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Q&A: UNHCR's operations chief discusses new Darfur strategy, IDPs and other projects


Q&A: UNHCR's operations chief discusses new Darfur strategy, IDPs and other projects

UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins spent more than two decades working in development assistance before moving to the humanitarian field because she wanted to see concrete results more quickly. She joined UNHCR a year ago and has visited operations in all five regions that the agency operates in.
23 February 2007
UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins.

GENEVA, February 23 (UNHCR) - Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins spent more than two decades working in development assistance before moving to the humanitarian field because she wanted to see concrete results more quickly. She joined UNHCR almost exactly a year ago after six years with the World Food Programme and has visited operations in all five regions that the refugee agency operates in. She spoke to Web Editors Leo Dobbs and Haude Morel shortly after returning to Geneva from Sudan's Darfur region. Excerpts from the interview:

What are UNHCR's largest operations?

The biggest are the major hotspots of the world today - Iraq, Chad and southern Sudan. Then we have several protracted, long-standing operations that have been around for more than 10 years.... In some cases, they are slowly winding down, but it takes longer than you expect because return operations are not that easy. The Angola's, the Zambia's, the Liberia's are in that category of programmes winding down.

What are the major challenges you face in these types of operations?

In long-standing operations, the major challenge is usually to maintain donor interest as it tends to wane with time. So, [the major challenge is] trying to attract donor interest in order for us to complete the chapter. That one additional year for the return operation to take place is always an uphill struggle because donors rightfully want to see results and, of course, the better results you can produce the better the chances of them coming forward with the funding. Sometimes it's not so easy, for various reasons. There's still insecurity for people to return home and a lot of times to return home means that you will not have as good education and other basic services as you did in the camps.... So there is a reticence, a reluctance after having had these services for their families, for people to uproot themselves again and go back to nothing.

On the newer emergencies - Iraq and Darfur, for instance - security is a major challenge.... In Iraq, all we can rely on are national NGOs and these are nascent organisations. The problem there is how do you implement. We call it remote management, meaning that you don't sit in the country, you don't have your normal apparatus, your infrastructure to implement. You're sitting in another country and you do it through e-mails, phones, with national staff here and there, an NGO here and there, other partners here and there. That is a problem and we are going around in circles on the question of how to get assistance and protection to those who need it.... So we need some new thinking, because increasingly we are going to be working in these environments. We need to think outside the box.

In the protracted situations you mention, what are the possible solutions?

Durable solutions are voluntary repatriation, local integration or, for a very few, resettlement. There's no one-size-fits-all.... It depends on so many external factors and variables. In some situations, the best solution is voluntary repatriation. In countries like Angola, Liberia, people are longing to go home because they've been living in camps for so many years. In southern Sudan, a good majority want to go home after the peace, but not all because they have other options [in the camps], such as education and other services that they don't have in Sudan. So security and basic services are the two most important variables to decide whether they will return home or not.

I think UNHCR can be instrumental in helping them make an informed decision, by telling them about what is going on back home, by organising go-and-see visits. And then they voluntarily agree, so that's the best situation. That's not possible in some cases. It's not realistic to expect people who've been born and grown up in refugee camps to go home to a country they've never even seen. We have to work with the host government to explain that these people are an asset, they are gainfully employed, they are contributing to the economy, they are productive people and they are such a small number compared to the population of the country. Why not have them locally integrated? That's always the challenge.

Then the third option, resettlement in third countries. It's different from one country to another because the resettlement countries seem to favour certain countries over others for various reasons. In certain situations, happily, we can have thousands of people resettled. In some situations, we would be lucky to have 100 accepted for resettlement.

Tell us about your recent trip to Darfur and UNHCR's strategy for the troubled region

For historical reasons, UNHCR has been quite modest in its programming in Darfur. But lately, we've been approached by the UN humanitarian coordinator [Manuel Aranda da Silva] ... to ask us to rethink. Do we just want to maintain the status quo. The status quo is not bad. We have a presence in West Darfur - one sub-office, four field offices, we have quite a good international presence doing mainly protection work.... But it was felt that we should be more involved because we have the expertise and the needs are ever growing.

So that's why I went out. Actually, I went out simultaneously with a mission that [special adviser on internally displaced people] Dennis McNamara led.... Two sets of team members' brains is better than one.... Happily there was a very good convergence of ideas and I can share it now because this has been endorsed by the High Commissioner [for Refugees António Guterres].

Basically, what we are suggesting is to look at scaling up in a phased manner. Phase one, we're suggesting, is that we consolidate what we have in West Darfur ... and where expansion is needed, you go for it ... so that we can cover basically everything that UNHCR is responsible for - not just protection, but also eventually camp coordination. You need somebody to have a bird's eye view, to coordinate all these various camps [in Darfur] ... and to draw donor attention to the camps that are under-served.

All these various parties, NGOs and others, playing roles in managing the camps need a central body that interfaces with the state authorities ... and what better way than the UN blue flag to have this interface with the state authorities on their behalf. So we do need that role, I see it so clearly. It's easier said than done, but we are now sitting down to chart out a strategy and a path on how we can slowly take over that role and not antagonise others.

For the south, we basically have no programmatic presence. There again, talking to the various interlocutors, there is a need for someone to come in and play the cluster lead role in protection and camp coordination. We would scale up as a phase two after the consolidation in West Darfur. And depending on how things go in West Darfur, obviously.

And then phase three, we would look at North Darfur. Right now the numbers of IDPs in North Darfur are less than in West and South, but it is the place where AU [African Union] forces and the UNMIS [UN Mission in Sudan] are headquartered.... We're suggesting that we have a small liaison presence there for this stage. If the West and South go well, we might expand to North Darfur as cluster leads in camp coordination and protection.

How has UNHCR's increased work with IDPs affected operations?

There's no agency for internal displacement and there probably never will be because it's such a sensitive sovereign issue. You're talking about citizens of a country that are turning to external parties for assistance, including protection. A failed state is another matter, but when you have a sitting government it can be sensitive. The numbers are huge - 25 million and growing - and a lot of governments admit they cannot cope. They need agencies like UNHCR to come in and assist. And in all of the countries in which we are working, the governments bless our presence and the work we are doing - We can only come in and help IDPs at their request.

People often ask me, "Aren't you eating into your stretched capacity already?" But a lot of times a refugee operation works alongside an IDP operation.... If you talk about economies of scale, if you're thinking about cost savings for the international community which sees this as an international obligation, then what is the cheapest way to meet their needs than with an agency already on the ground.

In terms of diverting resources from refugee programmes, there is a slight diversion of some staff to IDP issues. But on the budgetary front and in the field, all these IDP programmes are funded under so-called supplementary appeals - they do not come from the central resources.... It's kind of a difficult situation we're in right now, but as the whole budget reform process goes on this is being debated and I'm just hoping that ExCom [UNHCR's Executive Committee] will see this as as good a transitional measure as you can get. On the one hand safeguarding and firewalling the monies that have been raised for refugees and then proving our work with IDPs and thereby attracting resources outside of the central funding.

What are you focusing on in the Iraq operation?

Our new appeal [in January for US$60 million] saw a shift in our emphasis to also assist the countries neighbouring Iraq. They have been most hospitable in receiving Iraqi refugees ... but we have to recognise that there is a breaking point with close to 2 million Iraqis in neighbouring countries. You cannot have a situation where three-quarters of the kids in the public schools are Iraqi and one quarter are local Syrian. We have to come in and problem solve together, for instance with the education ministry.... We must put our money where our mouth is. We have to come up with the funds to do this, whether it's increasing classroom size and increasing school materials, to show the goodwill and appreciation of the international community. That's precisely what we're doing.

The other major thing we are involved in is the whole process of accepting people, registering people.... We're beefing up the registration capacity in neighbouring countries, especially Syria and Jordan. The ultimate goal in this project is to have registered 200,000 people by the end of the year and submitted 20,000 cases for referral for resettlement. We have to have targets otherwise we're just running around like a headless chicken.