A World in Crisis – Conflicts, Refugees and Humanitarian Response

Text by Janet Lim
Photo by Shutterstock


I have recently returned to Singapore after working for 34 years with the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is the UN refugee agency which has been mandated by the General Assembly of the United Nations to be responsible for persons or populations forced to flee from their country as a result of persecution and /or conflicts in their own country. They become refugees because they have fled across international borders and are no longer under the protection of any State. Hence the High Commissioner and his office become their de facto “government” assuming responsibilities that should otherwise be provided by a State. The foremost responsibility of UNHCR is to ensure the protection of refugees, ensuring their well-being, and to find solutions that would end their status as refugees. To ensure their survival while in the country of asylum, UNHCR has often to mobilise resources to ensure that basic needs of the refugees in their country of asylum are met and also to help relieve the burden on the host countries.

As one can imagine, working for UNHCR meant therefore that one is dealing with situations of conflicts and their consequences all around the world. Political strife, wars and violence have often life-threatening consequences on individuals and whole populations, either because they are deliberately targeted or because they are part of the collateral damages. In my last position in UNHCR as Assistant High Commissioner overseeing operations globally, I was confronted on a daily basis with dramatic events of outbreaks of violence and fightings in different parts of the world, of people fleeing, their numbers, the survivals and casualties, the lifesaving needs that they have etc. My daily worries were whether UNHCR has presence in the places to which the refugees were fleeing and whether we were able to reach them on time to save lives, whether we were able to persuade neighbouring countries to keep their borders opened and whether we have the means to deal with any worsening of situations. So coming back to life in Singapore is somewhat of a culture shock to say the least. Yes, there is a world out there which is a far cry from the daily life in Singapore! Yet I think that we cannot be complacent about, or detached, from the realities happening in other parts of the world.

Current Conflicts in the world

During the last 5 years we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of major crises around the world. The outbreaks of new conflicts have been mainly on the African continent and in the Middle East, but there is hardly any region in the world today without on-going conflicts or low intensity warfare. Some of the conflicts such as the Arab/Israeli war, internal conflict in Columbia, Myanmar, war in Afghanistan, Somalia, have remained unresolved for decades. The more recent conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, S. Sudan, and Central African Republic, have taken on new dimensions. The scale and the rapidity with which these conflicts have spread, engulfing whole countries have caused huge destructions and major population displacements both internally and externally. It has been rare that the world is faced with so many major crises at the same time, which are not only spilling into the neighbouring countries, but are also having impact much further afield.

There is no simple analysis to explain why our world is in such a state of crisis today. Many factors are undoubtedly at play. When the Cold War ended in the late 80’s there were hopes that many crises would have been resolved with the decline of inter-state wars. Unfortunately the end of the Cold War has also been marked by an increase in intra-state wars caused by ethnic, tribal, or religious divides that mostly have their roots in post-colonial legacies, or years of repression, as the recent Arab Spring has shown. Globally, there has been increased competition for scarce resources, such as water, land and energy, with population growth, climate change and increased urbanisation adding to the pressure. When such situations are coupled with the lack of good governance, lack of development and political leadership, it is not difficult to see how certain groups could become disenfranchised and grow to become formidable forces fighting their own governments and even among themselves, creating chaos. The recent conflicts have also been complicated by the multiplication of armed groups of different affiliations that have international criminal or ideological links. The current crisis in Syria and Iraq with multiple and fragmented armed groups, and in particular, the rise of ISIL in the Middle East, is a good example of the complexity of today’s warfare. What is particularly worrying is the fact that today’s conflicts are easily contagious, with extremists groups in different conflicts and different parts of the world linking up and becoming more difficult to manage. In the African continent we have seen the resurgence of conflicts in countries where stability has not taken roots and peace has broken down, such as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In addition old conflicts such as Somalia and Afghanistan have remained unresolved.

Humanitarian consequences and responses

Perhaps the most dramatic consequence of today’s conflicts has been the scale of populations which have been forcibly displaced from their homes either within their own countries or crossing borders to other countries seeking asylum. Their recorded numbers have been the largest since the Second World War, with more than 51 million displaced, of which more than 17 million have sought asylum abroad. Still there is evidence that the real figures are much higher as many displaced will only surface after they have exhausted all means of surviving on their own.

How do UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations assist the displaced?

Perhaps it is best to describe a typical scenario to explain the challenges that we often face in our response. While we have individuals who flee because of targeted persecution or threats to their lives, we have frequently whole populations who are threatened because of attacks by opposing parties in the conflict or war, such as we have seen now in Syria, Iraq, and S. Sudan, forcing people to move in the hundreds of thousands. Such mass movements often take place in very dramatic circumstances, with people having to leave their belongings behind and going through dangers and physical obstacles, travelling days on end in order to reach their place of safety. Many of the vulnerable such as the elderly, sick, women and children may not even make it, or those who survive may be in such poor conditions that if help is not immediately available, they too will perish.

In the UN humanitarian system, the scale and complexity of the emergency and the extent of response needed is calibrated into different levels, with level 3 being the highest. Currently there are four level 3 mega emergencies which the international community is having to deal with, along with other smaller scale emergencies.

For those who are displaced within their own countries, commonly referred to as IDPs or internally displaced persons, the responsibility for response is shared among different UN agencies and NGOS. In situations where the displaced have crossed international border, they become refugees. Their presence in the country of asylum may become contentious with the local authorities and it is UNHCR’s responsibility to negotiate with states to keep their borders opened and to ensure that refugees are not returned to the dangers they fled from. UNHCR’s authority is drawn from its guardianship of the international legal framework, called the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which spell out the obligations and responsibilities of States towards those recognised as refugees.

Clearly, countries receiving refugees are concerned about the political, social, economic and security impact of the presence of large numbers of foreigners on their territories. Hence it is incumbent on UNHCR to work with the authorities to also help address their concerns. One of the most important tasks of UNHCR is to assist the countries of asylum to document the refugees through a comprehensive registration exercise, and to provide them with identification papers. It is during the registration exercise that groups such as combatants, members of armed groups or those who do not belong to the known groups of refugees are excluded. Once registered and recognised as refugees, the most immediate protection needs of the refugees, which is not to be returned to their country, is met. However in the course of their stay in the country of asylum, there are many other protection needs, relating to their rights and well-being, which are also critical and must be monitored on a continuing basis. Most notably, refugees, especially the vulnerable ones often find themselves in situations where they are easily abused and exploited. Sexual and gender based violence and exploitation of women and children in a displacement context take on greater proportion than in a normal society. Some of the worst abuses have been the forced recruitment of children by the warring parties and armed groups and have given rise to the phenomenon of “child soldier”.

Regardless of whether the displaced are in their countries or outside in other countries, the physical life- saving needs are the same: shelter, water, food, sanitation, health services are especially urgent in the early phase of a mass influx – if their numbers are overwhelming, special sites would have to be found to establish a camp where such services can be organised. More often than not, the first responders are the local communities who accommodate the displaced and help to take care of their immediate needs. Despite the fact that the local communities receiving refugees are often very impoverished themselves, their generosity is frequently surprising and goes beyond their means. But this is not sustainable without outside help and hence the urgency to mobilise international assistance.

Humanitarian response of the scale that is needed to face the mega crises of today are confronted with a number of dilemmas. The first issue is the resources needed for the response. Each and every humanitarian emergency operation has to be fundraised individually without any guarantee that all funds needed will be forthcoming. On average most UN humanitarian appeals are funded not more than 50%, with different emergencies, including the protracted ones, competing heavily for resources. Although humanitarian funding globally has increased manifolds in the last few years, the needs have increased even more dramatically. For UNHCR alone, the budget has grown in the last 5 years from some 2 billion to over 6 billion currently, and only some 3 billion were raised last year.

The cost of humanitarian assistance has increased not only due to the scale of needs but also due to the fact that the operating environment has become much more complex and access to those in needs has become more difficult. Many refugees and displaced are located in parts of the countries which are the most difficult to reach logistically as well as the most dangerous places, where unpredictable armed groups operate. Humanitarian workers, who used to enjoy protection by virtue of their neutrality and impartiality, are today often targeted and, like the displaced populations, are sometimes used as pawns in the warfare. Enhancing security measures for humanitarian workers, such as provision of personal protective equipment, armoured vehicles, residential security etc. have added heavily to the costs of operations.

International assistance brings with it a multiplicity of international actors and it is now quite common for UN agencies and NGOS, in their hundreds to descend upon any high profile emergency, as they are the main channels through which donor governments respond to these crises. On the one hand, this represents greater capacity at the international level to respond to crises but at the same time the multiplicity of humanitarian actors have added to the complexity of the operating environment. Co-ordination has become a major issue as with increased numbers of actors, competing for scarce resources; there is an imperative to ensure that there are no duplication or gaps in the response and to ensure coherence. In the current international response to the Syria refugee crisis, UNHCR takes the lead to coordinate the activities of some 200 international organisations and aid agencies in the 4 countries surrounding Syria. Co-ordination takes places at various levels, in the key operational areas in each country, at the national level and finally at the regional level, generating a need for a dedicated capacity. It is a challenge to ensure that coordination, while necessary does not divert resources from actual delivery.

With scarce resources and increased complexity in the operating environment, there has been a realisation among the aid community that it has to review the traditional way of providing assistance. Most refugee and displacement situations tend to be regarded as temporary, based on the hope that refugees and internally displaced persons can return to their home as soon as a conflict is over. In reality, those who have become refugees tend to remain in this status for an average of 17 years. Every effort has therefore to be made to increase the efficiency of aid delivery and to find ways of making assistance sustainable. Solutions are being sought in the greater use of modern technology and other innovations. In every sector of assistance, there is a race to find ever more efficient ways of assisting the refugees. One of the innovative approaches which has been introduced in recent times have been the use of cash, in lieu of distributing food and relief items, in situations where local markets are available. This has not only benefited local economies but has given greater dignity to the refugees and allowed them more choices instead of waiting for handouts of relief items. Where circumstances permit, the focus is on increasing self-reliance and identifying opportunities for sustainable livelihood. It is also imperative that a longer term view be taken and that a development approach needs also to be integrated into the humanitarian response. There has been a recognition that the traditional way of focusing assistance for refugees in camps, while necessary in some circumstances, are not only costly but can hamper finding solutions for refugees. It also distracts attention from the fact that the majority of the refugees are in fact having to survive in a non-camp situation and do require assistance as well. In fact UNHCR has now made it a policy to find alternatives to camps wherever possible and to be mindful of integrating the needs of the host communities in the response both in the short and long term.

These new perspectives have brought about new debates and discussions in the humanitarian world. In 2016 the UN Secretary General will convene the first ever global humanitarian summit, the goal of which is to find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast changing world.

Solutions for refugees

Every refugee’s dream is to be able to return home sooner rather later. Indeed for UNHCR, the best solution for refugees is voluntary return to their home countries once a conflict is over or the situation has normalised. However this may be a very long wait and it is not uncommon that one or two generations of refugees may be borne in exile and would never have known their homeland. Nevertheless there have been successes in the past where refugees were able to return in large numbers to their own country, such as the Rwandans or the Mozambicans once peace returned to their countries. In some other countries, such as Afghanistan or S.Sudan, large numbers of voluntary return have taken place, but re-surgence of conflict have caused returnees to flee again.

Traditionally UNHCR has also advocated for third country resettlement, especially for those who are in need of special protection or who are particularly vulnerable. In the current climate, countries have become increasingly reluctant to accept large numbers of refugees for resettlement. For instance for some 3.8 million Syrian refugees, only some 100,000 resettlement places are currently being made available and mostly only in the western countries. This is in sharp contrast to an earlier era when almost a million Indo-Chinese refugees were resettled in third countries. Many refugees are therefore stuck in the countries where they have fled to and have to find means of integrating locally. In Africa, local integration has been successful in a number of situations, culminating in some cases of refugees being granted citizenship. By and large however this is not a solution that is easy to come by.

Given the often limited options for refugees in their country of asylum, it is not a wonder that many have opted to move further on their own, even by illegal means. We have seen this now in the increased numbers of refugees who have fallen victims to human traffickers and smugglers and taking the most dangerous of routes to reach countries where they hope to have a future. A most worrying phenomenon in recent times has been the desperation of people, mostly Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea in smuggler organised boats which are not sea worthy, hoping to reach European countries. During last year more than 4000 have died while attempting this crossing, and this is only one situation. There are countless other situations where desperate refugees have been stripped of all they have by human traffickers and smugglers, only to have their hopes dashed.

We need to find alternative ways of allowing refugees to move legally. One of the more innovative solutions which UNHCR has tried to advocate is to provide refugees with legal migrant status, through the provision of temporary work permits by countries whose economy may be in need of labour.

The Future

Refugees have become one of the biggest humanitarian problems of our times, with global consequences. The crises that generate forced displacements may seem overwhelming in their scale; the challenges faced in our responses seem near insurmountable. Yet I know from my own experience, through the many crisis situations I have been engaged in, that the humanitarian responses of the international community have real impact at the individual level. There have been hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons whose lives have been saved and rebuilt from the ashes. One of the strongest motivations that have kept me so passionately engaged with the work of UNHCR for so long has been to see the resilience and strength of refugees and families rising above the atrocities and abuses that they have to suffer. It is the individual refugees that we help to succeed who would be needed to help rebuild their broken societies. Left to languish they could become a lost generation who could form the roots of future conflicts. Helping refugees is not only a humanitarian imperative but one which serves as well the self-interest and preservation of the societies at large.

About the author

Janet Lim has recently retired from the United Nations, after a career which spanned 34 years. She joined UNHCR, the UN refugee agency in 1980 and has served in various positions both in UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva and in the field. Her field assignments have included UNHCR’s country and emergency operations in different parts of the world, including Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Western Sahara and Syria. In Geneva, she served in senior positions which included being Director of the Emergency and Security Services, Director of the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, and during her last 5 years, she was the Assistant High Commissioner (Operations). In this latter capacity she oversaw the work of five regional bureaux responsible for UNHCR’s operations globally, as well as two functional Divisions providing support to the field. Ms. Lim has particular expertise in managing complex emergency operations where populations have been forcibly displaced as a result of war and conflict. She was closely associated with the establishment of UNHCR ‘s emergency response capacity and mechanisms. During her career with the UN, she has also been seconded at a senior level to UNAIDS and to the peacekeeping operation, UNAMA, in Afghanistan.

Ms Lim graduated from the University of Singapore in 1975 with a Bachelor of Social Science (Honours). After a stint in the Administrative Service of the Singapore Civil Service, she pursued postgraduate studies at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, majoring in Development studies, before joining the United Nations. Ms Lim is currently a Fellow at the Singapore Management University.


Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at serenechen@smu.edu.sg.