(UNHCR) – Ambassador Jan Knutsson, a career diplomat who heads the Permanent Mission of Sweden in Geneva, just completed a one-year term as chairman of UNHCR’s Executive Committee. In September, he travelled to Niger for a close-up look at the refugee agency’s response to one of the four major forced displacement emergencies that began in 2012. Since fighting erupted in northern Mali in January, more than 100,000 people have been displaced internally and at least 200,000 others have fled across the border to Mauritania, Burkina Faso or Niger. Knutsson recently discussed the situation with UNHCR Senior Digital Editor/Writer Christopher Reardon. Excerpts from the interview:
A few weeks ago you visited Tabareybarey, one of the new camps in Niger that is taking in refugees from Mali. What did you see?
It’s always striking when you meet people who have left everything they have – often including members of their family, their livelihoods, their houses, the world that they know – and come to a place where they have to try to create a new existence with very difficult conditions. So of course that was my first and most important impression.
My second impression was that the government and people of Niger, the UNHCR and its partners are really working hand in hand to create conditions that are as good as possible for the refugees and to make their lives a little bit easier. The conditions are very difficult, obviously.
What was the general mood among the refugees you met there?
We spoke to a number of the refugees, both male and female. What was striking was that, despite the difficult conditions they find themselves in, they still have hope for the future. I did not get any sense that they are giving up. They want to get back to a normal life. They want to start working again. There was a very strong sense of a positive vision for the future. That was very impressive, considering the difficulties that they have.
How would you describe UNHCR’s role in the Mali emergency?
UNHCR has two very important roles in these situations: a normative role and an operational role. Its mission is to see to it that refugees have protection in all its dimensions. It also has to make sure that the conditions for protection are created on the ground. That includes everything from dialogue to very concrete measures to make sure that housing or shelter is there. That schools are there for children. That medical care is there. Obviously UNHCR cannot and should not do all of these things on its own, which is why it’s working with many dedicated partners. But it has a key role in making sure the totality of this results in protection for refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people].
Surely there are limits to what protection and assistance can achieve, particularly in a situation as complex as this one.
I went to Niger, which is going through multiple crises. They have had inundations because of the rainy season. They have had a locust problem that threatened the food supply. And they have taken in more than 60,000 refugees. When something like this happens it introduces additional stress to the society, which is why it is so important to have a long-term vision.
At the source of these problems is a regional political crisis, so the solution would have to be regional and political so that the refugees can return home. That has to be the objective. But in the meantime, the humanitarian work must be done between the international organizations and with strong ownership by the government – and that is what we are seeing in Niger.
Are you satisfied with the level of media coverage about Mali’s refugees? Are they getting enough attention from the press globally?
There is attention, and there are high-level visits. But I think if you look at the gravity of the situation for the neighbouring countries and for Mali itself, I think it could do with some more attention, which is one of the reasons I wanted to travel to the region.
Does UNHCR have enough resources to meet the needs of all these refugees?
I’m sure that more resources could find a very good use in this situation. Having said that, I was impressed by what the UNHCR is doing with what it has, together with the government. But we have to remember that this is a crisis that is going to last for some time. The sustainability of an operation like this is always a constant challenge for UNHCR to make sure that there are resources to meet the needs.
Right now UNHCR is responding to several acute emergencies around the world – originating in Syria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as Mali. How much of a strain does that put on UNHCR?
Clearly when there is an increase in the flow of refugees and IDPs in emergencies, that will put a strain on the organization. So in plain language, UNHCR is asked to do more – sometimes without enough resources. It’s not an unusual situation for any organization. But it’s still a huge challenge because there is so much at stake. There are lives at stake. Still, my impression is that UNHCR is doing a very good job at trying to balance the resources it has and get the most out of them.
Sometimes when refugees cannot return home, they are invited to start over again in countries like yours. What impact have resettled refugees had in Sweden?
My country is a big host country for refugees, and beyond that we also have significant immigration. It’s my view that this has enriched Sweden. As with any society, if there’s a large influx in a short period of time, that can put a lot of stress on the structures of society. But we have a tradition of being an open country. For me it’s very clear that this has enriched Sweden. It’s giving us new perspectives. It’s adding to our economy. The challenges that you find with this are far outweighed by the benefits.