In this article, LERRN Partner Jeff Crisp takes a critical look at the UN’s refugee agency, identifying the key characteristics of its organizational culture and providing advice to individuals and organizations who are endeavouring to influence the agency’s positions, policies and programmes.


As a former and long-term UNHCR staff member (1987-2013) who has also worked with a number of NGOs (Refugees International, Refugee Council, United Against Inhumanity), I am often asked to provide advice with respect to the most effective ways for advocates and activists to interact with the organization. This paper is intended to offer such guidance.

A state-centric organization

Perhaps the most important characteristic of UNHCR for refugee advocates and activists to understand is the organization’s fundamentally state-centric nature. The agency was founded by states, is funded by states, has a governing body comprised of states, has its budget approved by states, and can only operate in the field with the permission of states and under conditions that are imposed by states.

As part of the UN system, moreover, UNHCR’s policies, positions and programmes are inevitably influenced by the UN Secretariat’s and the UN Secretary-General’s need to maintain a harmonious relationship with Member States, especially the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Having a Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who previously spent a decade as High Commissioner for Refugees, has not changed that situation, as seen in his recent reluctance to intervene in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite the massive number of refugees and displaced people that it has created.

In that context, we should also not forget that Russia, along with many other states that have created large numbers of refugees (Ethiopia, for example) and who routinely violate refugee rights (such as Greece), are member of UNHCR’s governing body, the Executive Committee.

With respect to governments, UNHCR has a particularly close relationship with the USA, which provides around 40 per cent of the organization’s budget and which has traditionally nominated the organization’s Deputy High Commissioner. UNHCR is consequently reluctant to publicly criticize the administration in Washington, something that became particularly apparent when Donald Trump was in office, pursuing an aggressively anti-refugee policy and cutting the funds of other UN agencies such as UNRWA and the World Health Organization.

In my experience, UNHCR staff can be insufficiently aware of (or even in denial about) the state-centric nature of their organization. Rather than seeing it as an agency with some important and state-induced structural constraints, there is a tendency within the organization to perceive UNHCR as the forthright, indefatigable and primary defender of refugee rights on the global stage. As I will suggest later, this strong self-image makes the organization particularly sensitive to external scrutiny and criticism.

Having said that, it would be wrong, as some commentators have done, to suggest that UNHCR is under the direct command of governments, and that its international staff members are uncaring bureaucrats who are only concerned with their personal advancement. Many of its personnel are highly committed to the refugee cause. And while UNHCR cannot be described as a wholly autonomous organization, it enjoys a limited or relative form of autonomy that derives from its legal mandate, its moral authority, its professional experience and competence. In those respects, UNHCR has more influence than large international NGOs such as Oxfam, CARE or World Vision.

For advocates and activists, a key objective must be to ensure that UNHCR maintains and expands the degree of autonomy that it enjoys, using its limited freedom of manoeuvre to challenge states that are undermining refugee rights, even if they are major donors to the organization or hosts to large refugee populations.

An excellent example of this is to be seen in the vigorous manner that UNHCR has opposed the UK’s new Borders Act and, more specifically, the refugee deportation deal that the British government has concluded with Rwanda. Within the constraints I have already mentioned, it is difficult to think that UNHCR could have been any more outspoken than it has been in relation to the externalization of British asylum policy.

At the global level, UNHCR has somewhat belatedly recognized that the process of externalization, especially when manifested in the relocation of refugees from prosperous countries in the Global North to poorer countries in the Global South, represents an existential threat to the international refugee regime and to UNHCR’s role at the very centre of that system. Thus, in speaking up for refugees, UNHCR is also speaking up for its own survival. And that is a point worth stressing by advocates and activists who interact with the organization.

UNHCR and public advocacy

It is very difficult to measure with any precision the changing extent to which UNHCR is prepared to take a firm public stand on refugee protection issues. And as the organization’s staff members are always quick to point out, public statements are not the only form of advocacy or intervention that UNHCR can undertake. Many discussions and negotiations with both states and non-state actors are – sometimes out of choice and sometimes out of necessity – held confidentially and behind closed doors.

Having said that, and on the basis of my own experience, I would argue that UNHCR’s commitment to strong public advocacy has diminished in recent years. And in its place, we have witnessed the development of an external relations strategy that is dominated by fund-raising, marketing, branding, human interest stories, celebrity endorsement, social media and show-business activities.

Of course, UNHCR is not alone in this respect, and even a traditionally conservative organization such as the ICRC has moved to some extent in this direction. But UNHCR appears to have embraced the marketing-based and ‘soft advocacy’ approach more enthusiastically and wholeheartedly than many other humanitarian organizations.

UNHCR would, I am sure, argue that its external relations activities have raised the profile of the organization and increased the funding available to it, thereby enabling the agency to work more effectively on behalf of refugees and other displaced people. And there is some truth to that argument. UNHCR has in recent years attained high levels of what its social media personnel media would probably describe as ‘brand recognition’.

But I would also suggest that UNHCR’s current approach has also come at a cost, as seen, for example, in the amount of time, effort and resources that the organization now devotes to self-promotion; in its mindless reproduction of the UNHCR logo at every conceivable opportunity; in its sometimes misleading use of statistics; in its selective use of unrepresentative refugee stories and photos; and in its efforts to cultivate closer relations with private sector companies.

While UNHCR prides itself on being ‘innovative’, the organization has in fact been very willing to employ the methods of slick commercial advertising and has not encouraged an open debate about the way in which it frames the refugee issue and its own relationship with refugees. Indeed, as indicated by its awkward response to recent refugee protests in Libya, Tunisia and Indonesia, UNHCR finds it difficult to cope with situations in which refugees speak up for themselves and criticize the organization that claims to represent their interests.

In this respect, advocates and activists have an important role to play in monitoring and commenting on UNHCR’s public relations and promotional activities and, more importantly, ensuring that those activities do not become a substitute for effective public advocacy on behalf of refugees. In that context, and while I have praised UNHCR’s role in challenging the UK’s current refugee policy, there are other situations where the organization could have been more transparent and vocal.

To give just a few examples, these include the EU’s continuing support for the Libyan Coast Guard and its strategy of interception, return and detention; the preparation and planning for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the relocation of those refugees to the remote island of Bhasan Char; and the summary return of Cubans and Haitians interdicted at sea by the US, which denies them the opportunity to submit an asylum application.

Reflection and research

On this issue I have to declare a personal interest. Shortly after Antonio Guterres became High Commissioner, he asked me to establish a new unit, the Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES), that combined a number of related functions: first, the development of new policies on global issues such as UNHCR’s role in relation to urban refugees, internally displaced people, refugee return and reintegration, mixed migratory movements and climate-related displacement; second, the evaluation of UNHCR operations in the field and the identification of lessons learned that could be transferred from one programme to another.

A third role of PDES was to act as a focal point for UNHCR’s relations with universities, think-tanks and policy institutes, and to administer a publication programme that included the working paper series ‘New Issues in Refugee Research’. Finally, the unit was responsible for providing input to speeches and statements made by the High Commissioner and other members of the agency’s senior management team.

In my experience this constituted a very coherent set of functions, providing UNHCR with a robust capacity to reflect on its own activities and to ensure that its policies were both evidence-based and that they took account of the thinking undertaken by external actors. We were aided in that respect by the fact that the High Commissioner allowed PDES to act with a high degree of independence, based on his awareness that a self-critical organization would gain more prestige and influence than one which tried to ignore or cover up its mistakes, difficulties and dilemmas.

Unfortunately, that structure was dismantled quite quickly in the years after Mr. Guterres and I left the organization. The current evaluation unit does not have a role in policy development and has developed a more technical and quantitative methodology in its assessment of UNHCR operations than employed in the days of PDES, which adopted a storytelling approach which we described as ‘the systematic use of anecdotal evidence’. The current unit does not provide input for the High Commissioner’s statements and speeches and has lost the role of acting as a focal point for relations with institute and individuals who are undertaking a critical analysis of refugee-related issues outside of UNHCR.

The function of academic liaison has been assumed by a UNHCR-supported entity titled the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network, which is specifically devoted to the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees. Which begs the question as to whether it will also examine the constraints and limitations of the Global Compact. As UNHCR has already declared the Compact to be “a gamechanger” and “a new paradigm for refugee protection,” I fear that such critical analysis will not be forthcoming from the Network.

Given this potential vacuum, research-based advocacy organizations have an important role to play. They should, for example, endeavour to find out what policy initiatives are taking place or being considered by UNHCR, which section of the organization is responsible for formulating them, and what kind of consultation process – if any – has been established to gather the perspectives of external stakeholders.

NGOs, for example, played a very helpful role in the formulation of UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugees in urban areas, providing evidence that allowed PDES to overcome the objections of some senior managers who felt that it was legitimate to confine refugees to camps and to prevent them from taking up residence in cities and towns. Advocates and activists should be looking for other opportunities of this type to influence UNHCR policy and practice.

Response to external scrutiny

As mentioned earlier in this paper, UNHCR can be quite sensitive to criticism from other actors, especially when it is made public and threatens to undermine the organization’s carefully crafted public relations and self-promotional activities.

In my experience, it is quite common for the organization to dismiss such external scrutiny, often on the basis that the organization’s critics do not have a detailed knowledge of the issue or situation on which they are advocating, that they do not have an adequate understanding of the way that UNHCR functions, or that they do not appreciate the work that UNHCR is doing on behalf of refugees and displaced people behind the scenes. It is for those reasons that UNHCR can be particularly sensitive when it comes to scrutiny from individuals and organizations that evidently do know what they are talking about!

Let me make four brief points on this matter for refugee advocates and activists. First, do not be surprised or discouraged if you do get a negative reaction to your work from UNHCR. That is not unusual.  Second, make sure that your advocacy is based on the most robust evidence possible, and that your criticisms are expressed in ways that are not excessively antagonistic. Third, it is often useful to prepare the ground for what you intend to report by briefing relevant UNHCR staff before going public and by taking account of their responses in the final version of your outputs.

Fourth, and I will come back to this issue later, UNHCR is not a monolithic organization, and so you can assume that your findings and recommendations will prove more acceptable to some parts of the agency than others, depending on their function, location or position in the organizational hierarchy. In that respect, do not be at all surprised if you get a mixed reaction to your work from different components of UNHCR.

UNHCR and its mandate

There is probably no other UN agency that talks as much about its mandate as UNHCR, and I have always struggled to understand exactly why that is the case. What I can say with some certainty is that UNHCR has something of a superiority complex in relation to other humanitarian organizations, and its supposedly unique mandate for the protection of refugees plays an important part in that syndrome.

UNHCR’s preoccupation with its mandate helps to explain the organization’s longstanding reservations with respect to the humanitarian coordination role played by OCHA, and its evident nervousness when IOM began to expand its activities to policy and protection issues that went beyond its traditional role in the transportation of refugees and other migrants. UNHCR’s preoccupation with its mandate is also reflected in the organization’s proprietorial approach to the people it works for, symbolized by the fact that UNHCR’s Twitter handle is not @unhcr, but @refugees.

UNHCR also has what might be described as a hegemonic approach to the refugee issue, a characteristic that can be seen in its attempt to co-opt those organizations that might challenge its dominant role in the refugee regime. That, in my opinion, is what has happened to ICVA, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, which co-organizes the annual consultations between UNHCR and the NGO community, and which has become much less critical of UNHCR than it was in the past. I also have a strong suspicion that UNHCR will take a similar approach to the growing number of Refugee Led Organizations (RLOS), cultivating relationships with, and providing funding to, a small number of preferred RLOs that are prepared to play by the rules of the UN game.

With respect to its mandate, it is important to recognize that UNHCR has a consistent record of expansionism. Initially, that expansionism was expressed in primarily geographical terms, its sphere of operations expanding from Europe in the 1950s to Africa, Asia and Latin America in subsequent decades and eventually to the former Soviet bloc and to the Middle East.

It has also expanded in terms of the categories of people it works with, its sphere of interest steadily moving beyond refugees to include other ‘persons of concern’, including internally displaced people, stateless populations, asylum seekers, returnees, people in mixed migratory movements, so-called stranded migrants and people displaced in the context of climate change and environmental disasters.

Finally, UNHCR has expanded in terms of its functions. Starting in the 1950s as an organization predominantly staffed by lawyers, it has now developed a competence in an incredibly wide range of areas, including logistics, livelihoods, food security, development, community services, security, energy and the environment. I must confess that I was quite an enthusiastic expansionist when working for UNHCR. But I now have growing reservations about the breadth of the organization’s activities and in its chronic inability to fund them all.

At the same time, I am concerned by UNHCR’s apparent quest to boost its visibility and underline its importance by replacing the legally defined notion of ‘refugee’ with the less specific notions of ‘people forced to flee’ and ‘forcibly displaced people’.

in that respect, UNHCR appeared quite excited earlier this year to announce that there were now more than 100 million ‘forcibly displaced people’ around the world, an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record’ number’ according to its social media output. But take a closer look at the statistics, and you will find that less than a third of that number are refugees who come under the direct mandate of UNHCR, that more than half of them are internally displaced people for which UNHCR does not have an exclusive mandate, and that more than five million of them, Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, are specifically excluded from UNHCR’s Statute.

Special initiatives

In my experience, UNHCR has a tendency to jump quite rapidly from one issue to another, according to what appears to be most relevant and even fashionable at the time. At one moment it might be urban refugees, the internally displaced or protracted refugee situations, and at another time statelessness, refugee education or climate change. In order to demonstrate its concern for and involvement in such issues, UNHCR has the habit of launching special initiatives, all of which have led the organization to accumulate a vast number of commitments, the implementation of which simply cannot be tracked, or their impact evaluated.

This problem has been exacerbated by the introduction, in the late 2000s, of an annual UNHCR meeting titled the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, each of them focusing on a different theme. This was a worthy attempt by High Commissioner Guterres to escape from the very stilted and unproductive ‘debates’ taking place in the Executive Committee. But it has proved difficult for the organization to establish concrete and sustainable plans of action on each of these issues.

For advocates and activists, this means that timing is very important. UNHCR is more likely to engage constructively with you if you are working on an issue that is at the top of their current organizational agenda, rather than one that was of prime interest to them at some point in the past. It also means that advocates have an important role to play in reminding UNHCR of the commitments it has made in the past and in asking whether they have actually been met in practice.

With respect to the Global Compact on Refugees, UNHCR has established a system whereby states and other stakeholders can make specific ‘pledges’ in relation to the Compact’s main goals, with regular reports being issued in terms of the number and types of pledge that have been made.

While this system provides UNHCR with a convenient means of demonstrating that the implementation of the Compact is making good progress, there is scope for advocates and activists to take a critical look at this system and to ask whether it provides an over-optimistic appraisal of the Compact’s impact. Using a different evaluation methodology, for example, the Danish Refugee Council has concluded that, “three years since the launch of the Global Compact on Refugees, the international community has yet to deliver on its promise to better share responsibility for refugees. Lack of political will and leadership is challenging the achievement of more equitable and predictable responses to forced displacement.”

UNHCR’s diversity

Like any organization with a huge number of employees, a complex organizational structure and a wide range of activities, UNHCR is a very diverse organization, quite unlike the monolith that some external commentators have assumed it to be. As a result, advocates and activists are unlikely to get consistent responses from the different individuals and entities with whom they interact in UNHCR.

As a result of this organizational diversity, external actors wishing to influence UNHCR need to develop an understanding of the different and sometimes conflicting perspectives that various components of the organization bring to their work. It also means that advocates and activists may well be regarded as potential allies – or even as potential opponents – in terms of the intense internal competition that takes place for visibility, influence and funding within UNHCR.

In the case of PDES, we pursued quite a systematic – and some would say cynical – strategy of cultivating relationships with external stakeholders who could support the work we were trying to do, including, especially, the NGO community. On the basis of this generally successful experience, it makes a great deal of sense for advocates and activists to pose not only as critics of UNHCR, but also as actors that can help the different entities within the organization to attain their objectives.

Meetings, meetings, meetings

Like the rest of the UN system, UNHCR loves to organize meetings, a problem that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the Global Compact on Refugees.  As well as the more established gatherings of the Executive Committee, Standing Committee, Consultations on Resettlement, NGO Consultations and Dialogue on Protection Challenges, the organization now has a Global Refugee Forum, a High-Level Officials’ meeting relating to the implementation of the Compact, and meetings of Solidarity Mechanisms in response to specific emergencies.

While UNHCR has the ability to organize, service and participate in all of these different gatherings (not to mention those that take place at the regional and national level) most advocacy organizations and activists do not. Capacity issues aside, UNHCR’s state-centric nature and hegemonic tendencies mean that the organization prefers its meetings to be conducted in accordance with diplomatic protocol, dominated by prepared governmental statements and with relatively little scope for interactive discussion.

In relation to this issue, advocates and activists might wish to bear three points in mind. First and most obviously, think hard before devoting the time and resources required to participate in UNHCR meetings, especially when they involve international air travel and take place in high-cost locations such as Geneva or New York. How much difference will your presence and participation really make, and are there alternative advocacy strategies available that might prove to be more effective and efficient?

Second, advocates and activists should not expect to learn a great deal or to have a substantial impact by sitting for hours on end in the main UN conference chambers. In my experience, it is often a more efficient strategy to read the statements that governments, UN agencies and other stakeholders have made after the event, and to spend more time in smaller, more private and transparent discussions with the delegates and UNHCR staff who are present at the meeting.

Third, advocates and activists will always struggle to revolutionize the very cautious format and tone of UNHCR meetings. While pursuing that elusive objective, they should continue to push at the margins of what is deemed acceptable to states in the shorter term, especially in ensuring that Refugee-Led Organizations, civil society institutions and NGOs are properly represented in relevant gatherings.

Building lasting relationships

A final point of this paper is simply to underline the difficulty experienced by external stakeholders in building lasting relationships with UNHCR. The organization’s staff move rapidly from one assignment to another and are often redeployed from their regular posts to emergency operations. The organization is also engaged in an apparently interminable process of restructuring, making it difficult to keep up with exactly who is responsible for what within the organization.

Since I left UNHCR, for example, the agency has undertaken a major decentralization process, moving the Regional Bureaux to the field, so that decision-making takes place closer to the point of delivery. That development will almost certainly have some important implications for the way in which advocates and activists undertake their activities. In the experience of one large international NGO, decentralizing those Bureaux has actually made them more susceptible to pressures exerted by states in the regions where they are located. That is an outcome that refugee advocates and activists should resist.