Speaking Out on Warehousing: 3 Questions for Merrill Smith
Volume 1, Issue 2 / January 2009
To highlight the global campaign to end warehousing, KANERE interviewed Merrill Smith, the Director of Government Relations and International Advocacy for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the Editor of the World Refugee Survey. KANERE posed three questions relating to the UNHCR, greatest successes, and a refugee free press.
KANERE: What is the position of UNHCR on the Anti-Warehousing Campaign?
Mr. Merrill Smith: There is not a single UNHCR position on the campaign. The UNHCR is bound to promote the rights of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, including those relating to the earning of livelihoods and freedom of movement—the core of any alternatives to forced encampment, and many of its staff members take that very seriously. In fact, the first party on record to use the term “warehousing” in reference to the treatment of refugees was the High Commissioner for Refugees himself (then Jean-Pierre Hocké) in 1988:
Fundamentally, it is in all our interests to move refugees out of the dehumanizing conditions of rural refugee camps where so many of the world’s 12 million refugees are situated. Far too many of them are virtually “warehoused” in a state of near-total dependence.
UNHCR’s Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit in the early 2000s sponsored much of the work upon which we drew for the World Refugee Survey 2004—Warehousing Issue with which we launched the Campaign. It is also true that UNHCR’s protection focus eroded in the 1980s and 90s, eclipsed by the growing “care and maintenance” operational functions of warehousing. Taking on essentially state functions like Refugee Status Determinations and justice administration in camps does not enhance UNHCR’s independent protection role either. To some extent that instilled some bureaucratic inertia in favor of the status quo.
UNHCR policy, however, is chiefly a function of the states who are members of its Executive Committee, especially the donors. To be effective, we should increasingly direct our advocacy efforts toward governments involved, donors and hosts, rather than treating UNHCR as some kind of autonomous, monolith that could change the refugee world if only it wanted to. Some protection officers in the field are refugee rights heroes and I am sometimes surprised at the willingness of even high-ranking UNHCR officials to challenge the status quo under the circumstances. At the end of the day, however, UNHCR is an instrument of states and not the other way around.
Also, the inertia of institutional self-interest in sustaining warehousing is probably a greater factor in the behavior of UNHCR’s implementing partners than in the agency itself. The partners most involved in camp maintenance, after all, are generally not small, local, grassroots NGOs but giant organizations generally based in the capitols of the major donor countries, with even greater lobbying clout than UNHCR. We do need to influence and change UNHCR but we should recognize the source of the problem: who controls the money and how it is spent.
KANERE: What is the Campaign’s most significant success so far?
Mr. Merrill Smith: This is a hard question to answer without either selling the Campaign short or appearing megalomaniacal. Governments rarely announce that they are changing policy because some lobbying campaign influenced them to do so, nor should we try to make them admit such things—if they wish to take credit for being broad-minded, humane, and enlightened when implementing more progressive policies, we should give them that credit. Nevertheless, we know they are indeed watching. (You should see how quickly they snatch up copies of the World Refugee Survey at Geneva meeting to look at their grades!) And sometimes they admit in private that it was the warehousing campaign that made them initiate efforts to review their policies or to make changes. We hear about these from time to time but cannot reveal specific examples in public.
Let me just say that I believe the Lebanese Labor Minister’s relaxation of some of the employment restrictions on Palestinians, the Thai Prime Minister’s visit to the camps and promise of more vocational education and livelihood opportunities, Kenya’s brief exercise in urban registration of refugees, and several other policy shifts over the years were influenced by the Campaign. (Important: by “the Campaign,” I mean to include all the actions of all the organizations around the world participating in it, not just those of USCRI.)
Perhaps the biggest success of the Campaign, however, is not visible because it is something that did not happen, namely the encampment of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere. I remember in 2003, before the invasion—immediately after which everyone expected huge numbers of refugees—camps were very much part of the plans. Fortunately, the refugees did not leave then and those plans were shelved. When the refugees did begin to leave in large numbers and parties again proposed encampment at high level policy meetings, the consensus was to reject those plans because, among other reasons, as we have heard, “people would say we are ‘warehousing’ them.”
KANERE: Do you think a refugee free press can contribute to global efforts to end warehousing?
Mr. Merrill Smith: Absolutely! There is a reason why the Namibian authorities shut down the internet café in Osire camp and why Thailand forbids refugees from having cell phones. Look what refugees have done with the limited tools available to them. Look at the hand-typed Voice of Refugees produced and smuggled out of Namibia that we put up on the internet for all to see. Look at the attention that this paper, KANERE, is drawing. OK, not all of it is pleasant but surely no one thought change would be easy. Refugees speaking out as first-hand witnesses of their own situation is vital to contradicting the lies and misinformation spread about them. If you do not speak out, who controls the flow of information about you? How will it be presented?
You may wonder, “Who cares what we refugees think and say? Obviously, if we were people of power and influence, we wouldn’t be here!” But influence is a verb, not just a noun—what you say and do can change things. You should hear the room go silent at meetings in Geneva on the rare occasions when a former refugee can come and speak and begins by saying “As a former refugee…” Who can contradict him? Policy makers in government have to consider what refugees have to say and write—especially when their constituents point it out to them. But how can they do that if there is nothing to point to? Nothing is as powerful in public consciousness raising as the “human face”—including the actual stories of actual refugees in their own words. Without that, the refugee is just a stock figure, a doe-eyed poster child that people can manipulate and claim to speak for because she cannot speak for herself. When others control the voice, is it any wonder that the appeal is almost always for more aid and not for more rights?
I’ll never forget hearing an African government representative say something in a meeting in Geneva that I did not think was true about the refugees in her country. I went out into the hallway and managed to reach a refugee leader in the remote camp on his clandestine mobile phone. With his information, I could go right back into the meeting and contradict her with specific facts to back me up. Can you imagine her shock! Not exactly the press, but you see the point—refugees need to use whatever means they have at their disposal to get their voices heard, especially at the tables where decisions are being made about them. You may have heard the saying, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu!” A free refugee press is one vital way to make your voice heard in places where you cannot be.
KANERE thanks Mr. Merrill Smith for his generous contributions to this story. We wish him all the best in USCRI’s global efforts to end warehousing.