Refugees Insist Humanitarian Organization UNHCR Disregards Their Humanity

Since late 2019, waves of protests against the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the supranational branch of the United Nation that works to help displaced populations globally, have rocked a refugee camp in Lebanon that holds over 2,000 Sudanese and Ethiopian inhabitants. For months, refugee protesters have stood behind the gates of the camp in front of flimsy, poorly insulated tents and held sit-ins in front of a UNHCR building. Their signs read “Where are my rights?” and they proclaim the UNHCR does not respect their humanity. In December 2019, these protests became so disruptive — at one point, even devolving into riots — that the UNHCR called its own staff and security forces to arrest and detain many of the protesters.

One of the organizers of the protests, a 30-year-old Sudanese refugee named Abdul Baqi, acknowledged that many of the refugee protesters were frustrated by systemic issues within the UNHCR, such as inadequate provision of basic services and a convoluted resettlement process. However, he noted that those grievances are not the primary motivation behind the protests. Instead, these refugees resent that “[t]here are abuses that have happened [on the part of the UNHCR], a general sense of neglect and disrespect for [the refugees] as human beings, with no training of their staff, on top of them saying that they have no funds.” Specifically, many protesters are claiming they had been verbally threatened or harassed by UNHCR staff.

Unrest has long been a defining feature of refugee camps. Overcrowding, tensions between displaced groups of different national origins and a lack of resources — issues that are understandably endemic to the resettlement and asylum process given the scale of the global refugee crisis — are oft-cited explanations for camp protests. However, refugees feeling as though the UNHCR has not treated them as human beings worthy of equal dignity may be an overlooked catalyst of this unrest.

It is helpful to think of this issue through historian and Director of the World Peace Foundation Alex De Waal’s framework of “inescapable” and “escapable” cruelties. On one hand, inescapable cruelty, for humanitarian organizations, comes in the contrast between the overwhelming global need and organizations’ resource constraints. The cruelty of choosing between equally vulnerable people and populations — especially for limited resettlement opportunities — is inherent to and inseparable from humanitarian work. Escapable cruelty, on the other hand, refers to failings of humanitarian organizations that are entirely avoidable.

The UNHCR’s explanation for the unrest in Lebanon uses the typical excuse of inescapable cruelties for violence in refugee camps to dodge the issue of potential dehumanization — an escapable cruelty. In response to the protesters, the UNHCR Head of Field in Beirut Laura Almirall made this statement: “We consider everyone, but it doesn’t mean that everyone can or will get the services, from cash assistance, health care, to access to education. We’re working with limited funding and resources.” While this response might explain the neglect of which these refugees have accused the UNHCR, it does not explain the allegations that the UNHCR, a humanitarian organization, has unnecessarily disrespected these refugees’ humanity.

The Lebanon protests suggest that there are two different conversations occurring around human rights in refugee camps: The UNHCR’s narrative has emerged in Almirall’s response and a statement on the institution’s official Facebook page, where it characterized the allegations of disrespect as “inaccurate” and “misleading,” stating that, “UNHCR staff have at no time used verbal or physical abuse against the protestors,” leaving the protesters largely ignored.

Is there any truth to the UNHCR’s denial? It would seem that history is not on their side. In a 2010 survey of various African-origin refugees living in Egyptian camps, nearly a quarter of respondents reported that their interactions with the staff from UNHCR Cairo were their “worst” life experiences since the war-related atrocities they fled. Furthermore, 90.9 percent of respondents felt “quite a bit” or “extremely” betrayed by the UNHCR after its officials called Egyptian security forces to disperse informal refugee settlements in Egypt with no attempts made to engage in conversation or negotiate with the refugees. The confrontation between the refugees and security forces resulted in 23 deaths, hundreds of arrests and thousands of injuries. All study participants reported feelings of frequent hate, resentment and disgust towards the UNHCR as a result of the betrayal.

The Egyptian case represented overt dismissals of refugee concerns, but the UNHCR’s dehumanization of refugees can also be more subtle and systemic. Take, for example, a group of Burundian refugees’ attempt to violently take public authority in a Tanzanian refugee camp away from the UNHCR camp officials and establish self-governance. A 2006 study found that this quasi-attempted coup was motivated by resentment towards the UNHCR’s attempt to turn them into a “tabula rasa upon which UNHCR can create pure victims in need of help” to bolster its global reputation. In other words, the camp dwellers felt as though the UNHCR had taken their dignity from them by prohibiting their community organization, forcing them to play a part in its non-political vision of refugee camps.

There is clearly a global pattern that connects UNHCR involvement to unrest in refugee camps. The question is, why has this pattern been ignored for more than a decade? With few or no media outlets available to them, refugees’ grievances have been drowned out by the UNHCR-perpetuated narrative, especially when that narrative is amplified and endorsed by the international press. Events like protracted riots in the Moira refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, have driven mainstream media reporting on this trend of refugee resentment towards the UNHCR. However, major news outlets such as CNN and Al Jazeera have chalked up the asylum seekers’ grievances to systemic problems such as overcrowding, lack of appropriate shelters and insufficient food. Some sources have even attributed the most recent unrest in Moira as misplaced anger stemming from their frustration that the pandemic has brought resettlement to a standstill. In doing so, these sources have perpetuated the UNHCR’s narrative — that any cruelties they have committed are inescapable.

Millions of asylum seekers around the world live in similarly poor conditions in camps and informal settlements. But not all camps are plagued by riots, and not all camp dwellers express virulent anger towards the camp governors in the way the refugees in Lebanon, Egypt and Tanzania have towards the UNHCR. Clearly, the refugees in the case studies mentioned were not mobilized by poor quality of life, but because people who represent the UNHCR have added unnecessary insult to their inevitable injury. Despite the UNHCR’s attempts to downplay or discredit these complaints, where there is smoke, there is fire; feeling dehumanized by the UNHCR is a complaint that spans across different nationalities, countries and continents. In fact, this feeling has even united refugees of different ethnic groups and national origins — identifiers that usually divide camp dwellers.

Few researchers have addressed the issue of escapable cruelties experienced by refugee populations. However, preliminary data collected by a team at Duke University has begun exploration around this issue. As a part of the Uprooted/Rerouted DukeImmerse program, researchers collected life story interviews from Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Jordan’s temporary camps and settlements from 2014-2016. Jordan is a global refugee hotspot — the country is currently home to almost 750,000 refugees and hosts the second-largest population of refugees relative to its own in the world. In April 2014, months of unrest culminated in a deadly riot at the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, Jordan’s Zaatari camp, which is entirely administered by the UNHCR. Violence erupted when the UNHCR detained refugees who had tried to leave the camp “illegally.” Other camp dwellers became angry that the UNHCR tried to restrict their freedom of movement and control their behavior.

A street in the Zaatari refugee camp, circa 2016.
A street in the Zaatari refugee camp, circa 2016.

In the two years following the Zaatari camp riot, the Duke University study team interviewed 88 Syrian and Iraqi refugees about their forced migration experience. Fifty-eight expressed an opinion on the UNHCR. Of these 58 interviewees, 49 had a negative opinion of the UNHCR, and nine had a positive opinion. All participants who had a positive opinion of the UNHCR directly attributed this opinion to either aid or resettlement they had received, not how they had been treated by the UNHCR. On the other hand, 61 percent of participants with a negative opinion of the UNHCR pointed to at least one instance where the UNHCR Jordan staff or resettlement process had made them feel dehumanized, rather than a lack of aid, timely communication or resettlement. The participants’ feelings of dehumanization do not appear to be misplaced anger over the UNHCR’s inescapable cruelties — more than two-thirds of the group that felt disrespected or dehumanized by the UNHCR received some form of aid or even resettlement offers. While socioeconomic aid and resettlement are finite resources, empathy is not. Clearly, their discontent is caused by escapable cruelties.

Excerpts from these interviews in Jordan reveal that there are multiple angles to the UNHCR’s dehumanization of refugees. Some participants recounted a specific incident where a UNHCR staff member exhibited disrespect towards them. For example, Hassan, a 25-year-old Iraqi, recounts how a “woman who works at the UNHCR, she treats all Iraqis rude[ly] … no matter who comes to ask her for help.”

His frustration with UNHCR is echoed by Akram, a 44-year-old Iraqi and AA*, a 45-year-old Iraqi. Akram describes his experience with another UNHCR Jordan employee, saying, “There is anti-Semitism here, too; I was waiting at the UNHCR, and a lady looked at me and said, ‘You come.’ I sat down, and she said, ‘Unfortunately, you have been accepted.’ I felt like I was having a heart attack. She … [was] just kidding about my life. That was not the time to joke.” AA spoke about how his wife would “wait at the UN[HCR] for a long time, but no one would talk to her. They even made her cry one day, so she left.”

In other interview excerpts, participants explained that they felt dehumanized not from individual interactions with UNHCR staff, but from certain systemic aspects of the UNHCR’s asylum or resettlement processes. Najimm, a 45-year-old Iraqi, complained that the camp’s stifling protocols took away refugees’ autonomy, saying, “They [the UNHCR] keep you in a camp far away from villages and you can’t leave it. They take your passport. I could not stand it there. They even had a list of rules there you had to follow; it makes you feel like you are in jail.”

The interviews even indicated refugee resentment surrounding the process of leaving these camps. NZ*, a 40-year-old Syrian, complained that the invasive interview process for resettlement was dehumanizing, saying, “I don’t believe in the UNHCR anymore. They made me feel like stupid donkey [during the interview process.] Is that good? Is that humanitarian?”

These testimonies make it clear that the UNHCR can no longer write off refugee resentment towards it as a byproduct of inescapable cruelties. At the very least, these claims deserve to be taken seriously. That being said, the UNHCR cannot be the only humanitarian NGO or entity that has committed such escapable cruelties towards the refugees in its care.

So why the particular vitriol towards the UNHCR? One interview excerpt from Sherine, a 35-year-old Iraqi, explains the differentiation: “The UNHCR is not humanitarian, it is unhumanitarian. Because they don’t help people or consider the situation. They are always lying…. They have a section, ‘Saving the Children’; this is a big lie. They do not treat children or ladies without income like people.”

The UNHCR is supposed to be a global paragon of respect for refugees but does not live up to its mandate. The egregious examples in Jordan show that there is clearly a fundamental challenge between the ethos the UNHCR is expected to embody around compassion and its employees’ repeated cavalier disrespect. In public discourse, the UNHCR consistently speaks within a framework of humanity, often rallying against those they believe have “forgotten” or “ignored” the humanity of refugees and asylum seekers. It does so because its public commitment to humanizing this vulnerable population is so core to what this organization thinks it is. But what does it mean to treat someone — to see someone — as fully human? Refugee protesters take issue with the UNHCR’s perceived dismissal of the “Golden Rule”; aid workers have failed to recognize the shared humanity of refugee populations and treat them accordingly. For employees of a humanitarian organization to not do that — to not fulfill its mission — would seem like a baseline incompetence.

At the very least, the UNHCR must recognize its shortcomings and strive to be better as the paragon it claims to be. Many of the problems that affect refugee camps have structural origins — like particularities of aid allocation or local governments’ restrictions on certain camps — and are beyond what the UNHCR can or cannot do, and are therefore inescapable. Furthermore, it would be impossible to hold the UNHCR responsible in its organizational capacity for its individual employees’ indiscretions. But where the UNHCR does have a degree of freedom is in choosing to enact appropriate consequences for employees who do the opposite.

The UNHCR officially has a “zero-tolerance policy” toward any disrespectful behavior on the part of its staff towards members of “vulnerable communities.” However, in response to protesters’ demands for a transparent investigation into their claims of disrespect in Lebanon, for example, the UNHCR has been silent aside from its denial of the claims; there has been no announcement of any such investigations nor has one been made available to the public. (Repeated requests for comment by the UNHCR were denied, according to a spokesperson, “due to an influx of resettlement requests due to the end of the pandemic and the Biden administration’s election.”)

To deny the credibility of and refuse to investigate these refugees’ claims may be the most blatant disrespect of all. This organization-level negligence allows UNHCR staff to continue dehumanizing the people they are meant to serve. This is an unnecessary, inexplicable, escapable cruelty.

*Initials were used for participants who did not wish to publicly share their given names.