Different realities: people on the move, NGOs and the UNHCR

By Katharina Lobermeyer, student of International Relations (M. A.) at the HU and FU Berlin and the University of Potsdam.

July 2021

In this article, in follow-up of a university discussion with a UNHCR representative, the author reflects on the different realities of people on the move, NGOs and the UNHCR. Which challenges occur from their diverging viewpoints, work environments and personal situations and what are misperceptions that NGOs and the UNHCR might have about each other and the people they are trying to help?

From an academic perspective, there still persists a need for more critical research regarding aid organizations and people on the move as recipients of “Western” aid. Another crucial actor in flight and migration discourses that we need to take a closer look at is the UNHCR. In July 2021, a German UNHCR representative spoke to our course at the FU Berlin about his work, leading to a vivid discussion among the participants.

Cooperation of UNHCR and NGOs

The relationship between the UNHCR and its employees and NGOs seems to be characterized by diverging perceptions. In several academic works on the topic, for example by the authors Cuttitta, Inhetveen and Zetter, NGO employees describe the relationship as rather hierarchical and difficult when being asked about it, and that sometimes situations of competition between different organizations arise. Some also claim that UNHCR employees would not respect the NGOs and their work enough and that they demand high levels of professionality while not being sufficiently professional themselves – for example in terms of punctuality at meetings – and that they were not sufficiently rigorous in identifying unacceptable behaviour amongst them, like abuses of their power that harm people on the move (Inhetveen 2010: 129).

However, during an online discussion in a university course about aid organizations at the FU Berlin, a UNHCR representative, who had been invited to join one of our sessions, has painted a different picture regarding the relationship between NGOs and the UNHCR: that the institution is extremely grateful for and even dependent on the work of NGOs when providing aid, especially when the situation in one place is newly evolving and the necessary aid structures are not built up yet. The representative also described a feeling of great relief when an NGO is willing and able to assume some of the most important first aid tasks, like building one or two clinics. The situation would only become problematic when highly unprofessional or political NGOs, following questionable ideologies, offer their help. Because then, the UNHCR has do decide whether this kind of organizations would do more harm than good if they were to cooperate with them, according to the representative.

Interestingly, a transparent screening system to determine which NGOs are suitable to work with the UNHCR and which are not, seems to be inexistent to date – the premiss, according to the representative is: The more professional the NGO, the more suitable it is to work with the UNHCR. The Country Coordinators of the UNHCR would be the ones deciding which NGOs can work with the UNHCR and which ones cannot. The individual needs of people on the move seem to be made less subject of the NGO selection process. Contrary to what many NGOs experience, the speaker claimed: “There is no competition among aid organisations. Why should there be, it’s not that there are too few refugees. We work with NGOs every day, we are often dependent on them. But this is only possible if these organisations work in a highly professional manner and do not have a political agenda”. Even if the representative mainly might have wanted to stress the severity of the global situation regarding the high and increasing number of refugees, the superiority of the UNHCR when it comes to deciding who is allowed to support people on the move – and who is not – becomes quite clear in this statement.

Where do people on the move want to go?

According to the UNHCR representative, the main goal of the organization’s work is “voluntary repatriation”. He claimed that “refugees” are often located in their neighbouring countries because their aim is to be able to go home again one day. In his personal experience, there are even people in “refugee camps” who have never been to their “home country” before, but who would rather go there, than being nationalized in a different state. “Resettlement”, meaning exactly the latter, is only intended in especially “vulnerable cases” – for example when injured people can only be treated adequately in a specific other country where the medical equipment and capacities might be better than in their “country of origin” or a neighbouring country.

However, numerous people risk their lives daily to leave their former homes and even the continent. There have been countless reports and statements by different organizations and activists on the dangers these journeys entail – including life-threatening passages, like through the Mediterranean, in case of African-European migration, or even through the oceans, in case of the so-called “boat people”. One of the most prominent quotes in 2015 was: “Nobody puts their child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land” by Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet (CBC Radio 2015), showing that for many people, going back or staying in unsafe areas is not an option.

This demonstrates once more how different the perceptions of people on the move, NGO and UNHCR workers are, how the media fulfils a discourse-shaping role and how every individual has a particular perspective from his or her own experience, often contradictory to what others have experienced depending on their personal situation or workplace. It also showcases that in these discussions, generalization is a huge mistake. Of course, one must also not forget what (hidden) agendas the UNHCR as well as NGOs follow and in which dilemmas they find themselves in, largely caused by their financial dependence on donor countries on the one hand and private donors on the other. Performance pressure and the necessary pragmatism in new or particularly stressful environments should not, however, be used as an excuse to objectify people on the move, so that the individual humans and their specific physical and psychological needs, as well as their rights, fade more and more into the background.

The UNHCR and externalization

In the mentioned discussion, the UNHCR representative claimed that the institution does not reject the concept of externalization one hundred per cent – a quite surprising statement for some of the listeners. However, the speaker stressed that “push-backs” were unacceptable, while he was still firm in pointing out that “the right to a hearing does not equal a right to acceptance [as an official ‘refugee’]” and that in the cases of non-refugee-status the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is supposed to assist the affected people with their “repatriation”.

This raises the obvious question whether the criteria to ‘count’ as a “refugee” are too strict and outdated. “It would be too hard to renegotiate the Geneva Convention as it would be too difficult to get all the states to sign it again after it has been altered”, was the representative’s answer to the question whether “environmental refugees” will officially be granted “refugee status” in the future, as natural disasters will become and are already becoming more common and destructive, especially in the Global South. As a first solution, domestic migration was mentioned by the speaker: “First, the affected people seize the possibilities to migrate within their country as often the devastating effects do not affect all of the country”. However, the UNHCR is working on the topic and supposedly willing to help in these cases too, if necessary.

UNHCR’s mandate and self-criticism

The advantage of UNHCR’s work, according to the representative, is that the employees can be at any location on the planet within 72 hours and provide first aid there. But what sometimes comes in the way are local authorities who do not respect the UN passport, and other local armed and unarmed groups preventing the organization from doing their work in compliance with their mandate.

The issue of funding was not portrayed as a particular challenge or problem during the discussion, even though academic and press commentaries tell differently: Betts and Collier for example point out that the UNHCR’s funding model is a “dysfunctional panic legacy” and that the UNHCR is particularly challenged by competing obligations with regards to donor states (especially “Western” governments), host states as well as refugees (2018). However, in our discussion, only host states and their different ruling powers – like government authorities or terrorist groups – were mentioned as real challenges. The UNHCR representative claimed it was not too difficult to maintain a good relationship with donor countries.

When asked about violations of the codes of conduct, or even human rights abuses, committed by UNHCR employees, the representative gave the answer that there are approximately 50 to 60 cases per year, a number not to be taken too seriously as several thousand people work for the UNHCR and these statistics would often include ‘harmless’ cases where for example an employee has used a UNHCR car for personal purposes. No statement on severe cases, like rape, was given by the speaker, not even after a follow-up question by the participants on the topic. Worrying was also the fact that he was not able to refute these allegations either. The mentioned statements indicate that the speaker, despite having talked openly about his personal – challenging as well as fulfilling – experiences during his work, was very careful in not portraying the organization, or its main donors, in a negative or too critical way.

What about the people?

In flight and migration discourses, everybody seems to have an entirely different viewpoint on what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – even amongst those who seemingly have the same intentions and goals, like the UNHCR and aid organizations. Misperceptions are likely to exist on all sides of actors, two of them having been described in this article. Therefore, especially for the UNHCR and NGOs, it is important to take a step back once in a while and reflect – forgetting all the pragmatism and performance pressure – so that the issue about flight, migration and support becomes more about the encounter of equal human beings again, where honesty and transparency prevail, and less about an objective task to be fulfilled to please donors and self-interested agendas.



Betts, Alexander; Collier, Paul. 2018. “Refuge. Transforming a broken refugee system“. Chapter: “UNHCR and the twenty-first century” (56-61). UK: Penguin Random House.

CBC Radio. 2015. “No one puts their children in a boat unless … “. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/let-them-in-where-s-the-poetry-in-politics-what-is-the-middle-class-trump-and-the-know-nothings-1.3223214/no-one-puts-their-children-in-a-boat-unless-1.3224831 [23 July 2021].

Inhetveen, Katharina. 2010. “Die Politische Ordnung des Flüchtlingslagers. Akteure, Macht, Organisation. Eine Ethnographie im südlichen Afrika“. Chapter 8: “NGOs und UNHCR im Flüchtlingslager: Zusammenarbeit, Konkurrenz, Abhängigkeit“. transcript Verlag Bielefeld.

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