?

DM: Well, non-state actors, such as ISIL, add complexity — it doesn’t seem they’re interested in a political solution.
FdA: Yes. They skew the entire debate into security. When everything comes down to a security assessment or response, public opinion shifts. Everything shifts. That’s the big challenge. I have no magic solution. No humanitarian actors, surely, have magic words in that respect. Political leadership should have the magic wand, but also the responsibility to go beyond the immediate fears and reach out.
I’m sure a lot has been tried, but as a humanitarian actor, you always say more has to be done.

DM: What can Canada do?
FdeA: This was the appeal of the high commissioner during his visit in May — we need Canada to continue in its role of leading humanitarian responses to global crises through increased contributions, resettlement programs — taking more people. We have asked Canada to increase its intake. We’ve asked that they maintain the general intake of 13,000 into its two streams — government assisted and private assisted. But we’ve also asked that Canada create additional programs — especially in the case of Syria. There has been a positive response from the government. We’ve been assured Canada will do its part.

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