The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was set up with a temporary mandate in 1950. Nearly 70 years later it is still trying to empower refugees and improve their situations wherever they are. InfoMigrants spoke with Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements when she was in Bonn, and asked her about the situation in Europe.
Kelly Clements is a consummate diplomat. Her words are measured, she acknowledges at every turn the governments and organizations that help the UNHCR do their job. Nevertheless her smile is quick and genuine, and she still seems inspired by the stories she hears from the people she has met. After nearly three decades of working for US and international missions, in some of the biggest humanitarian crisis situations in the world, you might have expected her to lose touch with the people she helps. For Clements though, field work is still a hugely important part of her job. It is what connects her to the refugees she works with. "I can’t do my job sitting behind a desk and pushing paper, or relying on conversations from others who might be in the field, even though those are very rich indeed. I have to be attached somehow to the people that we have on our team that are serving others;[…] But I also have to have those direct conversations and experiences with refugees and the displaced, because that’s how we get a much better idea of how we can do our jobs better; how we can better serve and support; how we can put the agency back into refugees so they are making decisions about their own lives and we are not making those on their behalf."
Her smile is broad as she adds, "that kind of field connection for me is reinvigorating, it is energizing and it is my favorite part of the job." In March, Clements visited Kenya and Uganda, putting her commitment into action. Every day of her visit she was meeting real people, talking and listening to what they had to tell her. It is those stories, she confides, which she finds so inspiring. "When communities work together, when hosts and refugees work together, they lift up an entire community," she says.
Among the sadness and devastation of what it can mean to be a refugee, and the reasons a family might wind up in a camp, Clements and the UNHCR prefer to "focus on hope," and to work for solutions. She asks rhetorically, "What can happen when refugees are given the tools? They are able to move, they are able to work, they are able to send their kids to school. It’s this sort of story that has a benefit not just for the refugees, but for those who are hosting them [too]."
A need for shared responsibility
In Europe, Clements says more needs to be done in sharing responsibility: "Sharing responsibility ...[and being] able to have, as an international community, strong solidarity with refugees, certainly, but also with those communities which have been hosting refugees for decades." She mentions several times that too much has been put on the shoulders of essentially three countries in Europe. It is clear she is referring to Italy, Greece and Spain.
Back in June 2018, Clements visited the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. At the time, she and her organization called for more to be done to solve the problems of overcrowding in the camp. In January 2019, the international aid agency Oxfam described conditions there as "inhumane." Other aid workers have described conditions in the camps as "hell on earth." There are reports of women wearing nappies at night to avoid having to leave their tents to go to the toilet, and of frequent incidents of violence and intimidation. Clements says that strong support from the Greek government has been crucial to the UNHCR in camps like Moria. Everyone is doing all they can to "decongest the overcrowded island facilities," she adds. The situation is "manageable," especially since "far fewer refugees and migrants are making the crossing [from Turkey] this year than in 2017, 2016 or even 2015."
The situation is manageable, Clements repeats as long as there are "chances for people to relocate to other EU countries." It is "very important [to have] a managed system across the [European] region as a whole [to avoid] the responsibility falling on the shoulders of a couple or three countries in a disproportionate way."
The theme of women is close to Clements’ heart, but when talking about preventing gender-related violence she makes it clear that the UNHCR is to protect everyone: Women, men and children. The agency places emphasis on prevention rather than cure. They work closely with national and local authorities to try to provide security. Creating infrastructure, "like lighting in camps" is of the utmost importance. Providing psycho-social support, counselling and other services if things do go wrong is another pillar of UNHCR policy. As well as protecting people in the camp, the agency is also concerned about those refugees who may now be in private accommodation and who could "easily fall through the cracks" in society, Clements says.
Ever the diplomat, Clements doesn’t stray too far from her conciliatory words when talking about the deadlock over what to do with migrants still trying to cross, or saved from, the Mediterranean. However, she makes it clear that the UNHCR would like to "avoid […] the situation we saw last year with regard to the Aquarius, where you have a boat going with over 600 migrants and asylum seekers, looking for a place to dock." She underlines again that some of the burden should be taken from frontline countries and that the solution of relocation should be adopted across the EU. Has that advice been taken positively by the EU?: "Yes, yes, I would say [it has]. I think there is recognition that the status quo is not sustainable."
'The situation is difficult in Libya'
In March, the Women’s Refugee Commission published a report about widespread sexual violence, exploitation and torture in Libya. Other agencies, including the German Foreign Office, have confirmed that conditions in some detention centers in Libya resemble "concentration-camp-like conditions." Clements agrees: "The situation is very difficult inside the country. We have worked with the Libyan government but also others." She moves the focus onto the solutions the UNHCR is already providing in Libya: Relocation of some of the most vulnerable in Libya to Niger for instance. "But access is limited and the resettlement spaces are also limited. Our message is we need to increase the number of opportunities where we can actually bring people out and move them through more quickly, through Niger to other locations in order for the system to work."
Clements emphasizes that information is key to UNHCR's work, especially making sure people who are thinking of migrating understand the risks they will face between leaving their home country and reaching their destination. "For that we need much more assistance in terms of countries of origin."
Resettlement and the future
Worldwide it's estimated that there are 1.4 million people in need of resettlement, but only 55,000 resettlement places, Clements explains . "Clearly we need more countries stepping forward and saying, 'we will take the most vulnerable of the vulnerable'." Clements thinks that they need to communicate more about the importance of resettlement. "We see that there is more interest at the country level and more nations getting involved, so we are hopeful." She adds that, even if countries can’t participate in direct resettlement, there are other ways to help: "Humanitarian visas, for example, some of the labor mobility schemes, scholarships for students so that they can invest in their futures."
Can she see a world when there will be no more refugees? "I would like nothing better than for us to work ourselves out of a job," she laughs, but in order to do that, "we need a lot of help to make that possible!"