Monday, February 27, 2006

Barbara Harrell-Bond talks to Aditi Bhaduri

Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, American University in Cairo (AUC), Distinguished Adjunct Professor and Advisor to FMRS, is credited with being one of the architects of the field of forced migration studies. Since founding the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University in 1982, Dr. Harrell-Bond has been working ceaselessly in advocating for the rights and needs of refugees and forced migrants, helping to establish legal aid programs for refugees, including Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) in Cairo. Dr. Harrell- Bond combined her advocacy with scholarly research and prolific writing, much of it focused on holding governments and inter-governmental agencies accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities towards forced migrants. Her book Imposing Aid broke new ground by providing critical analysis of the refugee aid regime. Her most recent co-authored book, Rights in Exile, has just been published. In June this year she was awarded title of Officer of Order of the British Empire (OBE) in rightful recognition of her many years of service to refugees.A few days before that, in Cairo, she shared with Aditi Bhaduri some reflections on.
How she got interested in refugee studies:
I got interested in refugee studies. In 1981 I was writing about the war in the Western Sahara and I went to Algeria and visited the Saharan refugee settlements and I was so impressed with how they were managing in unbelievably hostile environment, very cold in winter and very hot in summer. So when I came back I talked to Oxfam, which was the agency that sent me. And I asked how come the Sahara refugees are so well organized - they do not have any NGOs helping them and they are so different from other refugees that you assist. Because I had read some literature and someone said, "Oh, we're so busy saving life in emergencies that when we get around to help I think its too late, we make too many mistakes." So I just got curious how humanitarian agencies operated in the midst of emergency. So I got a fellowship from a college in Oxford and so went to study an emergency and the emergency that I found was Ugandans coming across the border into Sudan where they started coming and settling down when Idi Amin was overthrown and when the military launched the war against the north. So that was the emergency that I studied and then the college suggested that I start a refugee centre and so that's how it happened.The refugee studies centers that she got started.
I was the resident Director of our program in Oxford; it was to stimulate academic programs in other countries that have refugee situations. So over time a lot of programs got started - there was the Masters Program in South Africa, a Refugee Study Centre in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Uganda and also one in Bangladesh. I was never successful, while I was directing the Refugee Studies Centre, to get the Indians interested but during that time UNHCR also gave some funding in India. I think Calcutta was one of the places that got started and they came to a conference in Bangladesh and we encouraged them to start off a multi-disciplinary program, because the course's appeal is multi-disciplinary - the laws, psychology, social sciences, politics etc. In the meantime there was also a program at York University in Canada in 1982. But it dealt with re-settlement and since that time there were programs at Tafts University, at Columbia, on health and forced migration and I think it spread to a lot of places in the world. We have a list. And in lots of places they were teaching Refugee Studies but before 1982 it had never been seen as an academic subject. There were people who had written books and articles but they were scattered around the world so if you visit Oxford you will see the library where we tried to put together all this material from all the disciplines, historical this material as well as books. In the beginning we had a hard time spending our budget on books because there were not so many books but now of course its hard to keep up with the literature because so much is coming out.On what brought about this change....
Well, it was obviously the right idea for the time because in Oxford we started with almost no money and I realized that no one would fund an idea, they needed to have real things going on. So we started lots of activities including an academic course and so people came from far and wide and also London was a good base for people who came from the field. People from UNHCR, people from humanitarian agencies so they could always come and in the beginning I couldn't have started it growing unless I closed the doors because people were so concerned that there was no place where people thought about these issues. People went out and did humanitarian work whether they knew anything about it or not. There was a real need that people underwent training so we started a summer school. So I think we were good advertisers for this field as well as the fact that people were hungry for an academic program.
On an increase of forced migrants
Yes of course, unfortunately the numbers have vastly increased and the big issue of migration as the world gets more unequal and as populations grow, and as unfortunately wars increase. I don't like the phrase low intensity conflict because I think if somebody is bombing your house it doesn't feel very low intensity. But these kinds of wars have greatly increased since we began the program in Oxford. Of course there are more.Regarding the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), of course there are a huge number of IDPS, particularly in India, from development project, people who are forcibly displaced. And so although we were saying that we are going to work ourselves out of business with a better world where there was no persecution, unfortunately that world does not seem to be very much on the horizon.
On UNHCR's work: With refugees and IDPs...
I for one do not believe that UNHCR should be involved at all with IDPs. I think it dilutes the concept of a refugee for which it has provision in international law and UNHCR's mandate is specifically about people seeking refuge from persecution and its my view that IDPs are a problem for other agencies. If we had a strong UN organisation on human rights it should be definitely involved in the IDP issue It should be criticizing governments for how they are treating IDPs, the Red Cross should be involved with victims of war inside and outside countries, UNDP should be involved in terms of funding projects which would allow people to go home or re establish themselves. It's not an UNHR job, but unfortunately the UNHCR is an inter-governmental body and it has to respond or feels it has to respond to the pressures from governments. Of course pressure from governments would make asylum go out the window and make UNHCR into the world's largest welfare agency, which unfortunately it has become with its emphasis on repatriation and not on protection and integration. And I think it's a terrible mistake in the direction that UNHCR has taken and Mrs. Ogata's recent book is a reflection of that. So I feel very strongly that we should protect the institution of asylum. There are always going to be people who are persecuted by their governments so they should be protected.
UNHCR has done commendable work with regard to IDPs in some places like in Sri Lanka but there was really no need for it to be involved. Some other institution could also have done that. There was no reason for UNHCR to be involved. UNHCR was involved in some very dubious repatriation of Sri Lankans and that’s the problem. The problem the pressure from the donors, the pressure from governments, that make up the majority of UNHCR's contributors to its budget are all concerned about keeping refugees in and of course Bosnia became the worst case scenario where UNHCR had messed it up with the right not to be uprooted. But what that meant for the Bosnians was the right to stay where they would be killed by the snipers and of course Serebrenica all showed what an absolute failure that policy was. Southern Sudan is another case in point where all kinds of agencies led by UNHCR are doing the operation likewise in Sudan, which forces the refugees to stay in the country. And in my view when there is a civil war the best thing for all to do is get out because civilians are used to feed the war and the humanitarian aid is used to feed the war and wars keep going because humanitarian aid is there to supply soldiers inadvertently, or purposely. What I mean for example in Sudan the SPLA demanded that the agencies pay them for being there, food is diverted to the military, so we keep wars going with humanitarian aid.
On ensuring "protection"...
UNHCR does not adequately protect refugees who are outside their countries - I mean we have just written a book "Rights in Exile: Janus-faced Humanitarianism" which I wrote with the lawyer Guglielmo Verdirame. UNHCR does not protect refugees adequately, so it cannot protect IDPs, where it has to confront the Government directly. What's forgotten is that there are usually human rights organizations in these countries, for example in India, you have many very strong human rights organizations trying to protect the rights of internally displaced people uprooted by dams and development projects. There should be much more funding to strengthen these organizations. UNHCR always argues that feeding people, setting up camps etc. is part of their protection but in fact that argument falls because camps are not ways to protect people - camps become seedbeds for political ferment. For example, in Uganda, where I am going to go this afternoon, there is a recruiting officer from SPLA in every camp and every refugee who came to us in Uganda was fleeing the SPLA and not fleeing the Khartoum government, because of the grossly bad human rights record of the SPLA. So to think that you can protect them in camps is ridiculous when you have recruiting officers entering them, when the Ugandan government was sometimes actively, sometimes tacitly supporting the SPLA against the Sudan government. So it's a very complicated situation but UNHCR should concentrate on the protection of refugees in my view.
On repatriation
And in my view also, which is controversial, UNHCR should not be involved in repatriation. If you look at the (Refugee) Convention, it does not even mention repatriation except that host governments are bound not to refoul. However, the General Assembly allowed UNHCR to become involved in repatriation. For example how can UNHCR protect me, an Afghan in Pakistan when it’s inside Afghanistan helping so-called "returnees"? How can it agrees with me that it’s not safe for me to go back to Afghanistan? It's a contradiction in roles and the temptation has been to become the largest welfare organisation in the world, not the protection agency. And again if you look at the 1950 statute its very clear that UNHCR was supposed to lean on NGOs to do the necessary emergency feeding and so on and not do itself. Of course it does not do itself in theory because it has been implementing partners, but the emphasis is on relief.
There is another huge structural problem for UNHCR, for every agency, and that's the relief budgets, the emergency budgets are always easier to get than development. So you can get the emergency money with hardly any trouble. Development funds are much more difficult to get. So, the temptation is to keep everyone in a perpetual emergency situation rather than to work towards their integration and I think that the contrary example of a good government policy is again India with its policy towards the Tibetans in which they are allowed autonomy in the country and they are not forced to go to camps by the government. Its another question whether they are encouraged to live in Tibetan villages by the Tibetan government but that's another matter. But they are free to make a life for themselves and where the funding has been for education, for development, rather than for some kind of emergency rations for some camp.
On the UN Convention on Refugees...
(Smiles) One would hope that India would sign that convention though one of the Indian professors, Prof. Chimni argues that India should not sign the convention, but he argues in a very coherent way about the failure of UNHCR to uphold the convention. So, I'll let him comment on that issue but the big problem in India is for the refugees who are not Tibetans and I will hope that he has read the studies done on refugees in Delhi, which must be true of refugees all over India. Of course, India has great poverty, it will be very difficult for the Indian govt. to devote funds to these refugees but that's what the international assistance should support the Indian govt. to expand its health, social services and so on and of course India should protect these refugees from refoulement and give them some kind of a legal status in India.
There was an attempt to modify the convention by adding Article 2 to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention and with the Carthagena declaration which talks about massive human rights abuses and the OAU convention which talks about civil disorder as aresult of foreign occupation. The UNHCR in the 1970s was trying to push the OAU definition of a refugee on to the convention for the whole world to recognise and they were moderately successful. For example in Europe there has been what's called a B status or class II refugees but the point is that it makes absolute sense that refugees flee for all kinds of reasons.
On what Governments need to do…
For example, Europe is aging so it needs workers so how ridiculous it is to spend millions to keep people out. I think Spain's recent act is a good one of giving amnesty to groups who come in anyway. And the USA has done that on a regular basis, they have given Guatemalans amnesty for example, and allowed them to stay and legalise them. I think that's the direction in which we should go because as I said if there were free movement eventually we wouldn't be swamped. For example, Britain, which has put up its barriers as high as possible but has to accept others from new European countries, and is accepting thousands and thousands of Poles for example. But somehow these Polish people are finding jobs which the British could not do and their economy is thriving, though Britain is one of the most expensive places to live in and I know because I lived there for some time but nevertheless it needs these people so why it is so restrictive of refugees? Amongst the Afghans it discovered so many who are doctors and at the same time Britain is going around in the so called third world scooping up doctors and teachers that it needs in its schools. Amongst the Zimbabwean refugees it wants to send back there are many teachers. I mean how ridiculous not to use the talent that comes into your country and give these people an opportunity to retrain if necessary, which is what they did with Afghan doctors and let them work. There are all these niches in the market.
If you look at Egypt, Egypt does not give the refugees automatic right to work, but we recently had someone do a study about Sadat City, and Sadat City which wasbuilt for a million and a half people but only has a hundred thousand but nevertheless there are many factories, training course and the whole agro-business around it and they longed to have the refugees come in and take these jobs. Unfortunately, its 70 miles from UNHCR so refugees have no idea about how to get there but if someone managed their migration to a part of the country where there is employment and where they need employment how much better it would be for the country and for the refugees. I don't think people think enough so instead of recommending any policy every country has to really review its own policy and see what needs to be done for itself, but guided always by the rights of refugees under the convention.
When I talk about bogus asylum seekers, well maybe there are lots of them but that's because the door for immigration is so closed like in a country like Britain, there are countries like Spain that cannot escape people getting in because people can keep trying, sometimes drowning to get across the Mediterranean so they get in and of course Spain realizes that it needs them.
Ireland, which is always thought of as a country of out-migration, has benefited greatly from the fact that it received refugees and other migrants. There is a book called "More People, More Trees" about Kenya, a particular place that was almost desert and for some reason ppl started migrating there and they reclaimed all the land. Its amazing what more people can do in a desertified area if they are given more rights.
On Imposed AID
My first book on refugees was on "Imposing Aid"...India has been quite good in warding off but of course aid is imposed. The aid policy of UNHCR in Southern Sudan and its partner NGOs was an imposed one. The camp policy was an imposed one.On Darfur…
Darfur problem has been going on for hundreds of years it has its roots. The government, of Khartoum is not constrained and I think we have a situation of that horrible word called ethnic cleansing. I am given to understand that as they uproot the farmers who also happen to be black Africans they are also importing Chadeans to take over the land. Because it is a customary land situation - people without written titles of land and so on - it's a horrific situation and I don't see it being resolved.
It has been brought to light now because journalists went. Journalists went, you are key to any situation being covered but you don't go to Bangladesh for example, where there are Rohingyas pouring out of Burma and there have been three attempts to repatriate them with great loss of lives and they are still coming but UNHCR is not registering them and journalists don't go so in Bangladesh. Dr. Abrar Chowdhury is head of the migration program there and all his efforts to get UNHCR to take notice of Rohingyas go unnoticed because there is no press there. And we are so dependent on journalists and unfortunately not too many journalists do their homework before they go to a situation but at least when they do go and there is some kind of press coverage then people know. But unfortunately there are many emergencies where journalists don't go for example; we hardly have any coverage of the Congo crisis, which is just immense.
I don't really know why journalists suddenly descended on Sudan, perhaps we don't have many journalists or freelancers and of course politics has to do with it. Perhaps these (allegations about highlighting Darfur to distract attention from Palestine and Iraq) are true. Of course it would be very hard to ensure that every emergency was covered. I remember Southern Sudan in 1982 - it was an emergency that you cannot imagine, the scale of it. The Ugandans wanted to stay home, they moved a little further from their homes to protect themselves, a little further, they would think that they can go back and they stayed in the bush unless there were literally thousands starving. It was a horrific situation and the UNHCR Programme Officer with whom I was working was doing his best to get journalists there and that's against the rules of UNHCR - you are never supposed to contact a journalist. But he was trying to get someone there to cover the situation. I finally got so angry and I wrote a letter to my husband in oxford to get in contact with the British Refugee Council and to do something about it and unfortunately my telex got leaked. But in fact UNHCR came (they don't like any negative press coverage) and when they saw what was happening, heads rolled, planeloads of supplies came in and that's unfortunately how the process works. If there is no witness on the ground to make international coverage of a situation it just doesn't happen.
On bringing the condition of bad roads in Sierra Leone to the notice of its Government....That was a pretty different but good situation. That was a village in Sierra Leone where the village built a road and linked it with the main road. But the best lesson of that incident was to ask people what they really need and then to deliver what they really need.On "good practices" of states regarding refugees…
Regarding refugees, I'll talk about Malawi. Malawi had a good UNHCR official who went there when UNHCR was finally allowed into Malawi and said lets do it differently. He proposed that the money be put through the Ministry of Health and the Govt. decided to put it through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and they didn't confine refugees to camps in the beginning, it was only in the extreme when they had a million Mozambicans in a country of 4 million that some camps were established. But mostly people were freely settled amongst the locals.


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