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August 2004

For an update on the work that the United Nations High Commisioner on Refugees (UNHCR) is doing around the world in 2007, please read our interview with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres.

POV: What kind of work does the UNHCR do besides running refugee camps like the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where the Lost Boys were?

Joung-Ah Ghedini, former public information officer, United Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesJoung-Ah Ghedini: We assist refugees in all kinds of situations; not just those in camps. There are refugees living in urban areas, in rural settlements. In addition, we help returnees, people who go back to their countries after being displaced. For example, we helped about 3.6 million Afghans who returned to Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban. We also offer assistance to asylum-seekers all over the world. Someone who arrives at JFK or Dulles or LAX seeking asylum, for instance, we offer protection assistance, trying to ensure that they get all the protections accorded to asylum-seekers by the Geneva Conventions.

POV: How many refugee camps are operating around the world right now?

Ghedini: The number changes on a day-to-day basis. Even in a place like Kakuma, there are several camps within that area. So it's virtually impossible to say exactly how many there are. It's definitely in the thousands.

POV: What are the areas of concern in running the camps — security, supplies, finding destinations for refugees?

Ghedini: The primary goal is to make sure we have enough resources to assist those in need. The UNHCR is generally underfunded, because we're one of the only agencies that doesn't get funding from the General Assembly. Only two percent of our funding comes from the UN. The other 98 percent comes from private and voluntary funding, which means going around to every government, every year. We also do fundraising among the general public. There is a dollar figure to assisting people, even for taking lifesaving measures.

The second goal is ensuring that we have full access to monitor human and refugee rights, and also full access to areas where people are fleeing from or returning home to. Another is security. More than ever, in many places, it's become increasingly difficult to work on the ground, because of violent political or military incidents that jeopardize our workers.

POV: How does the UNHCR maintain security in refugee camps?

Ghedini: For the most part we rely upon the fact that because we are an apolitical aid organization — we help anyone in need, regardless of race or religion or politics. Generally we have been allowed access to most areas. That's changed in the last 20 years, because so many conflicts have become political, and aid workers are used as pawns in a much bigger struggle. We try to do a lot in terms of preparedness, training with field staff, how best to deal with things in emergency situations, limit our own activities, don't put ourselves in harm's way. We also rely on forces on the ground, mostly local police or local military forces.

POV: How do you train people to work in the camps? What kind of work does UNHCR staff do?

Ghedini: We have specialized positions, so everybody that enters into UNHCR is usually applying for a specific job. We have water engineers, and specialists in sanitation, health, and hygiene. We have positions for community services specialists, people who have typically worked in education, or as health officials or counselors. There are also general field officers and protection staff — usually with a background as lawyers or human rights investigators.

POV: What kind of international orgs or NGOs work in camps like Kakuma?

Lost Boys of Sudan - Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Ghedini: There are hundreds. We work very closely with a lot of partners, including UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food program. There are also hundreds of implementing partners or NGOs, including lots of American organizations, like the International Rescue Committee, CARE, Save the Children. A number of international groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other international NGOs like Doctors Without Borders.

POV: What is the goal for people in camps — return, resettlement, emigration? How do different goals change the work done?

Ghedini: The primary goal, our ideal "durable solution," is repatriation. If and when people can go back to their own home countries, that's usually best for the refugees themselves, and it's usually what they want more than anything else. It's often best for the country of origin, because they can help rebuild. When that's not possible, we do look at other possibilities, like local integration, arranging for refugees to stay in the country hosting them. The third option, which applies to the smallest group, those cases with no other options, is resettlement. Resettlement is not an option for a huge portion of refugees. It's kind of like winning the lottery: the odds are against you. Resettlement is an option for those with no other options, and it's difficult emotionally, physically, and logistically.

POV: After seeing a film like "Lost Boys of Sudan," viewers often want to know two things: What current crises are going on right now, and how can they help?

Ghedini: There is a looming humanitarian catastrophe right now. The largest on the horizon is the situation in Darfur in western Sudan. Up to two million people have been displaced within that region. There are about 200,000 refugees in Chad, in very dire conditions. It's almost impossible to access these areas because of the geography, the climate, and the logistics. We've been pleased to see some steps taken by the United States, such as Secretary Powell declaring that genocide has taken place. But whatever the title is for it, the stories we're hearing from the refugees are horrific, the situation is quite desperate, and our assistance is limited. Our funds are really running out as quickly as we try to boost them. For people who want to help, education is the first step — getting informed and then getting involved, whether by writing to policymakers or contributing funds. We offer a number of ideas for community groups, for individuals, or for classrooms, on our website — unrefugees.org. There are also updates of what's happening, and what can be done here in the United States.

Joung-Ah Ghedini was formerly a senior public information officer at the Washington, D.C. office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UN General Assembly established the office in 1950 to deal with refugees and displaced people in the aftermath of World War II. The office of the UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes for its work with refugees around the world. Currently operating in 115 countries with a professional staff of 6000, the UNHCR has provided assistance to over 50 million refugees in its history.

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2007 UPDATE: Hear from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres »





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