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Lecture on Refugee Inclusion and the Future of Humanitarian Response at Roosevelt University

Speeches and statements

Lecture on Refugee Inclusion and the Future of Humanitarian Response at Roosevelt University

11 September 2019

President Malekzadeh, Dr. Rung, and all the faculty at the Center for New Deal Studies and Roosevelt University, it is my distinct pleasure to be here with you today. It has been 24 years since I was last here to introduce Ambassador Abramowitz. I am profoundly grateful for the invitation and honoured to be delivering the 26th Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture. My father spent 10 wonderful years here and still describes it as the most important assignment of his academic career.

Distinguished guests, let me introduce you to Sujeh. She is from Venezuela, but a couple months ago we met in Colombia, where she has been for the last two years. A young mother of four, she invited me into her home, a cosy place on a sandy beach no more than a hundred metres from the Caribbean Sea, where she explained to me how and why she fled.

Sujeh is from Maracaibo, the second biggest city in Venezuela. Once the country’s oil powerhouse, it is now a microcosm of the country’s slow implosion in recent years. As Venezuela’s remaining resources are diverted to Caracas, the rest of the country has seen the supply of basic needs like water, electricity and medicine evaporate over time.

When you talk to Sujeh about why she left Venezuela, this is where the story begins. A lack of services, a shortage of food, the rising cost of fuel. But after an hour - a long time to chat with a stranger, but a remarkably short time to share your life story - she starts to open up about the layers of issues that forced her to move. The rampant violence, frequent theft, and widespread extortion by gangs, vigilantes and paramilitaries. Even the slightest perceived political affiliation with the opposition can land people on a blacklist, cutting off your access to work and food.

In Colombia, Sujeh and her family have access to the basics. They can move freely and go to the market. They have stable housing thanks to a piece of land they rent from the local community. It may be an informal settlement, comprised of roughly 15 families in total from Venezuela, but it enables her kids to attend a nearby school.

And with this stability they can enter the informal economy. Her husband finds odd work as a builder, plying the same trade he did back home. And Sujeh herself, trained in food preparation and management in Maracaibo, has enrolled in an entrepreneurial program. She not only wants to open a shop like the one she had, complete with a Coca Cola refrigerator and an ice cream stand, but she wants to give herself the tools to thrive.

Sujeh’s story is a happy one. While she spoke with great pain of what she had lost - for years they moved back and forth across the border trying to hold onto life in Venezuela before ultimately settling in Colombia - things are better now. Her kids are in school, she and her husband are working, and the family has a plan for the future. Life is not always easy, but there is safety, security and reason for optimism.

Sujeh’s story is also all about access not only to safety but to the building blocks of that plan. Access to health and education, to work and skill development. It was particularly apparent that having the means to generate income was fundamental for the family, not only in terms of being able to feed and clothe themselves but to enable their resilience and afford them the ability to contribute actively to their pursuit of solutions.

But her story is not necessarily representative of all refugees, even in the region. There are similar stories from refugees around the world. Some of the most remarkable people I have met are refugees. But, the access which enables Sujeh’s stability is local in the most absolute sense.

Their family depends entirely on a small Colombian community absorbing a handful of Venezuelan families, principally from an indigenous group that spans across the border. The generosity of the host community is inspiring, but the absence of the state in supporting refugees in the area is equally notable, especially as people continue to arrive by the thousands.

Communities opening up to displaced people occurs all over the world, and local authorities play a crucial role in creating the conditions for hosting refugees. Throughout South America we met with mayors and prefects who were not only setting the tone for inclusion of Venezuelan refugees and migrants, but actively developing projects and mobilising resources to integrate new arrivals into their communities. The newly elected mayor in one small Ecuadorian border town had already taken it upon himself to contact the World Bank in his first week in office! And I heard yesterday from Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee of similar efforts to integrate newcomers.

The lesson is not to narrow our focus on the local level, but rather to broaden the scope of our engagement with stakeholders in these countries, deconstructing the impulse we as the UN Refugee Agency have historically concentrated our efforts on the national level. While we have a greater appreciation now of the integral role of host communities and local authorities, we also cannot absolve national and international actors of their responsibilities either. They remain essential to meeting a challenge of this scale.

People continue to be displaced. Needs continue to rise. And solutions continue to be elusive. Already this year, we hit a milestone when more than four million people officially left Venezuela in a crisis that is increasingly defining a generation and a region. We have also witnessed deteriorating conditions in and around countries like Libya, where I was two weeks ago, and across entire regions such as the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

More than 70 million people are now displaced around the world, a substantial increase on numbers a decade ago. To put this in perspective, the global displaced population is greater than the populations of California and Texas combined. But these are more than numbers - 70 million individuals like Sujeh are personally paying the price of war, conflict, and persecution.

These rising numbers are undeniably part of an established and indelible trend driven by two broad baskets of issues. On one hand, the proliferation of complex drivers of displacement, namely, a) conflict-driven emergencies that are symptomatic of wider geopolitical issues; b) climate and environmentally-driven displacement which will only proliferate in years to come; and c) governance-driven crises, where poverty, resources and inequality foment extremism and violence. These are all interlinked and increasingly long-term challenges, which only become more difficult to reverse as time goes on.

And on the other hand, there is a perennial challenge of securing solutions to end displacement. Last year, 13.6M were newly displaced. That’s 37,000 a day. But only 2.9M returned home, while 81,300 were resettled to third country. That delta is why the number keeps rising, as refugees get stuck in camps, lost in cities or simply keep moving.

Without an immediate solution, refugees, like the rest of us, invariably seek opportunity. If they cannot find it across the border, they continue to move. We saw this in 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean in search of safety and aid in Europe. Almost 85% of those arriving were from the world’s top 10 refugee producing countries, including Syria and Afghanistan. 

People on the move is also a pattern we have witnessed for decades. We saw it in the 1990s, when Liberian refugees spent days at sea, rejected at one West African port after another. If we go even further back, this resembles the Indochina boat crisis in the 1970s. We also see this now in South America, as those who are unable to find the opportunity that Sujeh and her family have just across the border in Colombia, move further south down the Andean corridor to Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

People stop when they have access to what they need, and remain when they see safety and opportunity. A key driver of continuously southward movements from Venezuela is that communities further north in the continent are saturated with newcomers and lack the support needed to host millions of Venezuelans. Indigenous schools like the one Sujeh’s children attend cannot absorb thousands of young students, nor should we ask communities to bear that responsibility alone.

I would argue, therefore, that refugee response should re-centre around inclusion in the communities where they are displaced. Inclusion in the absence of imminent return. Inclusion for those seeking opportunity in displacement. Inclusion for refugees who bring skills, capacities and ambitions with them even when they leave so much behind.

That is why we at UNHCR believe the future of humanitarian response is built around a more comprehensive model of response, and that the success of this approach depends upon a broad and diverse coalition of partners and stakeholders at the international, national, and local levels. That paradigm shift is at the core of what has been called the new deal for refugees, the Global Compact.

We should start with social inclusion, because it is access to essential services which is usually what frontline humanitarian aid work delivers. In its most immediate form, refugee response is about saving lives and protecting people and traditional humanitarianism has naturally focused on addressing those basic needs in a crisis. But that short-burst reflex is best applied for days and weeks, not the years and decades that typically characterizes modern displacement.

So our new approach to social inclusion is about right-sizing the short-term component of aid delivery, and pivoting as early as possible towards sustainable approaches focused on integration into national systems. In this regard, we will take education as the example, as efforts to include refugees in national education systems are reflective of a global shift in direction in the industry.

Many refugees struggle with access to basic education. Today only 63% of refugee children attend primary school, compared with a global average of around 91%. The gap only widens as you move up a level, with only 24% of refugees enrolled in secondary school, versus 84% globally.

Rather than focusing only on emergency education, there is broad recognition now that education for refugees should, even during the emergency phase of response, be planning several years down the line. This entails medium to long-term interventions aimed at embedding social services for refugees within the national system, rather than a parallel short-term crisis intervention. Our role as UNHCR is to facilitate the creation of conditions that are productive and beneficial to both refugees and host communities, building the business case for an integrated approach that contributes to national capacity and reach.

A key lesson we have learned, especially as the majority of refugees are in neighbouring countries in the Global South, is that host communities frequently face comparable challenges, both in accessing and participating in education, especially at the post-primary levels. Strengthening existing education systems rather than investing in temporary and unpredictable parallel systems for refugees therefore benefits all children and youth in the area.

Such an approach is also more sustainable, providing better quality education and ensuring what people learn is recognised and certified. In previous decades, refugee education was largely managed by the humanitarian community, with UNHCR as the fall back option when partner funding ran out. Such mechanisms were not only frequently of lesser quality, but had fewer mechanisms built in for completion and certification. Worse, in instances where the quality of refugee-only education was better, the resentment of local communities undercut efforts towards social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.

To effectively anchor these interventions within the national system requires project design, implementation and monitoring partnership with the ministries, in line with their standards and regulations, and in concert with national education policies. Already in 22 UNHCR country operations, ministry of education officials and key partners have participated in collaborative trainings on refugee-inclusive and crisis-sensitive education sector planning with our teams.

We have some good examples of how refugee inclusion in education can work as well. In Chad, 108 schools in 19 refugee camps have been declared official Chadian schools. The number of refugee youth admitted to the Chadian baccalaureate has increased by 600%. More than 500 refugee teachers have received qualification certificates from the Chadian Ministry of Education.

In Turkey, the revision of education laws and policies have enabled more than 600,000 Syrian children and youth to go to formal schooling, including 20,000 in higher education.

And in Rwanda, Paysanant School, located close to Mahama Refugee Camp, hosts more than 21,000 refugee and host community students and is the biggest school in Rwanda. Like their host community counterparts, refugee students are eligible for the Rwandan ‘school of excellence’ programme and in 2018 over 400 refugee students were offered places in secondary schools for gifted and talented students.

Although this approach may be more sustainable, efficient and cogent, education is never cheap. To implement inclusion-based approaches requires significant investment in national education systems to address both the immediate and longer-term needs of refugees and host communities. The alternative, short-burst funding for emergency refugee-only education, is no cheaper and contributes nothing to these countries.

Integrated education programs can also help close the labour gap between refugees and host communities as well. The challenges regarding access to primary and secondary school carry over to post-secondary and basic skills development programs as well. Only one percent of refugees attend university, compared to 37% globally, cutting almost all of them off from a huge segment of the labour market.

While the right to work is enshrined in international law, including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention, access to the labour market has long been a challenge for refugees. In pursuing labour inclusion, therefore, our focus is on creating an enabling environment for refugees to participate and contribute to the economy by securing the right to work, freedom of movement, the ability to use their assets, register a business and have their documents recognised.

One creative option we have explored is through mobility schemes which allow refugees to fill labour shortages in industrialised countries. Given the education levels and skills of the majority of refugees today, this often entails low skilled jobs, such as elder-care and the service industry. But even that would contribute to their self-reliance, provide them valuable capital to access other opportunities for growth and development, and could serve as the building blocks for their futures.

Much ink has been spilled about the new world of work, how technology and innovation continue to transform the economy and disrupt the labour market in the developed world. But unfortunately, as exciting as that is, 85% of refugees are hosted in developing countries dominated by informal jobs in agriculture, construction and services. The jobs of the future are still out of reach for most refugees, even for those with access to work.

There are simply limited opportunities for refugees to become part of the digital economy, and it is also not yet a scalable solution for UNHCR. We have some small pilots in South Asia, where people have stronger language skills and training in that sub-sector of the economy, while in the Middle East, where many refugees have left middle income countries such as Syria and Iraq, we have individuals who work in coding and provide services in micro-work sites.

But these are small local pilots, not comprehensive national programs. Expanding these opportunities would require much greater investment to overcome the barriers to access for refugees. In this case, it is often about infrastructure, as most forcibly displaced people are living without connectivity and therefore unable to participate in the digital economy.

Globally, refugees are 50 percent less likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled phone, and the cost for internet in refugee hosting areas is often inflated as well. One recent study suggested refugees often spend up to a third of their income on staying connected.

Access alone does not equal inclusion though. The priority remains to give refugees the skills to meaningfully participate in the economy of the present and future. In Rwanda, we are partnering with Kepler, a non-profit higher education program that provides access to excellent higher education. Roughly a quarter of their students are refugees and their online bachelor’s program includes in-person coaching, digital literacy training, health and financial support services and career preparation. With an emphasis on graduates applying their skills to meet labour market needs, the results have been encouraging, as 90% of graduates find full-time employment or continue with further education within six months.

Where access to work meets inclusion is financial services. We partner with sustainable and socially responsible financial service providers willing to offer a variety of services to the refugee population. These services may include credit for income generation activities, housing, consumption, and education; savings accounts or loans for the most vulnerable; remittances and payment services; and insurance products.

The objective of the strategy is to overcome the old model that UNHCR has been following for years of direct intervention through grants, and pursuing revolving loans from us to these financial service providers. The broader shift is towards UNHCR playing the role of convener - a hat we are increasingly wearing in various sectors, you may have noticed - among financial service providers, investors and refugees.

While we can still provide grants to help set up small businesses when needed, the idea is to connect sustainable financial service providers who then continue engaging refugees long after our support ends.

We generally take 3 steps:

First, we raise awareness about the financial needs of refugees by organising discussions with the most prominent financial service providers in the country.

Second, we organise focus groups and individual interviews with refugees and potential financial service providers. This allows the potential partner to present their model, ask their own questions, and explain the terms and conditions of their business, for example, regarding interest rates.

The third step is pursuit of a partnership agreements with interested financial service providers which involves UNHCR sharing basic contact information to facilitate direct follow-up with refugees. Once the information sharing and logistical support are provided, we step back and let the refugees work directly with financial service providers, while maintaining a degree of monitoring and oversight.

A fundamental principle of the above model is that UNHCR does not make a direct financial contribution to the financial service providers. We facilitate and convene, but do not subsidise, even from the start. That would undercut the sustainability of the model. We simply enable the service provider to see the business case for extending, offering and adapting their service to refugees.

We have implemented this model in many countries, such as Morocco, Albania, Argentina, and Tunisia where I was a couple of weeks ago, and where we now partner with the biggest micro-finance institution in the country. What we learned in Tunisia was that the main barrier to access was actually a lack of knowledge and understanding by service providers of this untapped market. In fact, unlike with the labour market, in most countries there are no laws that impede micro finance institutions to offer credit to refugees.

None of the aforementioned countries, however, host large refugee populations, and to launch these partnerships where the number of refugees may be in the hundreds of thousands or millions requires more complex partnerships. Developing a large-scale partnership with the Grameen Credit Agricole Foundation for example, involved bringing in the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and conducting comprehensive market assessments in Uganda and Jordan, countries which combined host two million refugees.

Pursuing financial inclusion for refugees on that scale requires a combination of partners working together to extend a range of services. In this case, the model combines access to debt funding at good market rates by lenders with a guarantee by SIDA to investors and technical assistance from SIDA and UNHCR to financial service providers so they can set up branches and pilot products in ways and places that are accessible to refugees. This is particularly important in camp settings where we service a population with restrictions on their freedom of movement.

The desired outcome, however, is the same. We want to offer credit, savings and remittance services to refugees, and enable financial service providers to adapt them to large refugee populations based upon a credible business model.

With each of these, there are of course the informal, community-run analogues. For the most vulnerable refugees, those without capital, for whom accessing formal financial institutions is not an option, we want to more actively facilitate the creation of self-run savings groups that can help them get a start. We have experience with this approach in countries like Tanzania, where more than 100 community savings groups have been established.

Once again, a major question in regards to inclusion-based programmes is scale. Part of the challenge is resources, and we continue to invest in not only raising our own funds but also to mobilise others - including international financial institutions such as the World Bank - to prioritise communities hosting refugees. But it is also a question of approach, and our ambition is to pull these various pieces together and cut through some of the challenges of scalability through digital inclusion.

We have already referenced in this presentation a range of digitally-enabled opportunities, including free internet libraries, easily accessible to those looking to learn and study. The aforementioned challenges in regards to connectivity and infrastructure are still relevant here as well.

Nonetheless, there has been considerable interest and progress from governments and private sector partners to support digital inclusion for refugees, including coding, digital design and investing in digital employment that can be carried out in borderless, virtual workplaces. We have identified a joint approach to employment policy as critical to allow the digitally disenfranchised the opportunity to work.

Access to digital technology has already enabled refugee students globally to engage with high quality learning platforms and university programs. UNHCR is a leading member of the connected learning consortium and we are implementing a wide range of partner projects which seek to use digital learning methods and improve education and digital skills. We couple this with the more mundane task to advocate governments to remove barriers to digital access, for example, laws that restrict the sale of sim cards to non-residents.

At the core of our digital strategy is digital identity, which we believe has the promise to deliver a fast-track to inclusion. Nearly one billion people worldwide are unable to prove who they are. That is one reason why the Sustainable Development Goals provide all people with a legal identity by 2030. Not surprisingly, this is yet another area where access for refugees is a challenge.

We make every effort to ensure that our Population Registration System is interoperable with hosting States’ population registries, and to support governments in building capacity around digitalization. In Jordan, refugees are able to authenticate their identity using biometric Iris scans at enabled ATMs before receiving digitally distributed cash assistance. These ID-based innovations not only facilitate access but encourage autonomy and self-reliance. It not only allows them access to services and opportunities in exile, but allows them to maintain access to this identity upon return.  

There is a world of work on digital identity and our thinking continues to evolve. Right now, we are focused on two areas. First, a self-managed identity that empower the individual refugee to decide with whom to share what information. Examples would be with partners in order to receive assistance, with UNHCR for protection purposes, with academic institutions for education opportunities, and with health practitioners to benefit from services.

However, an individual cannot establish her or her own identity. For most people, a self-managed identity is based on processes and documents issued by governments. So, second,, for those who do not have access to government-endorsed identities, their claims should be strengthened by what the industry calls Trust Authorities. And it is our view this duality of allowing people to have agency over their own identity and UNHCR strengthening identity claims by acting as a Trust Authority that will hopefully allow refugee digital identities to be recognised by governments, businesses and other relevant institutions, and refugees with greater control over their own lives. All while ensuring that data protection safeguards are built in line with international standards.

These four components – social, labour, financial and digital - of our approach to inclusion are baked into the Global Compact and the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, the model we are implementing in various countries for several years now. Not only are we increasingly validating, adjusting and adapting our approach as we roll this out, but we are also more attuned to the risks posed by a failure to succeed in our collective shift towards refugee inclusion.

Nowhere is this more blatant than in Libya. Thousands of refugees are in detention in Libya, many after failed attempts to cross the central Mediterranean to Europe. They are at risk of, and many have been, exploited by smugglers and traffickers. Although these are mixed flows and some are moving for purely economic reasons, a large number of those on the move through Libya and who get caught up in this network of deplorable detention centres are refugees and asylum seekers.

Many of them are like Asma, an inspiring Somali refugee who I met last month at a UNHCR facility in Libya. Originally from a country that has been in conflict for nearly thirty years now, Asma has also lived as a refugee through wars in Yemen and Sudan. She has failed to find stability in exile, and like many others, has continued to move north in search of opportunity. Our collective failure to deliver that to her has led to the most extreme outcome, detention in a de facto prison located in yet another fragile state. In Asma’s case, she will hopefully now resettle to a third country by our team in Tripoli, but this is a solution for hundreds, not thousands let alone millions.

People often refer to the global refugee crisis, citing examples like Asma and others who move across the Mediterranean or through Mexico as examples. They are right there is a crisis, but not because of the numbers - the rise has been slow but steady for decades - but rather in how we respond. The old model does not work and has not worked for some time, so this shift to a more comprehensive, inclusion-oriented model is not only preferred but essential and frankly overdue.

With crisis comes opportunity, which is where I would close with the parallel to the New Deal. The brilliance of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the reason for its enduring legacy, is because of how it connected a series of complex, interconnected problems - debts, wages, mortgages and an entire financial system - with a comprehensive and systematic, rather than reactive or reductive, solution. As President Roosevelt said, “there is no magical solution” to problems of this scale.

To him there were two options after the Great Depression, either to intervene or let the core problems persist. He chose the former, to re-“establish confidence in the future.” And this is, in a sense, the boiling point we reached with the European displacement crisis in 2015, the fork in the road that led us towards the Global Compact and a hard right towards a new future for refugee response. This is not a palliative treatment but a reprogramming of an entire humanitarian system around inclusion, resilience and planning.

To quote the former President, “the actual accomplishment of our purposes cannot be achieved in a day.” “We will make mistakes. We won’t always get a hit.” But step by step we are on the right path and we believe in the results this approach will deliver for refugees in need around the world, making it a better place for all.

Thank you.