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UN and NGOs plan the road ahead

Among the country-specific issues I raised was the plight of Colombian refugees confined to the jungles of Panama, where food and medical care are currently inadequate and living conditions are extremely harsh. JRS/USA is leading an initiative to find a lasting solution for this extremely vulnerable population. (Sergei Camera — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Friday, August 05, 2011

By Mitzi Schroeder
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Director for Policy

(Washington, D.C.) August 5, 2011 — I have just returned from Geneva, where I participated in the annual consultations between UNHCR and the Non-Governmental Organization community. This three day conference provides an opportunity for the UN refugee agency and its NGO partners to examine their work and to discuss how they can better partner together to protect refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. The theme of this year’s consultations — "60 Years of Partnership – The Road Ahead" — highlights the dual purpose served by the meeting, first to examine past achievements and areas in need of improvement, and then to plan for future initiatives.

A key area where this can be seen is the protection of urban refugees. This year, I led a small group of interested NGO staff in organizing the last in a series of three sessions on urban refugees that we have held at the consultations over the past three years. In this year’s session, entitled "Cityscape: Taking Stock of New Initiatives in Response to Urban Refugees" we examined the progress that has been made over the past two years in implementing the principles set out in UNHCR’s 2009 urban refugee policy report.

JRS Southern Africa Regional Director, Fr. David Holdcroft, S.J., was a speaker at the session, and described JRS' efforts to reach out to host communities to address the problem of xenophobia, and to local institutions to provide better access for urban refugees to health care and education. In the question and answer period and in subsequent private discussions, I raised the need to ensure refugees better access to UNHCR itself, so that they may be afforded the documentation, legal status and protection that so often only UNHCR can provide. This is a critical question which I plan to continue pursue with UNHCR and with the U.S. Government over the coming months.

A special feature of this year's consultations was the participation of a group of refugee women drawn from among a large number of respondents who had taken part in a UNHCR-sponsored survey of their needs and concerns over the past year.

A chilling finding of the survey was the extent to which sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) permeates every aspect of refugee women’s lives, with terrible consequences for every aspect of their well-being. The continuing failure to protect the physical well-being and human dignity of refugee women — despite the considerable effort that has been expended in this area — remains one of the greatest gaps in our collective response to refugee needs. In recognition of this, JRS has identified SGBV as the focus for a new campaign of advocacy and programming for the coming year.

The formal consultations also provided an opportunity to engage in a series of side meetings with individual UNHCR regional and functional offices. At these meetings, we discussed areas of potential collaboration, such as the identification and protection of vulnerable refugee children, and improvement to the quality of refugee education, for example through distance learning initiatives such as the "Jesuit Commons." Among the country-specific issues I raised was the plight of Colombian refugees confined to the jungles of Panama, where food and medical care are currently inadequate and living conditions are extremely harsh.  JRS/USA is leading an initiative to find a lasting solution for this extremely vulnerable population.

During the week of the consultations, I also had the opportunity to spend time with JRS’ Geneva representative, Fr. Michael Gallagher, S.J., and Oliver White, Advocacy and Communications Officer for the JRS Asia and Pacific Region, as well as with David Holdcroft. We have agreed to work together to follow up on a number of opportunities for cross regional cooperation.