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Refugees from Vietnam meet with Wanrob Wararasdr, a Jesuit Refugee Service Thailand case worker in Bangkok. (Don Doll, S.J./Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Washington, D.C.) December 4, 2009 — In letters to the U.S. State Department and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA has joined our partners to share the views of InterAction’s Humanitarian Partnerships Working Group and Refugee Council USA’s Protection Committee on key issues ahead of next week’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection.

The Dialogue on Protection Challenges will take place on December 9 and 10, in Geneva. The conference will focus on the hurdles faced by refugees and forcibly displaced people in cities and other urban settings.

In 2007, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres established the Dialogue to facilitate informal discussion of global protection issues by UNHCR, nations, academics, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and our partners welcome the release of the "UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas" and are pleased with the principles and general direction reflected in the document. It represents a considerable improvement over previous iterations of UNHCR’s policy and approach to these populations.

The need for this new policy could not be more urgent as the majority of refugees now live outside camps and urban refugees are likely to be the face of displacement in the 21st century. The challenge now is to ensure its timely and effective implementation. We remain concerned that while the policy document provides a strong framework for action, it does not provide the operational guidance that is urgently needed by the humanitarian community. The issues are complex and require new approaches, new partnerships, and new skills.

We hope that the Dialogue will provide an important venue for identification of the key operational issues and initial planning on implementation. 

At the Dialogue, and in the ensuing months, we urge the U.S. government to:

Complement a U.S. call for action on implementation with a pledge to integrate the concerns of urban refugees into U.S. diplomacy, and with an assurance that U.S. financial support for protection and assistance of refugees also includes those in urban settings. The international donor community will need to work in a more coordinated fashion, cutting across development and humanitarian assistance 'silos,' to meet the needs of urban refugees. The U.S. can show its support for such an integrated response by ensuring that funding streams, including those overseen by PRM and USAID, are flexible to assist vulnerable urban refugee populations as well as camp-based populations. As a leading nation in providing resettlement as a durable solution, the U.S. can also do much to promote the strategic use of resettlement as one way to unlock protracted urban refugee situations, in addition to promoting local integration and voluntary repatriation.

Convey the U.S.’s support for UNHCR,’s strategy to develop deeper partnerships across UN agencies and with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to better address the needs of urban refugees, as articulated in the new policy.

Given the obstacles inherent in reaching out to refugees in urban contexts, the response on the ground will need to employ a variety of approaches and will need to mobilize the capacities of diverse actors, including the UN, humanitarian and development organizations, local and national governmental bodies, and local and international NGOs. The international community will need to work much more closely with local and national entities than has been the case in the past in order to create a cooperative environment in which urban refugees can be identified, protected and served.

NGOs, in particular, have a critical role to play in turning a good policy into strong programming in the field. Our organizations — both humanitarian and development — are already operating in urban areas. We have excellent connections with local NGOs and access to communities that allow us to serve as effective partners with governments and with UNHCR in identifying and serving refugees and vulnerable populations in urban areas. Precedents already exist for cooperation between UNHCR, governments, and NGOs in a number of urban settings. Good practices, already identified in the course of such cooperation, can serve as a basis for the development of innovative pilot projects.

In some contexts, UNHCR and governments are already partnering with NGOs to help with identification, outreach and assistance to urban refugee populations. We welcome the emphasis on partnership that currently exists in the policy and look forward to working with UNHCR and governments to establish mechanisms for partnerships at all stages of the response in urban settings — from identification to assistance.

Donor support will be key. Housing, education, cash assistance, and medical care will be more expensive. Outreach and identification will be labor intensive and hence more costly. In light of the significant resources implications of the new policy, we look forward to a discussion of how implementation activities will be reflected and prioritized in the global needs assessment process. We look forward to partnering with governments and UNHCR to educate donors and all relevant actors on the increase of resources that will be required to bring adequate protection and assistance into the urban environment.

Perhaps more than ever, UNHCR will have to strengthen its advocacy role and legal protection capacities. Maintaining protection space in urban settings, particularly in light of forced encampment policies, arbitrary arrest and detention, and state failure to adhere to or recognize international refugee law, will be challenging. NGOs stand ready to join UNHCR in public advocacy on behalf of refugees in urban settings.

We are fortunate that several U.S. based NGOs will be able to attend the Dialogue. They will come prepared to speak on a variety of themes and issues related to the agenda (click here). These themes represent only preliminary thinking on the policy and suggested ways forward. We also hope we can count on the U.S. government’s support for our recommendations in these important areas as well.





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