From the archive – Glass talks to Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International

From the Glass Archive: A World in Crisis – Glass talks heartbreak and hope with Refugees International President Michel Gabaudan

IT’S an image seared onto our brains – much like Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the emaciated child and the hooded vulture, taken in 1993 during the famine in Sudan – and certainly one that sums up today’s ongoing refugee crisis: that of three-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey, after the boat his family were travelling on overturned in September last year. It’s a picture that we must remind ourselves of when nationalist headlines endeavour to desensitise us to the personal tragedy that each refugee faces: “Greece sends first migrants back to Turkey under new EU deal”, “Israel builds fence to keep Syrian refugees out”, “Smugglers offer Turkey-to-Italy boat crossings”.

It’s individual stories like Alan’s that make us more sympathetic, agrees Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International. Gabaudan should know; his career, spanning almost 40 years, began as a physician with medical NGO Doctors Without Borders, working with Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge in the Seventies. His work there put him in touch with the UN and he did a one-year stint with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) before joining the UNHCR as its first health advisor in the early eighties.

After he retired from the UNHCR, Refugees International asked him to join the team as director of communications. Gabaudan has seen and heard it all, and now, as president, he and Refugees International are intent on continuing to make a difference in the lives of 60 million displaced people around the world.

Refugees International President Michel BagaudanRefugees International President Michel Gabaudan

What are the main roles of Refugees International as a powerful voice for life-saving action?
We are an independent organisation, which means that we rely on private funding. We do not take any government or United Nations money and we do not deliver services for refugees. Instead we focus on advocacy, following missions in the field to review the response to displacement due to conflict, but increasingly also displacement related to large-scale climate disasters, such as typhoons and floods. We speak to everyone in the field when our advocates are on mission, but mostly to the people who have been displaced. We go to identify gaps in the response and go to Washington to push the government and congress, to New York to push the UN to try to address some of the gaps we have identified to make the response more efficient.

The fact that we don’t have officials who run or operate aid programmes in the field (these are among many of the people we interview when we travel) adds another dimension of independence as we can talk about governments that are hosting refugees, or have a large number of people that are displaced. We are considered independent because we do not maintain a field presence like these aid organisations do. Because we do not have to worry about a programme closing or funding being cut for operations in the field, we are able to publish a report with statements that organisations with a field presence often cannot say.

At Refugees International, it’s all about trying to shape a better response. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, for example, there had been – and still is – tremendous violence against women, perpetrated by the militias. Because this is a very traditional society, this information was not being revealed; women would not advertise what was going on. The international community was totally unprepared to deal with these issues.

When we found out what was going on, we mobilised a response of $10m to be used for women who had suffered violence. Both the Department for International Development (DIFID) – the UK Foreign Aid department – and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the US State Department give their funds to trusted and tested international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) such as the International Rescue Committee.

The importance of earmarking these funds is that it obliges the recipient to use the them strictly for the purpose of gender-based violence. These include early screening for pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, psychological support and post-traumatic stress disorder counselling, and safe spaces. In some instances it can address special referral for resettlement if services cannot be provided in the country of first asylum. When it comes to accountability of these funds, Refugees International has extensive contacts in the field with whom we are in constant contact. We also often return to locations and see how programmes are run.

A child displaced by the conflict in Iraq, where 3.4 million people are internally displacedA child displaced by the conflict in Iraq, where 3.4 million people are internally displaced

This is the sort of impact we try to achieve. One of the things we aim for is to make sure that, in every emergency, the response to women who have been abused is attended to immediately. But unfortunately, with emergency after emergency, this doesn’t always happen.
A colleague of mine was recently in Tanzania to look at the response to Burundian refugees and found that there was a huge gap in the attention given to women who had been subjected to violence. This is one of the very traumatic issues that we at Refugees International will keep fighting to relieve. We are seldom in the position to be effective in preventing violence in the middle of a conflict, but we can certainly do a better job to help the people who have suffered.

Within your organisation, do you differentiate between migrants and refugees?
Yes. I think it’s an important distinction to make. While I do not want to appear to speak in negative terms about migrants, because the desire to improve their lives is a legitimate one, when it comes to movements across borders, there is a fundamental distinction between someone who flees to protect his life or avoid persecution and someone who flees for economic reasons. In the first case, governments have an obligation to protect these people and to give them entry and asylum, whereas for migrants, governments have much more discretion on whether they want to keep them or not – there is no international obligation to keep someone who moves across borders irregularly for economic reasons.

This fundamental distinction has to be maintained and we thoroughly advocate for that with governments. Now, practically, it is not always that easy to recognise or differentiate. There are lots of people who flee, particularly from failed states, and in such cases it is very often difficult to see to which extent it is due to persecution, or to what extent the living conditions in a state which fails to provide the very basic support to its own citizens is tantamount to persecution. So there are difficult choices to make for governments when they try to maintain that critical difference.

A refugee from the Central African Republic makes beignets at a market in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2015)A refugee from the Central African Republic makes beignets at a market in a refugee camp in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (2015)

Do you think it’s important that we make that distinction in the media?
I think so. If you do not maintain this difference, it makes it very difficult for governments to defend the fact that they accept refugees, vis-à-vis their own public opinion. Most countries in the West have signed the Refugee Convention and willingly accept the obligation to protect people who seek protection from persecution. Governments have to keep their word and that means that they cannot accept everyone. And they have to invest in the resources that are required to ensure a fair procedure for people who cross their borders.

When we think of refugees, we often think “refugee camps”, but is that the case for the majority of refugees, or do they become more integrated into the communities they run to?
It has been the case for many years that refugees were hosted in camps, very often because governments wanted to keep refugees separate from their own population. As such the UN and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) developed guidelines regarding providing water, sanitation, healthcare and housing.

But camps have a tendency to generate a culture of dependency. In the case of larger settlements, there is no way refugees can develop any manner of self-sufficiency, therefore they depend entirely on aid. For example, there’s a camp of Somali refugees in Kenya that has been there for 27 years, and where third-generation refugees are now being born. These sorts of places can never become self-sufficient. This is not in line with how we at Refugees International say refugees should be treated. Refugees should be treated with dignity, and dignity encompasses being able to provide for yourself. However, today, most refugees do not live in camps, but rather in urban environments, which is in itself a positive development.

Where things are still not going well is that the international community, the UN and international NGOs, though they have worked on guidelines on how to address the needs of urban refugees, do not yet do so in an efficient way. And there are reasons for that. When refugees are living in an urban environment, they are spread out among the local population – usually among the poorest residents. They need to find work and housing in competition with the local population. In these circumstances you cannot provide help to the refugees alone.

Here the international community has to work with local authorities and move away slightly from the concept of traditional humanitarian aid and think more in line of development aid. This will help both the host community and the refugees. If you were to help only the refugees it would be unethical and it would also contribute to the rejection of refugees by their host communities, and therefore weaken their chances of becoming integrated. The role that development agencies should be playing is very much in discussion right now.

An internally displaced women in the Central African Republic, where over 400,000 people have been displaced by conflict (2015)An internally displaced women in the Central African Republic, where over 400,000 people
have been displaced by conflict (2015)

During your career, what changes have you noted with regard to how we cope with refugee crises?
When I started in the field on the Cambodian border, I would have to go to the local police station and speak on one of those old rotary dial payphones, hoping it would work, to get information to my headquarters in Bangkok. Nowadays we have mobile phones, radios and computers. And we also have reporters – when I started there were very few. Right now every crisis in the world is reported in the press very quickly. I remember once when there was a crisis on the Thai-Cambodian border. I had to ask journalists to come to the border and report what was going on. Now we don’t have to call them; they are there.

There is also an important change in the way that information circulates, which sometimes gives the impression that things are much worse. But I don’t think that the crises are more severe than in the past, it’s just that we know about them now – and much faster. All this information is right there on our phone, computer and TV screens. This has led to an increase in humanitarian funding and development in NGOs. When I started, we worked on the assumption that what we were doing was good for people who had lost everything and therefore there were no questions asked. NGOs have become much more professional in terms of efficiency and management, and have become accountable to their donors more than they were over 30 years ago.

There are improvements that still need to be made, though. There has been an increase in the number of organisations but, while there is overlap in some sectors, there are still gaps in others, and coordination has become almost a monster of bureaucratic process that needs to be simplified. But overall, the professionalisation of the humanitarian community has been positive.

Displaced children at a camp in the Central African Republic (2014)Displaced children at a camp in the Central African Republic (2014)

Does the rate of progress ever frustrate you?
Sure. The frustration right now has been mostly that the number of people displaced by violence has increased dramatically in the past seven years. The level of funding, though it has increased, has not caught up with the need. The ability of the humanitarian community to provide sufficiently qualified staff is now stretched and humanitarian agencies have not had the resources they needed.

One of the reasons for the tremendous displacements is twofold. One is that we have a series of new crises that have come up in the past year, one after the other: South Sudan, Iraq, Central Africa, Syria. At the same time, old crises are not finding resolution. A large number of Afghan and Somali refugees and those from the Democratic Republic of Congo were displaced some 20 years ago. When I was working with Doctors Without Borders in Cambodia, the average time a person was displaced was between three and four years; now it’s over 17 years. Seven years ago there were four serious civil wars in the world, today there are eleven.

Displaced children in the PhilippinesDisplaced children in the Philippines

How do you deal with it every day?
We try to be practical and focus on what we can change. Last year we went to Chad, where there are refugees from Darfur. Nobody talks about Darfur any more. We were able to restore some of the humanitarian funding and to get development agencies to look at livelihoods for these people; we were able to make an impact. On a broader level, there is a whole series of initiatives set up for this year. We hope that these movements will encourage governments across the world to address these issues as seriously as climate change or nuclear power.

How do we make refugee crises matter to people?
By telling individual stories. As long as we only manage statistics and countries of origin people will think, “Oh, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people”, or “They come from the Middle East”. We’re not talking about individual experiences and what each person has gone through. These people had lives similar to ours, which were then suddenly taken away by a maelstrom of violence. They’re now just trying to make a life for themselves and their families. Recently, I had an experience where someone said, “I’m against Syrian refugees, but I’m not against x and y, because I know x and y’s stories.”

As soon as people understand what refugees have gone through and that they had no choice, that they’ve lost people they love and sometimes even all their resources, that they’re completely desperate and see no future, I think public opinion will become more sympathetic. There is a danger in manipulating just numbers and statistics. I keep on telling people that when the UN says there are 60 million displaced people, this is not a statistic, this is 60 million individual tragedies. We must not forget this.

by Natalie Egling

From the Glass Archive – Issue 26 – Longevity

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