Rights groups call for next UN high commissioner for refugees be a refugee

UNHCR workers unloading supplies for cyclone survivors. (Mae Sot, Thailand. UN Photo/UNHCR)

Organisations are advocating that no decisions should be made on refugees without refugees.

As curtains dropped in Geneva on Wednesday at the UNHCR’s conference on resettlement, demands for more refugee participation in policy-making  rang across the meeting. One of  the most ambitious ones to be made is for the next chief of the refugee agency to have “lived experience” as a refugee. The call was launched by refugee rights organisation R-SEAT, which aims to garner support for this demand from multiple stakeholders in time.

“All this is to really draw attention to the reality currently that we don't have people being hired [at senior positions in UNHCR] with lived experience. So how can we ensure that we have for the next high commissioner, actually people with lived experience? Who can be eligible and viable candidates?” Rez Gardi, co-managing director of R-SEAT, told Geneva Solutions.

The UN high commissioner for refugees is elected by the UN general assembly for a term of five years. Filippo Grandi, the current UNHCR head, will serve in this position till 2023. The first UN high commissioner for refugees was Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, who fled to London after Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1944. He became refugee chief in 1951 and  to this day, is the only high commissioner for refugees to have been one himself.

Four other women leaders working in the refugee resettlement were also part of the event. The discussion sliced through many of the open conversations in the realm, including the way lived experiences shape people’s character and how to improve and increase refugee participation in official positions at the UNHCR.

“To me, meaningful refugee participation means common sense,” said Canadian ambassador to the UN Leslie Norton, remarking that while diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.

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The campaign for a UN refugee high commissioner with refugee background was launched at an event hosted by R-SEAT. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/MK)
Speaking about the inclusion and representation of refugees in spaces that impact their lives, Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh explained a few ways in which UNHCR proactively offers refugees a shot at being part of the process. Tadjabakhsh comes with lived experience herself as her family had to flee following the revolution in Iran in 1979.

“We need to focus not on our history, but on how that history moulded us,“ she said, adding that people who go through hardships like those experienced by refugees tend to “have an incredible amount of passion”.

“Through this conversation, we're bringing in UNHCR, we're bringing in governments, we're bringing in INGOs, and refugees to talk about what needs to be done to ensure that we're headed in the right direction in this regard,” said Gardi.

Highlighting that many appointments at the top levels within the UN system require political backing, Gardi told Geneva Solutions that the call is “quite bold, but also provides opportunity to hear different perspectives”. The United States is the largest donor to UNHCR and the aim of the event  is also to try and get them onboard with the idea, she indicated.

However, Gardi admitted candidly that it is a long process. “We don't think that by next year or by the next appointment, this will be done,” she pointed out. “But the conversation has not even begun. We've got to start somewhere.”

When Geneva Solutions asked if the US would put forward a candidate with a refugee background to be UNHCR chief or whether it will support any other similar  that nomination Rosanna Kim, senior advisor at the bureau of population, refugees, and migration at the US department of state, said: “it is too early in the process to comment on this. It is something we will discuss when we get to that point. I think it [our support] will definitely depend on the candidate and the larger requirements for the candidacy.”

She however explained that her office has been making changes in staff appointments to bring in more people with a refugee background into the system.

The main takeaway was that organisations – both within and outside the UN – must look beyond having refugees as participants. “Participation is just the first step. Partnership is more important,” said Melonee Douglas, vice president of HIAS, speaking at the panel.

Reiterating that refugees across the world have often been the first responders during crises, she agreed with the UNHCR’s stance that inclusion is the best form of protection. “‘Are we talking about them without them’ is a question we should keep asking ourselves,” she added.