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Eric Schwartz "Making of Global Refugee Policy"

Thumbnail image for BBR_11_17_Schwartz.jpg (Homepage Feature)The following is a speech on global refugee policy recently delivered at Oxford by Eric P. Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School.

I want to speak tonight about the making of global refugee policy, from the perspective of a practitioner - first, to articulate and reflect on some of the major goals my colleagues and I pursued when I had the honor of serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration during the first part of the Administration of President Barack Obama; and then to explore general strategies for trying to transform predilections into policy.

I'll take the prerogative to borrow from earlier presentations I've made on these and related issues; some of what follows, in particular, is drawn from a valedictory address at the U.S. Institute of Peace in September 2012, just prior to my departure from the Obama Administration.

First, let me set a context.
By any estimation, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration is an important humanitarian institution, with, during my tenure, an annual budget approaching two billion dollars, the bulk of which was channeled through international humanitarian organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. The Bureau probably provided close to 40% of the civilian humanitarian assistance offered bilaterally and multilaterally each year by the agencies of the U.S. government - with the bulk of the remainder coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

And the Assistant Secretary of State is also the principal humanitarian official in the Department of State.

So what was my driving ambition when I arrived?
Well, in a planning document I developed in consultation with personnel in the Bureau, I wrote, "in a sentence, I want to be - and I want PRM to be - a relentless, formidable and highly effective advocate for protection of the most vulnerable victims of persecution and violence, emboldened by a very broadened conception of our humanitarian and protection mandate and by a determination to ensure that protection of victims is at the center of national security policy-making."

And what then were my own priorities in terms of global refugee policy - which we might define as the development of a coherent set of strategic objectives for governments and international organizations, backed by a set of strategies and tactics to achieve those goals?

Let me identify ten - some were high on my agenda when I took the job, and others, like the one I'm about to mention, forced their way to the top.

That first one surrounded, in particular, aid to Somalia during my tenure, and was the simple objective of getting aid to those who are largely inaccessible - and often in their countries of origin. Around the world, the existence of armed militants obstructing assistance, government restrictions on easy access, or donor concerns about the transfer of resources to armed elements, have all created obstacles, challenges to be overcome - and on which I found myself spending an enormous amount of time and effort.

Second, there was, and is, the urgent and ongoing need to promote the principle of both first asylum and continued refuge for those in fear of persecution. For me and for others in my Bureau, that meant places like Kenya, where the government continually expressed its impatience about the hosting of Somalis, in Thailand, where the government maintained ambiguous and ambivalent practices toward Burmese in flight and Burmese enjoying a modicum of protection; in the Middle East, where governments expressed fatigue at the continuing presence of Iraqis in their midst; in Chad and Sudan, where the issue of early return of Darfuris was the subject of considerable discussion and debate.

Third was the need to promote more enduring forms of protection - and protection that begins to address root causes -- for populations at risk. So, an ambitious part of our planning document relating to Africa declared that "we will seek to promote real progress on protection, in particular, in preventing and responding to gender-based violence, and we will participate in broader political-security discussions that impact humanitarian equities - for example, the terms of renewal of MINURCAT and MONUC, strategy toward the LRA, etc."

Fourth, I shared the view of High Commissioner Guterres that governments of the world must put greater attention and concern to the challenge of protracted refugee situations, and, shortly after my arrival, our Bureau put together a strategy to complement and further support UNHCR efforts. Ultimately, I came to the belief that - whether in Thailand, Tanzania, or Kenya - governments of the world must be far more focused on the regularization of the status of some components of a refugee population in countries of refuge that will forever be their hosts.

Fifth, I grew more and more skeptical about refugee camps as the exclusive, or even the preferred, option, for refugee populations, even long-staying ones.

Sixth, it was critical to me that as humanitarian advocates and operators, our focus include disenfranchised people on the move whether they were outside their country of origin or within. In fact, my first trip as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration was to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and a senior colleague questioned why the senior refugee officer in the U.S. government had chosen to visit IDPs. I confess that it simply had never occurred to me that my choice of destination suggested I was making a statement - bureaucratic, political or otherwise.

Seventh, and in a similar vein, I felt it essential that we take on the issue of statelessness, a challenge confronting millions from the Dominican Republic to Burma to the Middles East.

Eight, I felt it critical that migration policy - which so involves the well-being of disenfranchised people on the move -- become more of a priority for the U.S. Government and for our bureau; and I felt this was one area in which the United States and other developed country governments could do much more to practice at home what we were inclined to preach abroad.

Ninth, and in the spirit of the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we strengthened our emphasis on gender issues in the humanitarian context. There are so many cases in which the socially constructed ideas about the behavior, actions and roles associated with a particular sex impose severe restrictions on individual rights and well-being, and we sought to take aim at those issues.

Tenth, and finally, I felt that refugee rescue - that is, escape -- and refugee resettlement were key areas area for reform. I not only believed that the United States and others needed to do much more to adopt a strategic approach to resettlement, but also that this was one area, again, where the United States and other developed countries needed to do much more to practice at home what we'd been preaching abroad. And I felt we made some great progress in increasing the initial aid levels for newly arriving refugees in the United States.

So if these are some reasonable objectives for global refugee policy, what are the best strategies for pursuing those ends? What are some of the key strategies for engagement that advocates, in government and outside, ought to exercise?
Let me suggest six - a lack of time prevents me from rounding this list out to ten!
The first is advocacy. Despite my leadership of a huge assistance bureau, I felt it was far less important for me to be an administrator than, rather, an advocate for victims of persecution, violence, and human rights abuses and to engage in diplomacy emboldened by a broad conception of our humanitarian and protection mandate.
In 2009, my visits in Sri Lanka with displaced Tamil civilians interned in camps in the north helped me appreciate more deeply their challenging circumstances and informed U.S. efforts to provide support for provision of food and shelter. But it was just as critical that I emphasized--in meetings with the president of Sri Lanka, with the defense minister, and with other senior officials--the importance of freedom of movement and return of these internally displaced persons to their homes. Similarly, and notwithstanding the lack of progress I made, my visits to the Dominican Republic to examine aid programs for displaced Haitians were very important, but no more important than the discussions I had with President Fernandez about actions that effectively rendered stateless long-time Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Humanitarian diplomacy is critical, but so also is public advocacy by humanitarians. For years, some experts have referred to a conflict between the imperative of human rights advocacy and imperative of humanitarian access. The notion was that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International could criticize governments for denying their citizens basic rights, but humanitarian organizations needed to stay silent to preserve their ability to operate, feed and clothe people and save lives.

But over the past many decades, we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and rape as a weapon of war in central Africa.
Silence by donor governments in the face of humanitarian deprivation not only risks implicating the donor in abuses, but often represents a missed opportunity to promote positive change. Sometimes there are circumstances where we must temper our public advocacy to ensure access, but just as often continued access simply isn't worth the cost of staying quiet, and requires a far more sophisticated dialogue.

Humanitarian advocacy also keeps faith with the victims of these conflicts, and keeps news of their suffering in the public eye.

Second, humanitarian advocates, especially those in governments and international organizations, must do much more to articulate publicly perspectives on significant humanitarian issues, and then be prepared to be held accountable for progress or lack thereof. Whether it was new challenges to international protection, meeting refugee resettlement obligations, international migration policy, statelessness, the role of advocacy in humanitarianism, or other issues, we sought out opportunities to speak out publicly on broad issues, and, similarly, sought to expand exchanges with NGOs and the information provided to them - and to include discussion of policy failures, such as our inability, and my own inability, to move leaders on protection issues in places like Thailand and Bangladesh - as well as policy successes.

Third, for government officials, I believed, and believe, that responsible humanitarian action also requires engagement in broader governmental discussions of policy on political and security issues. Whether it is improving political and human rights conditions in places like Burma, Libya, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, security conditions in Chad with the withdrawal of the MINURCAT peacekeeping mission, or managing counter-terrorism concerns in places like Somalia, these issues have serious humanitarian implications; humanitarians should be offering both advice and assistance at the decision-making table. If not invited, we should be pounding on the door of the rooms where these decisions are being made. And of course, an emboldened and broadened concept of our humanitarian mandate goes hand-in-hand with more integrated approaches within governments toward conflict prevention and response.
Fourth, we must give genuine substance to our expressions of support for multilateral humanitarian organizations. I think the engagement model advanced by the bureau I led is worth examining - frankly, a model of rather pervasive involvement in the work of major official humanitarian partners, enabled by the fact that the United States plays such a substantial role in the funding of organizations like UNHCR, the ICRC, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. And whatever the policy wisdom of one government providing such a great percentage of the overall support to an international humanitarian organization, the fact remains that such support enables extensive involvement.

In the 2010-2011 Framework Agreement between PRM and UNHCR, PRM focused, in particular, on 14 of UNHCR's 40 global strategic priorities - that is, those most closely relating to objectives in the Bureau's own strategic plan -- and developed a series of reporting and consultation procedures with UNHCR to ensure progress and accountability.

To be sure, this level of bilateral engagement might conceivably tie an organization up in knots if it were replicated by every substantial donor and not carefully managed. At the same time, my own suspicion is that this engagement is a critically important supplement to the intergovernmental processes that characterize governance of international humanitarian organizations.

Fifth, the United States and other donor governments must take aim at serious challenges that are bedeviling the international system of humanitarian response, including failures in coordination between UN and non-UN assistance providers; the sometimes too limited ability of donor governments to influence decision-making by the UN-led humanitarian coordination structure; and uneven performance by some agencies vested with interagency leadership responsibilities in crisis response. In short, we need to match the more engaged involvement that characterizes bilateral relationships with specialized agencies with a comparable involvement with the system as a whole
And finally, we must further encourage support from non-traditional official donors, while seeking to ensure their participation enhances coherence and effective response. The crisis in Somalia demonstrated the importance of working with new donors and civil society groups, both for the resources they have at their disposal and for their ability to work in areas that may be inaccessible to established relief organizations. But a proliferation of groups operating on their own can also risk creating obstacles to coherent and effective delivery to those in need. Also, as we move toward greater inclusion, we must do so with a keen understanding that from the Middle East to Asia to Latin America, governments that are prepared to support the international humanitarian response system will reasonably expect to play a role in shaping its further evolution and development.

In conclusion, let me say what I said at my address before I left the State Department in October 2011: While the challenges that characterize this work are daunting, we must not underestimate our collective capacity to improve the human condition - to provide food, shelter, education, basic protection and real hope for a brighter future.
In sustaining focused and skillful efforts to promote the principles of international humanitarianism, we demonstrate our commitment to these honorable objectives, and we keep faith with millions of vulnerable people around the world.

Thank you.

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