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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

Empowerment and compassion in refugee crisis response: A conversation with UNHCR MENA Director Amin Awad

The series of refugee crises in the Middle East and North Africa has created urgent need for coordinated international responses and advocacy. To learn more about the complexities of meeting the needs of diverse refugee populations across the region, and addressing their root causes, JMEPP Levant Regional Editor Kelsey Wise sat down with Amin Awad in advance of his appearance at the Harvard Arab Conference. Mr. Awad currently serves as the Director for the Middle East and North Africa with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and has extensive experience working on refugee issues and in humanitarian relief in the MENA region. He is also the Regional Refugee Coordinator for Syria and Iraq. 


Q: What is the most challenging refugee situation in the MENA region today, and why? Are there any refugee crises that in your opinion are overlooked? What do you foresee as the biggest refugee-related challenge the MENA region will face in the next 5 years?

A: The refugee and internal displacement situation in Yemen is one of most challenging and most overlooked in the region. If we look at the magnitude and scale of the needs in Yemen, the attention it receives is highly disproportionate. The depth of human suffering has reached catastrophic levels. Last year, we saw a severe deterioration in the conflict, compounding the protection crisis in which millions of Yemenis are struggling to survive. On a daily basis, Yemenis are forced to contend with multiple challenges, including armed conflict, displacement, the ever-present risk of famine and the outbreak of disease. In this regard, the recent peace talks in Sweden at the end of 2018 offer a glimmer of hope that this downward spiral can be slowed or reversed.

Characterized as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN, the catastrophe in Yemen continues  largely out of the public’s mind. Media outlets have repeatedly referred to it as an “invisible” crisis, despite its magnitude. Some 24 million Yemenis, over three quarters of the country’s population, remain in need of humanitarian assistance, with approximately 14.3 million having acute needs. Since June 2018, more than 685,000 persons were displaced as a direct result of conflict, bringing the current total displacement to 3.3 million persons. Within this population, 89 percent have remained displaced for one year or more, with many facing secondary displacement in their attempts to return home; this issue has therefore strained their ability, and that of their hosts, to effectively cope.

Looking at the next five years and beyond, my greatest concern is the prospect of long-term, protracted conflicts. As the world continues to face polarization, the Middle East and North Africa region is arguably witnessing some of the most complex and devastating conflicts in contemporary history. Displacement remains one of the most pressing and long-term impacts on all levels, and the consequences, if unaddressed, threaten to derail the long term developmental trajectory of the region as a whole. Countries bordering crisis zones are already struggling to absorb the social, economic, and political shocks of large-scale refugee movements, while the broader consequences of unresolved conflicts reverberate across and beyond regions. The global community needs to shift its thinking on assistance to refugees towards a greater focus on long-term planning, employment opportunities, livelihoods, and self-sufficiency.


Q: In the past few years, we have witnessed the rise of nationalism within the United States and many European countries. How does the spread of nationalist and populist ideologies and policies impact refugees and the operations of UNHCR within the Middle East and North Africa?

A: I take this opportunity to highlight the drastic need for more resettlement options. Many refugees under UNHCR’s care cannot go home because of continued conflict, wars, and persecution. Many also live in perilous situations or have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection. In such circumstances, UNHCR helps resettle refugees to a third country. Only a small number of states take part in UNHCR’s resettlement programme. In recent years, the United States has been the world’s top resettlement country, with Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries also providing a sizeable number of places annually. However, many countries around the world either do not have refugee resettlement schemes in place, or are reducing the size of their programmes.

While quotas for Syrian refugees increased from 2013 to 2016, there has been a drastic reduction since 2017. This is in spite of the fact that resettlement opportunities are largely limited to the most vulnerable. And the future outlook doesn’t give much hope. Currently, while an estimated 601,152 Syrians are in need of resettlement in 2019 based on clear vulnerability criteria and standards, only 9,033 have been resettled so far. Re-establishing resettlement levels to higher levels, and thinking about innovative complementary pathways, is vital. It’s the most tangible act of burden-sharing after funding, reducing pressure on host countries, and providing a lifeline for the most vulnerable.

If we look at global displacement more generally, historical precedent has shown us that closed borders and closed minds have never led to progress or innovation, or changed this planet for the better. New population movements, even those rooted in tragedy, can carry with them new dreams and ideas. All too often, the debate is distorted, focusing on how people should be kept away. We should be trying to find solutions to the crises and their underlying root causes, as well as supporting the countries and communities that shoulder responsibility for hosting the majority of the world’s refugees.  


Q: Thousands of Syrians have already left their countries of refuge to return to Syria, and thousands more are expected to return this year from countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. What are the obstacles you expect these refugees will face upon return? Who is encouraging their return and what is the impact of this discourse? How does UNHCR respond to this?

A: This has been a decisive year for the Syrian conflict in many ways. As large-scale fighting concluded in many parts of the country, some 56,000 refugees returned to their areas of origin in 2018. Syrians are returning to destroyed infrastructure, homes, and services with urgent needs. Yet, returning home is a fundamental human right. In whichever part of the country they are living, we as humanitarians have a responsibility to help them, together with the millions of other persons in need inside Syria. UNHCR is currently not facilitating returns to Syria. However, in recognizing the ongoing return operations organized by governments in the region and that some refugees are returning on their own, we are helping those returning to do so in dignity. Our support includes counselling refugees, identifying separated children, and helping refugees reclaim or resolve civil documentation issues.

In addition, in collaboration with UN agencies and NGO partners, UNHCR has been engaged in preparedness and planning for future large-scale organized returns. Contingency plans are being developed to make sure we are ready collectively should refugees decide to return in larger groups. The majority of refugees – 75% according to our intention surveys – want to return home. However, they have also expressed concerns about what they will face in Syria on their return. 69% have said they do not intend to return in the next 12 months, citing these concerns as obstacles to their return. Understanding and trying to address these concerns should be the focus of our attention. Refugees have highlighted insecurity in some areas, fears of conscription or punishment for having left the country, lacking the necessary documents to move around freely, as well as the destruction of property and infrastructure and limited livelihoods and basic services.

Refugees are the best judges of when they can return safely. We can help them by enabling them to make well-informed decisions on whether to return or not, and by working constructively to remove obstacles to return. However, refugee returns to Syria will take time. In the interim, refugees and host countries need to be supported so that refugees can live in dignity and thrive while waiting for conditions to improve.


Q: Given the widespread urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, what assistance and aid does UNCHR’s MENA Bureau choose to prioritize, and why? What are the greatest obstacles in delivering assistance to Yemenis?

A: Humanitarian access remains a significant issue in Yemen, given the security and bureaucratic obstacles. UNHCR continuously advocates with parties of the conflict for access, and we maintain a presence through field offices across Yemen. Every day, UNHCR staff on the ground demonstrate immense courage and commitment to ensure we reach those in need. In the current context, UNHCR’s response is oriented towards addressing the needs of displaced Yemenis, as well as of refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen. Under the humanitarian coordination system that is activated in Yemen, we lead the shelter, non-food item, and protection response through all phases of displacement. In 2018, UNHCR provided assistance to over 825,000 internally displaced persons, returnees, and communities. Around 85 percent of UNHCR’s assistance followed the June 2018 escalation of fighting in al-Hudaydah. Close to 800,000 Yemenis and 130,000 refugees received cash assistance in 2018, which remains a key element of UNHCR’s programme. To help protect the rights of those forcibly displaced, we also provide legal and financial assistance and psychosocial support services.


Q: UNICEF and others report worsening rates of child marriage in Syrian refugee communities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. What steps is UNHCR taking to address this practice? What are some of the other challenges that girls, in particular, face as refugees?

A: It’s notable that there has actually been a significant reduction in child marriage among nationals in the Middle East and North Africa, for whom the prevalence of child marriage has consistently declined over the last 25 years. This discrepancy of child marriage decreasing among national populations at the same time that it continues to accelerate among refugees speaks to the immense pressures encountered during displacement.

Recognising that child marriage is a cross-cutting issue, UNHCR supports coordinated action across all sectors: including health, education, child protection, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), livelihoods, economic empowerment, and the adoption and implementation of laws in line with international standards. UNHCR works in partnership with states to help strengthen national legal frameworks, such as advocating for raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 and fully incorporating the principle of the ‘best interests of the child.’ Robust engagement with communities is another key element of the response. These efforts are complemented by pilot projects launched in 2018 in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt which use measures such as cash assistance to bolster the economic security in efforts to prevent child marriage, child labour, and other child protection risks.

In 2019, we also completed a comprehensive review of positive and negative coping strategies among displaced adolescents and youth. It is now being used to more effectively target interventions to children and at-risk youth. Importantly, we see that girls whose education is not interrupted due to child marriage experience significant gains in health, literacy, and economic security over their lifetimes, and are more likely to prioritize the education of their own children. Syrian refugee mothers who married before 18 have emphasized the importance of saving their own daughters from this fate. This aspiration cannot be realised, however, unless the humanitarian and international community takes immediate and concerted action to address structural pressures on refugee girls. In this regard, UNHCR is pleased to see that this is now firmly on the global development agenda, with a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target aiming to eliminate child marriage entirely by 2030. We remain committed to preventing and responding to the problem as a key element of our protection response.


Q: What are some powerful or memorable examples of community resilience that you have witnessed? What lessons can UNHCR and the wider global community learn from these examples?

A: Having worked all over the world on a range of emergencies over the last 30 years, community resilience is something that I have witnessed in every situation, without fail. The strength of the human spirit to triumph over adversity never ceases to amaze me. We can see this now in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and in all of the countries hosting refugees from these crises.

The second part of this question is also very important. We must not just look at refugees and displaced persons as beneficiaries. Yes they need support and solidarity, but they are also inspirational examples for us all. We can learn much from their ingenuity, and how they meet their most basic needs often with very limited resources. We must also remember that the first responders to the situation are the host countries who have been extraordinarily generous in hosting millions of refugees in the MENA region. In the case of the Syrian crisis, host countries have generously hosted Syrian refugees for nearly nine years, offering asylum and protection, opening public services, and enabling more and more refugees to participate in the local economy. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world; Lebanon and Jordan host among the highest per capita numbers of refugees in the world. We can put a dollar figure on the UN-led response to these crises, but it is hard to put a figure on the cost of these countries opening up their public services to millions of Syrian refugees. Continued support from the international community is needed so they can stay on course in extending their generosity to refugees while restoring the momentum of their own development.