Thursday, March 31, 2011

Community Based Approach to Refugee Protection: UNHCR’s Experience in New Delhi

UNHCR, New Delhi


Refugee protection is gradually shifting away from individual case management to a community-based approach (UNHCR: 1996). Such an approach is rooted in the principle of helping refugees to help themselves and goes beyond the mere provision of material relief i.e. cash assistance, aiming to address the social, human, emotional and psychological needs of refugees.

In an urban context, the challenges of reaching out to individual refugees are manifold. The refugee population is widely dispersed and isolated in their host communities with whom they have no cultural, social or language ties. Poverty and lack of sustainable employment and income relegates many refugees to the socio-economic margins and exposes them to major protection risks.

Refugees in urban areas often suffer from lack of community identity and support. The process of community building can be assisted by creating structures and procedures to facilitate communication, dialogue and mutual support. Community building between refugees and the host population should also be actively encouraged, not only in the interests of good relations and public order, but also in the context of local integration as a possible durable solution.

What is a Community based Approach?

A community-based approach is a way of working in partnership with refugees and asylum seekers during all stages of UNHCR’s programme cycle. It recognises the resilience, capacities, skills and resources of persons of concern, builds on these to deliver protection and solutions, and supports the community’s own goals.

This approach can help communities work to prevent social problems and to deal directly with those that do arise, instead of having external actors step in and assume these responsibilities. It supports refugees and asylum seekers in re-establishing familiar cultural patterns and support structures to work together in exercising and enjoying their human rights. (UNHCR: 2008)

UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas emphasises on community orientation as one of the key principles.

UNHCR’s approach in urban settings will be community-based. In accordance with this principle, the Office will strive to mobilize and capacitate the refugee population, so as to preserve and promote their dignity, self-esteem, productive and creative potential.

Need for a Community based Approach to Refugee Protection in New Delhi

Refugees face a number of problems living in an expensive urban environment like New Delhi. With rising costs and lack of employment opportunities, refugees suffer severe economic hardship. Poverty is a major constraint and impacts on all aspects of life in asylum. The increasing competition for scarce resources with local populations can put refugees at conflict with local populations and at risk of exploitation and discrimination.

Refugees and asylum seekers in India do not have a legal right to work and often live in poor socio economic conditions. However, many of them are able to find employment in the informal job market but often, work in exploitative conditions and are paid low wages. Most of them live in shared and overcrowded accommodation in unsanitary conditions. Instances of gender based violence, including domestic violence and substance abuse are commonly reported, resulting in deteriorating family and community relations.

The number of refugees and asylum seekers has been steadily increasing over the last few years without a proportionate increase in UNHCR’s resources. UNHCR has made significant changes to its programmes to address the evolving needs of the operation.

Given the excessively long waiting times for registration of asylum seekers, UNHCR outsourced registration to a legal implementing partner in mid-2009. As a result, asylum seekers are now registered within three weeks of approaching UNHCR. UNHCR has also streamlined its refugee status determination (RSD) processes to ensure quicker processing of asylum claims.

UNHCR has directed its efforts to narrow the gap in services between asylum seekers and refugees by providing increased access to all asylum seekers of its programmes (health, education, legal aid, counseling, local language lessons) except for those involving direct cash assistance and some livelihood programmes.

To ensure the best possible use of its limited resources, UNHCR has gradually shifted away from an individual assistance to a community based approach by targeting assistance to those refugees and asylum seekers most in need, including unaccompanied and separated children, single women, female headed households, the elderly, the infirm and persons with disabilities.

Some of the features of UNHCR’s community based approach are described as follows:

Protection Outreach

As the 2009 policy on urban refugees states:

UNHCR’s responsibility is to reach as many of those persons who are concern to the organization as possible, an approach that requires the Office to adopt a proactive approach to protection planning and implementation.

In New Delhi, UNHCR has strengthened its protection outreach activities, primarily through the Women’s Protection Centre (WPC) in West Delhi for refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar and by establishing regular UNHCR presence in partners’ centres in other areas where refugees and asylum seekers from other nationalities live. By reaching out to the community, UNHCR has better served its protection role through early identification and timely intervention to address protection needs and gaps in service delivery.

Fostering Better Relations with Communities

A key aspect of the community based approach is to treat refugees and asylum seekers as partners and not mere beneficiaries. UNHCR’s relationship with refugees in urban areas has sometimes been tense with some degree of mutual suspicion. The 2009 policy highlights the need for UNHCR to strengthen community outreach efforts to ‘establish a constructive dialogue and positive partnership with refugees in urban areas’.

In New Delhi, UNHCR holds regular dialogue with refugees and asylum seekers using a number of channels including refugee reception, protection outreach, open house meetings, participatory assessments and meetings with community representatives. Such direct, transparent and regular interaction has improved relations and fostered the spirit of partnership between UNHCR and the communities.

Open house meetings provide refugees and asylum seekers from each national group the opportunity to get together and present their concerns as a community to UNHCR. Such fora also allow UNHCR to share information, explain policies, clarify doubts and address concerns of the community.

Participatory assessments are another useful tool to build partnerships with refugee and asylum seeker men and women of all ages and backgrounds. What is special in these assessments is that they come together according to their nationality, gender and age group, in the understanding that beyond the commonalities of their situation in India, they have specific concerns which relate to their gender and age group. Together with UNHCR and its partners, they identify protection risks as well as solutions, including the capacities of the communities themselves. The findings of participatory assessments constitute some of the key elements in the planning and implementation of UNHCR’s programmes.

In addition, UNHCR holds regular meetings with community representatives to review issues of concern and discuss possible solutions.

These mechanisms assist UNHCR in reaching out to refugees and asylum seekers and create awareness of and receive feedback on existing services and opportunities.

Training and Income Generation: Towards a Path of Self-Reliance

Poverty and lack of sustainable income and employment continues to remain a major problem for refugees and asylum seekers in Delhi. UNHCR has expanded its livelihood and self-reliance programmes to help refugees and asylum seekers develop their coping mechanisms in a new environment and establish their livelihood. Refugees with specific needs i.e. those refugees who are able to work but would be at risk or have difficulties in find employment in the open job market, are prioritised for income generation activities.

Refugees are also provided with skills and language training which should eventually lead them towards self-reliance, whether they remain in India, return to their own countries or resettle to third countries. Livelihoods programmes are tailored as much as possible to meet the needs of refugees i.e. flexible working hours, home production, small business grants etc. Other livelihood activities include job placement in the informal sector.

Refugees and asylum seekers with young children are encouraged to avail of the crèche facilities provided by UNHCR and its partners near their homes or workplaces in order to engage in income generation and/or learning activities.

Concluding Remarks

It is hoped that such a participatory model of refugee protection will go a long way in building and restoring a sense of ‘community’ among otherwise dispersed refugee groups in a complex urban setting like New Delhi. Refugees and asylum seekers will be empowered to make informed choices about their future, take ownership and bear joint responsibility along with UNHCR and its partners, to implement programmes and policies that affect them both as individuals and as a community.


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