World's human rights defender slashes budget

The UNHCR is beginning to close offices in 10 countries, and cut its staff by hundreds.

Aid groups and human rights organizations are voicing concern over a fiscal reality check at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In response to a $100 million budget shortfall, the Geneva-based UNHCR - which cares for more than 22 million refugees and displaced people in camps on five continents - plans to close offices in 10 countries, dramatically reduce operations in Africa, and lay off hundreds of its staff.

When former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers took over as High Commissioner at the beginning of this year, the UN organization's budget estimates predicted that - as happened last year and the year before - several donor governments would not pay the total sum that they had pledged. So Mr. Lubbers decided to cut staff and operations by 15 percent.

A former businessman and economist, Lubber argues that it is better to face reality and cut in a planned way rather than to follow the practice of previous years and simply freeze programs and activities once the money runs out.

Many aid organizations have sympathy with the UNHCR's dilemma, but worry about their ability to make up for the gap in services.

"When UNHCR cuts its budget, refugees and internally displaced people turn to the churches," says Beth Ferris, program executive for international relations at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. "So that trend of budget cutting has a direct impact on churches, particularly churches in poor countries, where they are often in the front line of providing services to displaced people and refugees."

US is largest contributor

Most of the UNHCR's work is funded by voluntary donations, traditionally supplied by a small coalition of industrialized nations. The United States is by far the largest source, providing just over one-quarter of the UNHCR's total costs.Britain supplies about 5 percent. France pays about 1 percent and is viewed as one of the countries that is underfunding.

Lubbers is outspoken in criticizing governments for not giving enough.

"We should say to governments: It's a scandal that you are not funding UNHCR to the extent that they cannot provide the basic assistance and make it possible for us to do our work," he says.

Lubbers also wants the European Commission, the European Union's governing body, to give more than its current 14 percent share: "I do not see any reason why Brussels would not relate to UNHCR the same way as, say, Washington."

The UNHCR is cutting its total budget from more than $950 million to $850 million and is axing some 600 jobs. In Africa, this means cutting back almost three-quarters of the funding to UNHCR operations. In at least 10 countries - Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Kuwait, Mali, Niger, Swaziland, Togo, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam - it plans to close offices completely.

Rachel Reilly, refugee-policy director for the New York agency Human Rights Watch says such closures will affect a group known as urban refugees, who risk becoming stranded. "In some countries, like Gambia, Benin, Chad, Mali, we know there are asylum seekers coming from far afield - from countries like Iran and Iraq - who are in desperate need of protection. They will arrive and find there are no UNHCR offices to go to. And often the cuts are being made in countries which do not have in place their own asylum-determination procedures and where refugees really are at serious risk of arrest, detention, and even deportation."

The UNHCR's charter makes it specifically responsible for refugees. But its operations sometimes support another group - people forced to flee their homes, but who stay within their country's borders. Not technically refugees, they are known as internally displaced people, or IDPs. Currently about a quarter of those the UNHCR assists - just over 5 million - are IDPs.

Lubbers says that some IDPs are in large programs, for example those in Guinea, in West Africa, where they can't be split from refugees and are funded together as one program. Their funding is assured. A second set of IDP activities are classed as "special projects" and are brought directly before donors, who decide to fund them on a case-by-case basis.

This year, donors have agreed to fully fund programs for IDPs fleeing long-running conflicts in Colombia, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka. But donors have not provided cash for Angola. This decision has caused disquiet in the aid world. Ms. Ferris describes the situation in Angola as "critical."

Picking up the slack

Many aid workers are also concerned that the UNHCR is withdrawing from work that nongovernmental aid groups - however skilled - can't carry out.

"UNHCR is an international organization. It is given a mandate by governments and it is accountable to governments," says Ms. Reilly, of Human Rights Watch. She says this gives it unique authority to intervene at a diplomatic level with recalcitrant states. "Around the world, internally displaced persons are often subject to high levels of arbitrary arrest, forced round-ups, detention, ill treatment in detention. In countries like Sri Lanka, we have documented the disappearance of internally displaced people. Those are very clear protection situations where UNHCR is uniquely placed to intervene with governments to use its diplomatic opportunities to negotiate with governments."

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees - the most important instrument of refugee law.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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