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Call for next head of UN refugee agency to have lived experience as a refugee

‘We don't think that by next year, or by the next appointment, this will be done.’

Attendees at a 22 June side-event to last week's refugee resettlement conference in Geneva push for more inclusive leadership at the top of UNHCR. Megha Kaveri/Geneva Solutions
Attendees at a 22 June side-event to last week's refugee resettlement conference in Geneva push for more inclusive leadership at the top of UNHCR.

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UNHCR’s conference on resettlement closed last week with an ambitious call from some rights activists: The next chief of the UN’s refugee agency ought to have “lived experience” as a refugee. 

The message was promoted at the conference – which has taken place every year since 1995 – by the Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT) rights group, which held a separate panel event on the issue on Wednesday's closing day.

“Currently… we don't have people being hired [at senior positions in UNHCR] with lived experience. So how can we ensure that we have for the next high commissioner, actually people with lived experience? Who can be eligible and viable candidates?” Rez Gardi, co-managing director of R-SEAT, told Geneva Solutions.

The UN high commissioner for refugees is elected by the UN general assembly for a term of five years. Filippo Grandi, the current UNHCR head, will serve in this position until 2023. The first UN high commissioner for refugees, in 1951, was Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, who fled to London after Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1944. To this day, he is the only high commissioner for refugees to have been one himself.

The discussion focused on the way lived experiences shape people’s character, and on how to improve and increase refugee participation in official positions at UNHCR.

“To me, meaningful refugee participation means common sense,” said Canadian Ambassador to the UN Leslie Norton, remarking that while diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.

Speaking about the inclusion and representation of refugees in spaces that impact their lives, UNHCR’s Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh explained a few ways in which UNHCR proactively offers refugees a shot at being part of the process. Tadjabakhsh comes with lived experience herself as her family had to flee following the revolution in Iran in 1979.

“We need to focus not on our history, but on how that history moulded us,“ she said, adding that people who go through hardships like those experienced by refugees tend to “have an incredible amount of passion”.

“Through this conversation, we're bringing in UNHCR, we're bringing in governments, we're bringing in [international NGOs], and refugees to talk about what needs to be done to ensure that we're headed in the right direction in this regard,” said Gardi.

Highlighting that many appointments at the top levels within the UN system require political backing, Gardi told Geneva Solutions that the call is “quite bold, but also provides opportunity to hear different perspectives”. The United States is the largest donor to UNHCR and the aim of the event was to also try and get them on board with the idea, she indicated.

However, Gardi admitted it will be a long process. “We don't think that by next year, or by the next appointment, this will be done,” she pointed out. “But the conversation has not even begun. We've got to start somewhere.”

Asked if the United States would put forward a candidate with a refugee background to be UNHCR chief, Rosanna Kim, senior adviser at the bureau of population, refugees, and migration at the US State Department, said: “it is too early in the process to comment on this. It is something we will discuss when we get to that point. I think it [our support] will definitely depend on the candidate and the larger requirements for the candidacy.”

Kim did say that her office has been making changes in staff appointments to bring in more people with a refugee background into the system.

“Participation is just the first step. Partnership is more important,” Melonee Douglas, vice president of HIAS, a US-based refugee rights organisation, said at the panel.

Reiterating that refugees across the world have often been the first responders during crises, she agreed with the UNHCR’s stance that inclusion is the best form of protection. “‘Are we talking about them without them?’ is a question we should keep asking ourselves,” she added.

This article was originally published by Geneva Solutions, and was edited and republished here with permission. Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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