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What the appointment of Antonio Guterres as UN secretary-general means for the refugee crisis

Antonio Guterres at a refugee camp near Erbil in northern Iraq. STR/EPA

When António Guterres starts his role as the next secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) in January 2017, he may feel that not much has changed since he stood down a year earlier as the head of its refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Given that there are currently over 65m persons displaced who are of concern to UNHCR, plus around another 15 to 20m people displaced by disasters and climate change, the need for joined-up thinking across the UN to respond to this global crisis has never been greater. The new secretary-general’s previous experience can help galvanise the whole organisation as it seeks to lead the international community’s response to the world’s displacement crisis.

It is a mistake to think of the UN as one monolithic entity marching to the beat of a single drum, but it now has the best opportunity in decades to make the various parts of the organisation work efficiently together. Guterres’s former role could help him to promote greater co-ordination within the UN on the issue of displaced peoples. The former prime minister of Portugal cemented UNHCR as the global lead for the protection of internally displaced persons during his ten years at its helm, adding the Global Protection Cluster to support responses in non-refugee situations alongside the agency’s established role protecting refugees.

It’s clear he has the ability to reaffirm how central the UN is in protecting all individuals around the world. And more than ever before, the world needs a UN that can take a leadership role to meet this humanitarian crisis for the good of everyone – especially those millions who have been displaced.

The UN, a family just like any other

Even in a family in which everyone has the same outlook, there are a range of personalities – and the UN is no different. Its agencies have conceptually divided themselves into two types: humanitarian and development. The humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, respond to the crises as they arise; the development agencies work with governments to help them build the capacity of their states for the good of their people.

But when the average time spent as a refugee or internally displaced person (IDP) is 20 years, the idea that these people should not be part of the development planning of the states hosting them makes no sense.

Guterres should act quickly to resolve this false dichotomy between humanitarian and development. As the UNHCR works to protect refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs, so other UN agencies, such as the UNDP, can ensure that countries incorporate displaced persons into their plans so that no one is left behind. While the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 do not explicitly refer to displaced persons, they are a vulnerable population and they should also be part of the planning for the next few decades. Guterres can lead the UN to ensure responsibility sharing among the international community for those displaced.

Protection and solutions

Whether an individual has been forcibly displaced across an international border or is still within the borders of their country of nationality or habitual residence, they require protection. This is both protection from being returned to a place where they would face persecution or other risks, but also protection in the place where they now find themselves. The latter is the most classic form of protection and can best be achieved through registration and documentation, which then also provide the gateway to other rights.

As high commissioner for refugees, Guterres promoted the idea that solutions for displaced people can be achieved by protecting them. The UNHCR’s mandate is to provide international protection to refugees, from the moment they are displaced all the way through to a sustainable and durable solution for their future: protection is therefore a gateway to rights and an ultimate resolution of their displacement.

In 2014-15, my co-researcher Anna Magdalena Rüsch and I carried out some consultancy for the UNHCR, preparing an internal report on rule of law relating to its work to find solutions for refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. Overall, we argued that finding sustainable solutions for displaced people should be understood as a process and would be best promoted by the UNHCR taking a lead in upholding their rights, including the right to work and education. This, we argued, requires the UNHCR to engage with other UN development agencies to build the capacity of both the host state and, where possible, the state where the displaced people come from. Making this joined-up approach work in practice can provide a real chance to resolve the humanitarian crises besetting the world, and Guterres can promote this as secretary-general.

It is leadership in relation to what the UN likes to call the “operationalisation of interoperability” – the bringing together of all the various parts of the UN so that no one is left behind – that will hopefully allow Guterres to ensure the UN can deliver as one. He has proven he can lead a complex and multi-faceted agency – he now needs to transfer that to the UN as a whole.

Time to get to work. Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA

Bridging the New York-Geneva divide

One thing that will be different from his former role will be location: he will be based in New York, rather than Geneva. The division between New York and Geneva is an issue Guterres has referred to in the past, for example when he gave the Annual Essex Human Rights Centre Lecture in 2016. If UN agencies based in Geneva, such as UNHCR, focus on individual protection, the ones in New York, home to the General Assembly and Security Council, focus more on the state.

Guterres can help bring the two seats of the UN closer together and make the protection of the individual more central to New York thinking. This should not be just with respect to displacement – the most pressing crisis on his desk at the moment – but in all UN activities.

In his new role, Guterres must keep all human movement at the forefront of New York’s thinking and planning, liaising directly with UNHCR so that the independent voice of his replacement as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, does not go unheard from the other side of the Atlantic.

Success in moving states forward in their response to the global displacement crisis will only enhance the secretary-general’s standing. It may seem as though he still has to address the same pressing problems as in his previous job, but that may allow Guterres to take a lead in an area where he is already sure-footed and reassert the authority of the UN as a whole.

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