With half of the world’s refugees residing in urban spaces, it is critical to reflect upon United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ urban refugee policy in shaping thought processes and approaches to addressing refugee crises accordingly. Since the introduction of its first urban refugee policy in 1997, the organization has introduced follow-up statements and policies that digress from the highly-criticised camp model encouraged in the 1997 document to a more community-based, integrative model between hosts and refugees. This article thus aims to assess to what extent these subsequent policies have been adapted and implemented, namely the 2009 Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, within processes on the ground, and what gaps, if at all, exist between the policy and mission realities. Because the Middle East North Africa region hosts more than 60 per cent of refugees within urban domains, and with numbers rising, in-depth reflection on this region is warranted and will serve as the area of focus within this article. The author uses fieldwork data from Amman to demonstrate that advocacy and actions promoting the community-based model are inevitably contradicted by their implementation within relief model structures that promote temporariness.
For 45 years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) lacked a formal policy statement that specifically addressed refugee protection issues in urban spaces.1 After all, the camp framework for addressing the needs of the displaced was widely supported, not only on good-natured grounds of ensuring protection and access to humanitarian assistance, but also due to its ability to spatially confine responsibility, funding, and evaluation of such UNHCR operations.2
However, the increasing protracted nature of refugee crises, an estimated 68 per cent of all refugee situations,3 has arguably made “managing” displacement in such emergency, rural camp frameworks an increasingly limited tool in its viability.4 Issues such as rising rates of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, and psychological problems over prolonged periods of time are repeatedly mentioned as major issues exacerbated in such circumstances throughout the literature.5 Therefore, populations in such protracted situations may choose (and have often done so when possible) to seek out urban locations (thus leaving or bypassing camps established in the host country) to gain access to jobs, transnational social and monetary networks, services, and opportunities to live self-sufficiently and in a dignified manner.
More than half of the world’s refugees live in urban areas.6 UNHCR has thus increasingly developed and revisited its policies to address this trend globally, most notably via the original 1997 UNHCR Comprehensive Policy on Urban Refugees and the subsequent 2009 UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas. This reflection thus considers the extent to which UNHCR has shifted away from containment approaches outlined in its 1997 policy towards the Community-Based Approach (CBA) model it describes in the revised 2009 document. First, the author reviews literature that explores the development of the latter two policies in terms of moving towards practical implementation of the CBA model. The challenges associated with such implementation, particularly in the Middle East is then discussed and assessed in the context of the previous literature, as well as from the author’s fieldwork in Amman, Jordan. This foundation then informs the subsequent argument and conclusion that the CBA model is inevitably contradicted by its implementation within relief structures that promote temporariness.
2. Background part I: the development of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy
Addressing the urban refugee question, did not really enter the global conversation until the mid 1990s in response to emerging questions and themes related to protection rights for refugees in cities, pull factors between camp and urban living options, and feasibility of conducting RSD procedures within urban spaces. To address these concerns, UNHCR established a working group in 1996 to review its activities accordingly.7 The group informed UNHCR’s subsequent production of its first policy in 1997 addressing the urban refugee question, UNHCR Comprehensive Policy on Urban Refugees.8 The policy was designed to “ensure protection” and “maximize solutions” for refugees, and laid out a protocol framework for administering assistance to refugees in a “cost-effective manner”.9
The international non-governmental organization (NGO) community responded to this policy with extreme criticism (particularly Human Rights Watch10) due to the fact that it framed urban refugees as “troublemakers”, and defined the “legitimate urban caseload” in a way that advocated for the containment of individuals, thus contradicting freedom of movement.11 The crux of criticism from others focused on the fact that achieving self-reliance is case-dependent on the political and social context of the country and refugees’ ability to access rights in that space accordingly.12 Further criticism arose from the framing and emphasis of a minimal needs approach versus upholding UNHCR’s mandate to protect refugees regardless of place, particularly in reference to the document’s statement that “life in urban areas does not constitute an answer to [refugees’] problem[s] and may well be significantly more difficult than rural settlement, where appropriate community support can be generated”.13 Internal UNHCR evaluation conducted after the policy’s release also highlighted similar issues such as using one-dimensional terminology like “self reliance”, “local integration”, and “irregular movers” within different host country national policy contexts to direct implementation and provision of refugee protection and services accordingly.14
In response to the culmination of this criticism, UNHCR began redrafting its urban refugee policy, and produced an updated, amended version in 2009.15 Rather than the previous tone of containment in camps and uniform approaches regionally, the new and current policy emphasises a need to provide protection to refugees “irrespective of where they are located”, and to develop more country and city-specific approaches to adequately protect and provide for refugees.16 To operationalise the latter, the new policy outlines the CBA model, where host country organizations, UNHCR, and refugees themselves work collaboratively together to ensure protection space for the latter group.17 UNHCR practically translates this in the document as: conducting participatory assessments with refugees, designing and implementing capacity-building programmes for local humanitarian organizations in the city, establishing community centres and UNHCR offices in the city, building relationships with the host Government to encourage refugee access to social welfare programmes, deploying mobile registration teams to reach out to different refugee groups throughout the urban area, using Age Gender Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) frameworks in all operations, and even “playing a role in the political dimensions of local integration” vis-à-vis advocacy, technical assistance, and training.18
Yet, ironically, statements also suggest that UNHCR still frames services as time limited – “UNHCR seeks to supplement state services to refugees only for a limited time” – until they can be included in national systems, a point that may create tension and fluctuating protection spaces if and when UNHCR funding runs low and the national system cannot provide this inclusion as expected at that given time.19 Thus, the feasibility of actually implementing the CBA model in practice within these parameters requires examination and assessment as such will expose if the latter statement’s validity has in effect created a more precarious protection environment for refugees than in the pre 2009 policy era.
3. Background part II: urban refugee policy in practice in the Middle East
Assessing how such policy changes and recommendations have been translated within field practices particularly in the case of the Middle East is critical due to the fact that the region hosts some of the largest protracted and urban refugee populations in the world, and such numbers have been steadily increasing during the past 2 years in what has been coined the Arab Spring era.20 In 2005, an estimated 60 per cent of the region’s refugees were living in urban spaces, representing a 35 per cent increase since 1950.21 Attention to the urban refugee question in this regional context however has been limited. It was not until the post Gulf War era, largely as a response to the flow of Iraqi refugees and the increasing number of African refugees in spaces like Amman and Cairo, respectively, that the urban refugee question began to receive significant attention.22 This section provides background on the history of UNHCR presence and policies in the Middle East, as well as critical themes affecting urban refugee-related operations that have emerged from previous research in the region generally.
3.1. The MOUs in the Middle East: development and implications for practice
Many countries in the region are not signatories to the 1951 Convention;23 protection space is often ad hoc and informed by host Government’s social, economic, political, and security issues at the time. To more formally codify protection space and national roles accordingly, UNHCR signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon in the mid 1990s. Such MOUs were designed to move towards a more streamlined policy framework for addressing refugee flows in place of states’ ad hoc, case-by-case approaches; such could thus create the UNHCR “desired”, stable protection space conducive for CBA model implementation.24 Although such MOUs are an attempt to streamline refugee policy frameworks, such stipulations in them that identify Lebanon and Jordan as only “transit” countries, coupled with the historical use of “gentleman’s agreement” approaches to define the “division of labour” and responsibilities between UNHCR and host Governments in the region both prior, during and even after the formation of the MOUs in some cases, still make them somewhat ambiguous within policy frameworks and thus limited in mobilising a standard protocol for operations both within states and the region generally.25
Part of the latter is due to the fact that states have not necessarily had the social, economic and related resources to uphold terms of MOUs in all situations, or the political will.26 Economically, providing refuge for displaced populations represents both an opportunity and burden for many host countries in the Middle East. On one hand, emergency funding is pumped into what may be a struggling economic environment, benefitting host country infrastructure development in the long run as a result. After all, UNHCR may partner with local organizations or Government ministries to provide trainings on refugee-specific issues that simultaneously develop the capacity and technology of the institution as well.27 However, when such funding flows dry up, or UNHCR partnering organizations decide to “close-up shop” after a crisis is considered post-emergency, filling the gaps from such funding flows may create an even more ad hoc and unstable economic environment for both refugees and the host country overall.28 Because urban spaces in the Middle East are also quite expensive when compared to other Global South (and even some Global North!) cities, UNHCR and related international funding may sometimes fall short of what is needed to provide services to refugees and ensure protection space is maintained – especially when refugees move to the city outskirts to find more affordable living conditions and thus simultaneously distance themselves further from UNHCR headquarters and service providers.29 If the latter is true, refugees may be less likely to register with UNHCR due to distance, time, and travel costs, which in effect may skew data and reports presented to donors on refugee situations abroad accordingly. For example, UNHCR figures may underestimate the actual number, while Government data “overestimates” if they believe increased international funding flows are beneficial to their country. Thus, donors are left guessing what is accurate.30
With international funding flowing into a mixed-migratory urban space, tensions among host and refugee populations – and even refugee and other migrant populations – may build if parallel service structures arise (or are perceived to arise) as well.31 In the Middle East in particular, where social safety nets and service provision is less formally instituted in State structures (rather coming from informal networks such as family, tribal, or religious networks), the issue then becomes twofold: on one hand, the availability of such services is appreciated, but factors such as personal and family status, trust in the legitimacy of the organization and its personnel, and historical or current tense relations between refugee populations’ country of origin and the country donor funding such services (whether through UNHCR or not), may discourage them from utilising such assistance.32 The Palestinian issue most overwhelmingly has further created social tension throughout the region due to perceived inadequate burden-sharing between host and donor countries, with many fearing that newer, yet protracted refugee flows to their respective homelands will devolve in the same way as the Palestinian case.33
The role of politics and security thus must not be underestimated. As Jacobsen highlights, and what is particularly relevant in the Middle East, “fluctuating relationships with neighboring countries, bureaucratic politics, power struggles within ministries, paucity of information, the political calculations about local community's absorption capacity, and […] position of refugees in domestic politics”, guide reaction and implementation of MOUs in such contexts accordingly.34 For example, detention and deportation policies towards Iraqis in Jordan have varied based on the changing relationship of the host state with other actors in the region and internationally, ultimately culminating into the “semi-protectionist” policy for Iraqis and their “invisibility” within urban spaces like Amman as a result.35 This latter phenomenon is also intertwined with the fact that Western countries have put a tremendous amount of political pressure on countries in the region to mitigate third-country resettlement flows by finding local solutions for refugees, even though MOUs with such countries often specify third country resettlement, usually within a select time frame – 6 months for Jordan, a year for Lebanon for example – as the only durable solution.36 Thus, frustration when such processes and MOU terms are not upheld breeds further fluctuation in the administration of protection space and service provision for refugees in urban spaces.
It is critical to note in this respect that UNHCR did not have a presence in the Middle East until the mid 1990s when they established their first office in Cairo; later, other offices were established in Damascus, Amman, Beirut, and most recently, Aleppo.37 The lack of institutional knowledge between UNHCR and the local contexts, both with host Governments as well as communities that the latter governs in this region, is thus critical to consider when assessing the practical translation of a community-based approach, as well as the respect for the MOU agreements, in a region where UNHCR has limited experience with the actors, environment, and Government therein. Although UNHCR has managed to establish community partnerships with local organizations on the ground, and has begun developing relationships with host Governments, critical factors such as capacities of local organizations, and the divergence between MOU expectations of host Governments’ roles and their realistic abilities and will in terms of changing economic, social, and political dynamics, have, in many ways, limited UNHCR’s ability to truly implement a CBA model within a space that seems to experience relief-oriented fluctuations as the norm. Barnes (2009) echoes this in her conclusion that “UNHCR has not made much progress in transferring responsibilities to local Government agencies [; rather] it has maintained its role as both a status determination and protection agency.”38
4. Constant “temporariness”: critical field findings and discussions on the new urban refugee policy framework in practice in Amman, Jordan
In order to assess the adaptation and implementation of the 2009 policy in the Middle East in light of these foundational findings and fieldwork, the author conducted a qualitative-based study in Jordan between January and April 2012. The kingdom’s capital, Amman, represents one of the most refugee-dense cities in the region, hosting populations from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, as well as Sudan and Somalia. UNHCR presence has existed officially in the country since 1997; its capacity was significantly expanded in 2003 with the onset and rise of the Iraqi refugee crisis from America’s war on Iraq at that time. With UNHCR estimates suggesting approximately 400,000 registered Syrian refugees as of June 2013 in the country, UNHCR capacity and presence is rising both within the capital of Amman as well as in the rural areas outside the city hosting refugees.39
4.1. Previous urban refugee policy research findings from Jordan
Much of the author’s fieldwork was premised upon scholars’ and practitioners’ previous research in Jordan since the adaptation of the 2009 policy. As previously cited in this article, Crisp et al. led a comprehensive investigation into UNHCR’s urban operations for Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in 2009 under UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service, and Barnes also conducted a similar review focusing particularly on protection space for Iraqis in the same country contexts.40 Their work immediately acknowledged that UNHCR’s CBA model in the Middle East was facing challenges related to information dissemination and coordination to both partners and persons of concern, as well as meeting capacity-building objectives during both emergency and post-emergency phases. Crisp and his team even suggested directly that Lebanon still very much operated under the 1997 policy mentality and framework at the time of writing.41
Chatty and Mansour (2011) more recently conducted a case study of the Iraqi population, and Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre commissioned a workshop in Amman in March 2012.42 Both of these projects have attempted to assess future solutions and frameworks for addressing the growing protracted nature of the Iraqi case in urban contexts (and in countries generally). Specifically both publications suggest that due to the prevalence of protracted cases in the region, synergy between humanitarian assistance programmes and development programmes should be considered. Calls are also made for UNHCR to bridge political with operational understandings and implementation of programming in cities accordingly; more technical factors, such as bureaucratic resettlement processes that are “uneven, unpredictable and inaccessible” according to refugees interviewed are also cited as basis for the reports’ overall recommendations to “reconceptualise” current durable solutions.43
Although not focusing on Jordan specifically, findings based on research conducted in Cairo and Sana’a, echo concerns of the research from Jordan, while simultaneously highlighting how country’s individual policies play a significant role in framing UNHCR’s approaches. Gozdiak and Walter (2012) show in Cairo that regardless of UNHCR’s familiarity with the urban environment, issues of coordination with implementing partners, other service providers, and persons of concern still remain a challenge.44 Once the largest UNHCR operation in the region, budget cuts have of late limited UNHCR activity in the city which has further been compounded by the fact that many of UNHCR’s frontline staff have been described sometimes as lacking basic skill sets to address refugee issues on the ground.45 Community consultation and involvement has also been characterised by some service providers as an afterthought and reports have suggested that tools of “information dissemination” via SMS texts and other technologies have been used as mechanisms to distance refugees from UNHCR facilities.46 In Sana’a, where a significant population of Somalis have resided for decades, research has also described UNHCR as lacking coordination with other actors and service providers, out of touch (or arguably turning a blind eye) to bribing practices that have become almost formalised for refugees to acquire ID cards (which in effect will allow them to move more freely throughout the country, for example), and so bureaucratic in processing assistance that no more than 80 families on average per month receive food assistance from UNHCR.47 In other words, “UNHCR lacks the funds and political clout to fully exercise its mandated role to assist and protect urban refugees.”48
4.2. Methods and findings
With Jordan becoming the refugee host country in the region and because little research focuses on the implementation of the 2009 urban refugee policy in Jordan specifically within the context of its particular national policies before 2012, in-depth research thus seemed warranted to fully assess questions surrounding Jordan’s national context in framing the policy’s implementation. The author’s intention with this research was to thus conduct an exploratory assessment that documented themes associated with the overall adaptation, feasibility and durability of the CBA model within the urban framework in Jordan.
Due to the wide scope of this question, the author decided to focus on service provider experiences in this study; ideally, more research will follow that investigates other stakeholders in this context (i.e. Government representatives, refugees). The author conducted 30 semi-structured interviews with employees either directly working for UNHCR, or indirectly through their work with one of UNHCR’s implementing partner (IP)49 or former partner organizations; 25 different organizations were represented in this sample. Interviews were conducted between January and April 2012; several follow up interviews were held in September 2012. The author asked interviewees about what challenges – politically, socially, and economically – they face in their work with their respective organization operating in the urban, Jordanian context in terms of: (1) implementing the UNHCR CBA model and (2) in the case of IPs, meeting their own organizational objectives, including servicing their target population. In the case of the latter, are CBA implementation challenges they face aligned or in tension with achieving the objectives of their organization? Are any of these challenges “unique” to the Jordanian context versus other country or urban contexts they have worked in before?
The author further informally communicated with refugee communities (most of whom were Iraqis, along with a few Syrians and Somalis) on their perspectives of UNHCR operations. This general feedback informed the framing of some of the interview questions designed for data collection as well; for example, the author asked about relationships between refugees and international versus national IPs, service provision efficiency and coordination, and refugee participation in programme designs and the implementation of the CBA model more generally.
Data was then transcribed in note form (handwritten and computer-generated) and content analysis was used to inform data coding under the following categories and themes related to urban refugee policy in practice: Transition-related challenges between international versus national NGO service provision; relationships and perceptions of UNHCR; challenges associated with Jordan policies and Government relations; and coordination challenges. This coded data was then coded a second time to elicit key sub-themes from the initial codes: the role of royal NGOs, IP vs. former IP experiences, funding challenges, capacity-building experiences, and corruption.
The following points highlight key themes and findings from the data regarding challenges to implementing the CBA model in Amman:
The fluctuating relationship between the Jordanian government and UNHCR has led to fluctuating protection space in the urban setting. Jordan’s suspension of UNHCR from the country in 2006 for two weeks in the early onset of the Iraqi crisis reinforces the reality that UNHCR, and thus the implementation of its urban refugee policy, operates at the permission of the host country; protection space or availability of UNHCR services for refugees can never really be considered a guarantee. However, interviewees reported that since this episode, UNHCR has developed a stronger relationship with the Government through collaboration with royal NGOs as IPs, conducting capacity-building programmes and training with public servants, and including members from the host population in UNHCR-funded services and programming.
Advocating for any policy change that suggests integration as a solution is usually “off the table”. According to the 2009 policy, UNHCR is supposed to play a role in advocating for durable solutions such as integration. However, the latter is “not” an option in the Jordanian context, where the MOU has designated a 6-month resettlement period for refugees to third countries. However, with donor interest shifting to other emergency contexts, protracted cases, like the Iraqi refugee population, are facing long stalls in the resettlement process exceeding the 6-month time limit. Additionally, giving refugees the right to work under law is completely non-negotiable. One interviewee described a meeting that brought together UNHCR, Government, and NGO representatives to discuss areas in which policy could be reassessed to address the Iraqi crisis more effectively. Although employment was initially on the agenda for discussion, the topic was removed at the beginning of the meeting at the request of a Government official present due to its implications of encouraging higher levels of refugee integration into the Jordanian State at later stages.50
Technical capacity and coordination within UNHCR and among its implementing partners has improved, which has allowed it to further develop its CBA model. However, fluctuating dialogue and trust with the refugee as well as host populations has in part, undermined the impact of such positive technical development. Interviewees reported that coordination and communication has increased in quality since 2007 through UNHCR and IP-led monthly coordination meetings and through service mapping initiatives.51 Refugee feedback mechanisms have also been implemented as recommended in the 2009 policy. Despite what has been considered a successful outreach volunteer programme to refugee communities and those receiving assistance, interviewees’ responses when asked about UNHCR’s relationship and dialogue with refugees and host populations were extremely mixed, ranging from “trustful” to “plotting” and “controlling”.52 Negative responses were sometimes a reflection of frustration with stalled resettlement applications as well as with diminishing assistance provision as donor funding decreased in the post-emergency context. Thus, urban challenges such as the invisibility of refugee and vulnerable populations remain at the forefront of concern even though technical capacities to outreach to such communities have improved considerably.
Decrease in donor funding and interest in protracted refugee situations will challenge the viability of using a CBA model to ensure protection space. As donor interest and funding waned for the Iraqi population in Amman in early 2012, and with emergency, relief assistance organizations exiting the country at that time, UNHCR increasingly established partnerships with national NGOs to deliver services to remaining Iraqi refugees in the country.53 However, interviewees reported that the capacities of some of these national NGOs were not yet developed to the point where protection space could be ensured as envisioned under the UNHCR mandate and associated policies. How such transitions in services will affect refugee and host population relationships remains a further question of consideration. Thus, the underlying themes of limited funding and fluctuating trust and relationships between UNHCR, the host country and refugee population, have limited UNHCR’s ability to implement a completely successful CBA model as envisioned under the 2009 policy.
The camp approach has both positive and negative aspects in terms of “managing” displacement in Jordan and impacting flows to urban spaces. The author conducted several interviews with individuals working in UNHCR’s Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq to assess to what extent camp policies have developed in line with the 2009 policy, namely in terms of freedom of movement. According to interviews from September 2012, movement from the camp was limited to those who received permission from UNHCR for medical issues.54 However, if a refugee who initially registered with Zaatari manages to “leave” the camp, but decides that he or she wants to return, they have the right to do so.55 According to one interviewee, “The [positive point about the] camp [is that it] has lent itself to allow service delivery to Syrians on a 24 hour and accessible basis, but overcrowding and thus depletion of resources has made the condition of the camp deplorable.”56 Others highlighted the role of corruption within the camp as well, with Zaatari employees accepting bribes from refugee residents who wished to move to better living conditions within the camp.57
4.3. Discussion on the feasibility of the CBA model within a relief framework
The culmination of fieldwork findings from both previous research and the author’s work reflects the international community’s growing acknowledgment that UNHCR’s “go it alone” approach is no longer feasible in post-emergency contexts – overwhelmingly due to diminishing donor support for cases considered protracted; yet it simultaneously suggests the limits of calling refugee policy in the Middle East’s urban areas as collaborative, and distinct from 1997 containment assumptions. Drawing upon phenomenology, classical budget theory, and notions of burden-sharing, this section will argue that the new 2009 policy only provides a small piece of a global framework for a viable new direction towards this community-based ideal due to operational structures that continue to perpetrate protocol emergency relief and containment responses.
Phenomenology as used in Wigley’s piece, “Relief and development as flawed models for the provision of assistance to refugees in camps”, suggests that though experience can be understood as both individual and shared, “each person with the status of refugee reacts and responds to their experiences from their own standpoint”.58 Relief model approaches that are generalised and that allow “little autonomy or self-determination [for refugees] … is likely to have detrimental effects on refugees … and may work against the needs of any particular group … as it fails to recognize the unique needs, characteristics and experiences of any given group”.59 In the case of Iraqis in Amman, for example, it is evident that some, particularly those stuck in the resettlement process for example, feel in a permanent state of transition and uncertainty. The precariousness of their status, further perpetuated by changing IPs, ever-changing entry and exit policies towards Iraqis in the country, fluctuating funding flows, and organizations’ own staff turnover, create service and protection space provision structures that still emphasise temporariness; this has distanced refugees both physically and theoretically from participating in policy development in the way that the 2009 document envisions. Thus, Wigley’s suggestion that “despite the dissonance between prevailing realities and solutions, an attraction to the emergency modes of operation persist … shortcomings and dynamics within the industry lead to a lack of debate, while reflection and planning reduce opportunities for learning, change and adaptation” seems to epitomise this phenomenon in the case of Iraqis in Amman.60
This is further compounded by the fact that Western donors’ roles in the arenas of international and governmental relations incentivise them to invest in highly visible emergency cases rather than long-term ones where the former can be “time limited” in terms of budgetary contributions. Although usually drawn upon to explain intrastate or domestic behaviours, using the classical budget theory in conjunction with Caiden’s six areas of uncertainty within public budgeting frameworks can also be useful in framing state behaviours in the context of UNHCR operations, and to further demonstrate the slow nature of change in public financing in the Middle East.61 As the former theory describes, uncertainties are attempted to be kept “within bounds” through “the insistence on annual budgets (foreshortening the time period), budget unity (keeping all expenditures under a single control), strict appropriation (preventing unauthorized changes), and timely audits”.62 However, as Caiden notes in her six uncertainties, the somewhat rigidity of the application of this theory in practice, has bred uncertainties within its own structure due to what she notes as the “changed nature of government” or what is perceived as an increasingly financially-constrained world environment.63 Uncertainties, she suggests, “arise from an annual perspective, problems in forecasting, centralisation and bureaucratic controls, and from size and complexity of growing governments' budgets”.64 Another uncertainty noted is one arising from novelty, or the belief in budgeting that “we are coping with unique and unprecedented problems”.65
The latter novelty argument is particularly relevant to consider in the case of the Middle East with the recent “Arab Spring” in the region. Western donors and the media have often framed such events as “new” to the region and points on a linear timeline; for example, the events in Tunisia and Egypt as part of the “Arab Spring” are often spoke of in past tense terms and thus historicised as “events”. Refugee movements and re-movements of protracted situations (e.g. Iraqis moving out of Syria in light of the Syrian crisis) that have occurred as a result of these “events” are thus also viewed as “events” as well rather than long-term, interlinked issues. Such a framing would therefore justify a relief model response, a time-confined investment. The “uncertainty” inherent with the latter acknowledgment, further coupled – if we may – with the “newness” of the CBA model as UNHCR’s urban refugee policy is thus viewed as juxtaposed to “manageable” in terms of a classical budget framework. Western donors thus continue to fund in a relief framework, and host Governments’ response is often inevitable: the perpetuation of an image of temporariness, or a brief, “novel” crisis that encourages further funding flows from donors into the country to assist the refugees – at least in the short term.
Therefore, the concept of burden-sharing seems relevant to revisit and consider not only in the framework of UNHCR-host country relations, but also in terms of the Global North and Global South relationship. As previously discussed, the image of temporariness and expansion of the refugee definition are often necessary framing devices in poorer host contexts to elicit funding from UNHCR and thus the Global North accordingly. At the same time, Western donors rely on narrower definitions when considering resettlement of such populations, and use such funding flows as a way to “keep refugees from imposing the burden on their own societies”.66 Yet, when cases no longer present themselves as “crises” to countries (i.e. the annual budget is not renewed), and it is clear that resettlement or flows to the North will not occur at rates anticipated, donors tend to decrease their support accordingly, including to UNHCR. The burden then, it would seem, is ultimately left upon the host country since the latter, some may argue, is ultimately an extension of the Western donor states in the host country context.
In light of these arguments, it is critical to consider how to frame UNHCR’s role in the specific urban environment in question and within the international system in terms of responsibility, particularly: (1) where responsibilities to protect are intertwined with host Government sovereignty, (2) where responsibilities to ensure interests and security of the host state is the major protection focus, and (3) where the visibility of refugees is not always clear.67 Although host Government sovereignty trumps UNHCR directives and policies in principle, the growing number of protracted cases – particularly in poorer host contexts in the Middle East – suggests a need to more clearly define the extent of roles and responsibilities if State refugee policy has inadvertently created structures that have made refugee communities in urban spaces dependent on UNHCR for survival and protection from deportation during the emergency phase, and if and when UNHCR cannot fully function at emergency-level capacities in the protracted phase. As Kagan discusses in his piece, “‘We live in a country of UNHCR’: The UN surrogate state and refugee policy in the Middle East”, refugees in Cairo describe themselves as living in a “country of UNHCR”.68 Even when the local community is involved, issues of trust with host Governments, and even “romanticizing” some of the capacities of local IPs continue to frame UNHCR as the sole provider – regardless of efforts to frame it as a community effort.69 This phenomenon, thus begs the question of whether states readily acknowledge or consider UNHCR as almost a state-like entity in theory, and to what extent does this reshape understandings of host sovereignty and global refugee policy as a result?
The CBA model thus, in a way, opens a critical door of discussion regarding conceptualisations of UNHCR’s role, funding structure and subsequent policy. Is this new 2009 document leading to the creation of a global norm that assumes service provision and protection space that is ultimately the responsibility of the host country once UNHCR presence (read: Western donations) diminishes in the post-emergency phase? Will it lead to a growing recognition and framing of UNHCR as an almost state-like actor in the Global South? How does it impact perspectives of refugees’ agency and participation in formulation of such policies as well if continued relief model approaches are nevertheless implemented?
The purpose of this reflection was to review processes associated with the formulation of both the 1997 and amended 2009 UNHCR urban refugee policies, assess their reception globally, their viability and implementation in the Middle East region particularly, and thus determine prospective challenges and opportunities for the future. Substantiated through the literature cited and from the author’s own fieldwork and findings, this reflection indicates that though the 2009 policy diverges away from the 1997 framing of refugees in a containment approach framework, the need remains to reconsider how the 2009 policy in protracted situations, when coupled with realities on the ground, perpetuates another form of containment – the feeling of a trapped state of temporariness – even though a community-based framework, in its design, would seem to suggest otherwise.
It would be short-sighted, as this reflection has discussed, however, to assume that UNHCR is responsible for the perpetration of temporariness alone as state actors – representing both donors and hosts alike – are the ones with the ultimate incentive to frame the issue in this way. Thus, implementing a CBA model that digresses away from this relief paradigm requires a clarification of UNHCR’s actual role and reach in an ambiguous state-centred understanding and operation of the global refugee system, and a reorientation between UNHCR, host countries, donors, organizations on the ground, and refugees themselves regarding the challenges that are unfolding (and have unfolded time and time before) when urban refugee cases enter the post-emergency phases under such a framework.
At the same time, Crisp rightfully notes in his piece, “A new asylum paradigm? Globalization, migration and the uncertain future of the international refugee regime”, global institutions and the West more generally continuously attempt to codify and “manage” an orderly process to addressing such refugee flows globally, for a process that is inherently ad hoc.70 As the Middle East case demonstrates in part, the 2009 policy cannot fully account and “codify” a step-by-step process that can be implemented in a protocol way to address different refugee flows, particularly due to the political, security, economic, and social challenges unique to any region or country-specific context.71
Ironically, perhaps, and as some scholars have already done, it may be interesting to therefore continue to critically question the purpose of formalising a UNHCR approach to urban refugee areas if other policy mediums, like MOUs and “gentlemen’s agreements”, and the practice of framing the issue as temporary through implementation design and funding flows, reinforce the idea that UNHCR’s experiences are extremely city-specific and must be assessed accordingly as such; only in this way can we move towards fully grasping how to operationalise community-based approaches after all.
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Dr Daniel Esser, Dr Susan Shepler, Mr Jad Madi, and Mr Anas Alabbadi for their helpful comments and feedback throughout the course of this research and particularly while compiling this manuscript. The author would further like to thank all interviewees in Amman who participated and contributed to this research, as well as the PDES Small Grants Programme for providing partial support to conduct the fieldwork component of this piece.