UNHCR Chief: Election of a Bureaucrat

January 1, 2016   •   By Helen Mackreath

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

— W.H. Auden, “Refugee Blues”


UNIFORM MAHOGANY OFFICE SPACES impose a mute stillness. Token security stand on polished floors. Some have pot plants. Middle Eastern political offices are filled with coffee and smoke; the United Nations is far more puritanical. Once inside, an almost hypnotic calmness pervades. There is no relationship between power and size of office — municipality buildings in tiny governorates open up to the same glassy expanse.

In these spaces, under a portrait of a choice leader or symbolic figure (Atatürk, Arafat, Erdoğan, Suleiman, Ban Ki Moon), the plight of refugees is discussed and administered. This is where higher politics are played out. The logic among municipality offices in North Lebanon is to slam the perceived “inadequacies” of the international humanitarian effort. In other offices, it is to collect data and produce reports.

We don’t normally think of office spaces when considering the plight of refugees. The more common background to their plight can be found in the faded football poster Blu-tacked to the wall of the small local sports center, converted to a makeshift home by three families; or the eyeliner smeared across the eyes of the two-week-old baby to ensure her early marriage to an eligible man. Their stories are more often than not checked, or allowed, by the occupants of bureaus. Against its wishes, the UNHCR makes its home in these spaces.

In his early speeches before the UN, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, observed that his Office would simply “administer misery” if financial constraints persisted. He feared the UNHCR becoming an outsourced office that could only process the rejected of the world, in an environment completely detached from the certainty of asylum or protection.

In effect this is all it ever was — a small and timid legal bureaucracy with entrenched insecurities of powerlessness. It has become bolder and more self-assured, but only once it expanded beyond its original mandate of legal protection to provide food supplies and tents for emergency relief. Today it is navigating both conceptual and practical quicksand. As the brainchild of states, and also funded and governed by them, the UNHCR is the victim of a paradox — created in order to protect the human spillages that accompany wars, but reined in by its very creators when their sovereignty is threatened. The inventory of conflicts grows by the year, piling more causes onto existing problems, which themselves have no end in sight.


In November, veteran Italian humanitarian Filippo Grandi was appointed as new High Commissioner for Refugees. His tenure begins today.

Elections of politicians are marked by manifestos, bold proclamations of identity and status, pledges never kept. This appointment was a bureaucratic operation, smooth and completely controlled — a black hole to outside observers. (Black holes are common in refugee issues. Their plight can be mapped along a spectrum of colors — there are the Refugee Blues; the cobalt UNHCR signs slung over tents and port cabins; the orange life jackets; the psychedelic colors scrawled by refugee children of the bombing planes, or flames or other bloody traumas they’ve witnessed and escaped.) Grandi’s exact remit is to defy the possible — to conjure up asylum space for millions of Syrian refugees; to eek money out of states’ pockets, which are tightening up; to deal with forgotten protracted refugee situations in the Sahel and elsewhere. It’s a game of bluff, to make states believe he has more authority than he has, or to persuade them it is within their interests to make humanitarian decisions — a thankless task.

The election of the new High Commissioner is neither here nor there for most refugees. The chain of decisions is so fragile and stuttered that by the time it reaches them, it bears little resemblance to its origin. The chessboard politics that operates in New York boardrooms does not find bread or shelter at night. It doesn’t mean much when life is a constant cycle of circumstances, none of which are any better than the previous. On the ground, UNHCR officials feel they have a certain level of autonomy to interpret the mandate in the context of local place and situation (this, indeed, is a necessity for refugees to be sensitively and sustainably handled).

One of the defining characteristics of a bureaucrat is their unelected position. They don’t represent anyone, govern, or pass laws. They do wield substantial power — in the United States bureaucrats are in the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve Board, and federal agencies. The UNHCR is unique within the UN system for the demands it places on the role of leadership (in legal, diplomatic, programmatic, and public relation functions) and the personality of its leader. There is something of the art of the theatrical required to be an advocate for the plight of refugees. Eleanor Roosevelt took to task the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky at the Commission on Human Rights, held on January 27, 1947, over the flow of refugees from Eastern Europe. Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nation’s first High Commissioner for Refugees, was a champion skier and ice skater in his youth and led the team that made the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888. He gave his name to the Nansen passport, which was the first international measure to alleviate the plight of stateless individuals.

Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart (1951–1956) had only three years to demonstrate the new office’s relevance and practically no funds to carry out his work. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (1966–1978), the highly cultured cosmopolitan, used his position to cajole governments into more funding. For 12 years he reoriented the agency’s focus beyond Europe, shaming the world into watching the plight of Bangladeshi refugees after the breakup of Pakistan, the Asians evicted by Idi Amin in Uganda, those fleeing Pinochet’s Chile, and the human fallout from the breakup of Cyprus.

If appearances are anything to go by (which in diplomacy they are), Filippo Grandi will carry on this tradition with panache. As Secretary General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he was compelled to demonstrate extreme political delicacy. He sometimes wears sunglasses when conducting press conferences and maintains an Italian sense of style. He is a man full of personal integrity and charisma. At one of his last public talks as Secretary General, he spoke eloquently about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria in front of the then-not-publicly-released photograph of the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. He was haunted by the questions of Um Ahmed, a Yarmouk resident queuing for the first humanitarian food parcels that had been allowed into the camp for months. “What is our fate?” she asked him. “What are we supposed to do, where are we supposed to go?”


Refugee communities in North Lebanon have formed in solidarity against the UNHCR’s impenetrability. Refugees, hosts, and municipalities complain that there is no discernible rhythm nor reason for who receives assistance and who doesn’t. Underage employment (anyone younger than 17 years of age) is enough to tick the box of “less vulnerable,” with assistance to be dispersed elsewhere. In Beirut it costs $200 to be buried (even death is expensive). Some Syrians fear registering as refugees, lest it prevent them returning home or alert Syrian authorities to their presence. Aid workers providing assistance are often treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision (an altercation arose during one research trip in North Lebanon as a man on the street outlined his contempt for NGOs that were “not doing enough to help refugees”). Gaps exist across localities and confusion is prevalent.

Bureaucracy is the price of efficiency and effectiveness, of getting the job done. It is also a question of accountability and transparency, of smoothing relationships between donors and the aid-givers. It is easy to depict UN agencies as cold and heartless bureaucrats (frustrations held by its own employees). But refugees also gently manipulate the system — desperate people trying to make the little they have go a long way. Ration card fraud, spiriting an extra bag of lentils to sell for some disposable cash, young Kurdish gypsy women reusing diapers so they can sell their weekly supply in exchange for rent (or rather, money to pay for the small scrap of land they had pitched tents on). Giving aid is a political business even down to the very fundamental interaction between one individual and another.

The UNHCR is not well suited to working with civil society and grassroots organizations. It was created by states; its mandate has always operated around negotiations for asylum space at state level. Such high-level dealings require high-level public relations personnel. When a refugee baby girl died in front of Rosalynn Carter as the US cameras were rolling in Sa Kaeo Refugee Camp in Cambodia in 1979, it was an ideal emotional advert. She was as good as her word when she told reporters, “I'm going home as fast as I can to tell my husband [President Jimmy Carter] about it” — the United States pledged to accept 14,000 Southeast Asian refugees each month (168,000 a year). But dealing at these high levels compromises the UNHCR’s ability to tackle the nitty-gritty of refugee issues. Development agencies were traditionally responsible for engaging at the intimate level of relief work, emergency food, and shelter supplies. Today the UNHCR straddles both fields and is increasingly stretched.

“The international community brought $800,000 worth of ready-meals during Ramadan and the municipality had to pay $40,000 to clean up when people threw it out en masse,” says one fierce municipality chief, his hoarse voice loud and aggressive, to laughter in the office; his words are infested with the derision of a disempowered man left only with scorn as a weapon of authority. He had taken it as a personal slight that his office was not being given any funding to assist with the influx of refugees, NGOs preferring to distribute it through their own means (owing to fears of corruption). When the Lebanese Ministry of Electricity removed illegal cable lines, which Syrian refugees had been using to operate fans and breathing equipment for the elderly, the refugees turned to him, not the UNHCR or the Lebanese state, to ask for assistance. He sided with the rights of the refugees, told them to reinstate the illegal cables, and informed the Minister of Electricity that he had taken power into his own hands in the matter.

A David and Goliath struggle, or just a career frustrated by power politics? These are the local political dynamics that the UNHCR must understand and navigate if refugee protection mechanisms are to be robust and sustainable.


People across the world negotiate insecurities through their own means. Life insurance, asset acquisition, a glass of wine, rotating crop harvests. To be secure is a relative position.

Grappling with the notion of insecurity is central to the work and future of the UNHCR. When van Heuven Goedhart made his 1954 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on behalf of the UNHCR, he introduced the concept of “need” to that of security (“Peace […] is rather a state in which no […] group of people of any kind, lives in fear or in need”). The year 1954 wasn’t an idealistic time, the world bifurcated and realpolitik increasingly cynical and sneaky. Insecurity then was framed by the Cold War and the fear of imminent nuclear elimination. It was the year President Dwight Eisenhower gave his Domino Theory speech about the spread of communism, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established, and Bill Haley & His Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock.” His speech marked the first recognition that refugees face multiple insecurities beyond the immediate conflict from which they have fled.

A refugee’s journey is not a purely physical voyage from A to B; every individual must find deepest reserves of strength, hope, and courage to make it. And still, the lights always light red. Insecurity is in the curfews in place across cities and towns (45 in Lebanon); the words of politicians [Gebran Bassil, Foreign Minister of Lebanon, in this case] saying the refugee question “concerns [the country’s] existence, its entity and its components.” Insecurity is having no education and a curtailed future. Here, in these places both physical and existential, the youngest are most vulnerable to resentment. “Syrians don’t belong here,” squares one young set of shoulders to another. Squabbles break out between young Lebanese and Syrians, carving another cycle of hostility between the two nations — insecurity nestles here too.

A young Syrian shepherd stands and looks out over a flock of sheep in the Lebanese valley below. He is taking care of a Lebanese man’s land and has been granted permission to build tents on the land in return. In this serene fading afternoon sunlight, he could be Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” or a young man with no other concern than the welfare of the sheep and his young wife. But he has six young female-led families under his care, all relatives, each one with six infant members. One of the ladies had given birth 20 days previously; the other sold off their own food vouchers to pay for the cost of her childbirth. One of the young daughters has rashes. Insecurity is the lack of healthcare provision. Refugee crises can last several lifetimes — maybe the children will spend their adult lives occupying this same patch of ground.

But where to draw the line under insecurity? If refugees are insecure, then so too are the hosts into whose homes they have entered and whose resources they are sharing. Talking about social welfare for refugees — food, shelter, education, healthcare, counseling — necessarily requires asking it for hosts too. Can a refugee be free from “need” if they are excluded from the job market? What do we even mean by “need” anyway? By opening itself up to this ambiguity, the UNHCR is broaching issues of sustainable development, and long-term intervention in a sovereign state. In Lebanon and Jordan this took the form of the 3RP “Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan” launched at the end of last year, which recognized, for the first time, the “centrality of national resilience and stabilization plans” in refugee protection. It marked the first direct collaboration between the UNHCR and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and it aimed to “strengthen the capacity of national delivery systems.” The necessity for this long-term protection and welfare of both hosts and refugees is clear — but can the UNHCR be so elastic?


Waiting is the given of this life. A refugee experience is not defined by the act of fleeing but by the long, drawn-out hours, stretching into years, of uncertainty. Waiting for registration, for food parcels, for asylum acceptance, for the war to end. A daily grind of queues. Some of this waiting is done in the same office spaces where power politics are played out. The office of the Department of Refugee Affairs, under the State Department of the Interior of Kenya, is a castle — all fortified gray stone walls and turrets. Inside glassy polished floors, a hypnotic calm pervades. The majority of people queuing up here are Somalian refugees seeking asylum. They stand dignified and silent in lines. Most have come from the Dadaab refugee camp tucked in the arid northeast of the country (in the 1980s Kenyan MP Martin Shikuku declared it was only inhabited by camels and wildlife and required no large-scale government investments). When the al-Shabaab terrorist group massacred 147 students in the nearby University of Garissa in April, the Kenyan government ordered the closure of the camp. “We are very concerned about the alleged involvement or complacency of some UNHCR personnel, who facilitate terrorist activities in this country,” Joseph Nkaissery, the Kenyan Secretary for Internal Security, told a meeting of the UNHCR in Switzerland.

Targeted relief administration can happen in camps. They are organized and spatially concentrated — a place for collective concerns to be addressed in isolation. But they are also a dystopian demi-existence that confines people to the refugee reality and eclipses a chance of identity, future, and normal life. In cities, refugees can slide into spaces and exist alongside migrants, squatters, exiles, and other ostracized. But they can also become lost, detached from welfare support. They are easily targeted by strangers, racketeers, and exploiters of all shades. Both scenarios have inadequacies.

In Kenya there is a cocktail of terrorist suppression, supremacy of state demands, and the inevitable need for a solution to protracted refugee situations on display. The UNHCR has launched a plan to help repatriate 135,000 Somalis, citing "tangible signs of stabilisation" in their country. But is this the refugee’s choice? “It is not voluntary repatriation,” Issa Maaciye, a UN repatriation officer, said in May. “It is fear.” The balancing act between security and humanitarianism, state acquiescence and protection of people, is almost impossibly difficult to manage. It’s a big plate for Grandi to digest.


Humanitarian agencies act as the janitors of the world. “Some political leaders believe that they can trigger conflicts because then the humanitarians will come and clean up the mess,” António Guterres, the outgoing High Commissioner (2005–2016), has said. “We are no longer able to clean up the mess, to pick up the pieces.” The peace and security regime, led by the Security Council and established at the end of the Second World War, is failing. Four of the five permanent SC members are directly involved in the Syria and Iraq conflicts.

Remaining “relevant” is a concern for most intergovernmental organizations. In theory the UNHCR should not have this anxiety — the list of people under its concern continues to grow year-on-year. Today it eclipses 50 million. And yet the decreasing appetite among states to grant asylum space, shrinking aid budgets, refusal to connect conflict with human spillage, and condemning of protracted refugee situations to recesses of collective minds makes the UNHCR something of the elephant in the room. There are other actors at play now too, not all of them tangible — climate change, urbanization, fragmenting power bases and their reconfiguration down private networks, non-state actors, explosions in communication. “Syria is the canary in the coalmine,” said Guterres. Whether the UNHCR will be permitted the funds and space to stand up to this reality is a pressing concern.


Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Beirut, currently working on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.