Innovations in Refugee Protection

A Compendium of UNHCR’s 60 Years. Including Case Studies on IT Communities, Vietnamese Boatpeople, Chilean Exile and Namibian Repatriation

by Luise Druke (Author)
©2014 Monographs 564 Pages


This compendium synthesizes innovations of the UN High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) since 1951. The book bridges the gap between academic and field work and uses Joseph Nye’s concept of «soft power» as a methodological approach for understanding and solving political and ethical refugee protection dilemmas. Extending the refugee legal framework (1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol), UNHCR has increasingly used international human rights law, innovative technologies and new partners. Refugee protection is a responsibility primarily of states. Challenges are: considering increasing power diffusion (Nye) from states to non-state actors and balancing IT potentials with security risks.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Commendation
  • Messages of Introduction
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Purpose
  • Legal Background
  • Organization
  • Case Study One: Early Alert and ITCs
  • Case Study Two: Vietnamese Boat People in Singapore
  • Case Study Three: Chile: Exile and Return under Dictatorship
  • Case Study Four: The Namibian Repatriation Operation through Angola
  • Refugee-Specific Challenges
  • Analyzing methods for refugee protection with the help of “soft power”
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Part I
  • Early Alerts & New Partnerships with IT Communities
  • Preface
  • Part A
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Background
  • Novel Initiatives by UNHCR
  • 3. Brief Review of Selected UN Early Alert Initiatives
  • 3.1 In the Context of Human Rights and Refugees
  • 3.1.1 UN Human Rights Commission
  • 3.1.2 The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • 3.1.3 UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA)
  • 3.2 Analysis of Past Efforts
  • Part B
  • 4. Selected New Partnerships with Information and Technological Communities (ITCs)
  • 4.1 External Developments
  • 4.2 ITCs, Volunteer & Tech. Communities (V & TCs), Crisis Mapping & Crowdsourcing
  • Recent V&TC Initiatives, Organizations, Platforms, and Operations
  • Ushahidi
  • Standby Task Force (SBTF)
  • MapAction
  • 4.3 Innovative Institutional Efforts of Academic & UN Bodies with ITCs and V&TCs
  • 4.3.1 Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)
  • 4.3.2 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
  • (ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Early Warning Service [HEWSweb])
  • 4.3.3 UNHCR
  • Contemporary initiatives and initial results
  • 4.4 Analysis of Current Efforts
  • 4.4.1 Challenges
  • Information Management and Verification
  • Security and Safety
  • A New Set of Global Protocols for Humanitarian Aid
  • Overreliance on Technology?
  • Big Data and the Nature of Information
  • 4.4.2 Potentials
  • 5. Final remarks: Summary of results, Lessons and Conclusions
  • Summary of results
  • 6. Exhibits
  • 6.1 Photos
  • 6.2 UNHCR partners with Microsoft and HP in Dadaab to boost refugee education and livelihoods through ICT
  • 6.3 General Early Warning & Early Alert Initiatives (2012)
  • 6.4 Key Developments in the United Nations in Humanitarian Early Warning and Early Action, 2008
  • 6.5 UNHCR’s Refugee Emergency Alert System (REAS)
  • 6.5.1 Note for the File on “Early warning systems”, 4 February, 1986 by Michel Moussalli, then the UNHCR Director for International Protection
  • 6.5.2 Memorandum on “UNHCR Refugee Emergency Alert System (REAS), by O. Bakhet, Head Technical Support Service, UNHCR, 31 January 1989
  • 6.5.3 Memorandum on “UNHCR Refugee Emergency Alert System (REAS)”, by R. White, Chief, Emergency Unit, UNHCR, 31 January 1989
  • 6.5.4 Memorandum on “Future directions for the UNHCR Early Warning Working group”, from UNHCR EWWG to the Reg. Directors, UNHCR, 1 March 1990
  • 6.5.5 Inter-Office Memorandum No. 70/90 and Field-Office Memorandum No. 58/90 by the High Commissioner on the “Establishment of a Working Group on Early Warning”, 21 June 1990
  • 6.5.6 Memorandum to Erika Feller and Hans Thoolen, from Robert White, 4 June 1991 – REAS Revised Questionnaire
  • 6.5.7 Refugee Emergency Alert System: UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies, 1991, p. 17
  • 6.6 Letter from Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadruddin Aga Khan to the author
  • 7. References
  • Vietnamese Boat People in Singapore – Creation of the Disembarkation Resettlement Offer (DISERO) Contributed to Rescue at Sea of over 67,000
  • Preface
  • Part A
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Background
  • 2.1 Historical Aspects
  • 2.2 Urgency
  • 2.3 The Magnitude of the Crisis
  • Country/territory 1975–79, 1980–84, 1985–89, 1990–95 Cumulative of first asylum 1975–95 Vietnamese boat people
  • 3. Regional Perspectives – Legal and Policy Aspects
  • 3.1 No ASEAN States were 1951 Refugee Convention/1967 Protocol State Parties
  • 3.2 Early Efforts for Safe Arrangements
  • 3.3 The 1979 and 1989 Geneva International Conferences Producing Policy Changes
  • The July 1979 International Conference
  • Turn of events through the 1989 International Conference
  • Part B
  • 4. Emergency response in Singapore with Focus on the Period of 1978-1981
  • The beginning
  • 4.1 The DISERO – A Milestone for Refugee Protection
  • 4.2 Delivering Protection through Division of Labor
  • With proactive involvement of the refugees themselves
  • 4.3 Restoring Dignity and Hope with and for the Refugees
  • Refugee Initiatives in Hawkins Road
  • 5. Unprecedented Challenges and Analysis of Facts – Looking Back
  • 5.1 Collecting, Analyzing, and Evaluating Surveys
  • 5.2 Analysis of Motivations to Escape from Vietnam
  • 5.2.1 Push factors
  • 1. Family reunification
  • 2. Racial and political discrimination
  • 3. Re-education policies and New Economic Zones (NEZ)
  • 4. Mandatory military conscription
  • 5. Incompetence in government
  • 6. Lack of freedom of political opinion and religion
  • 7. Deliberate change of social and economic policies
  • 5.2.2 Pull factors
  • 1. Resettlement in the West
  • 2. No return policy to Vietnam until 1989
  • 3. Absence of screening and the impossibility of voluntary repatriation
  • 4. Prospects of rescue at sea (extraordinary efforts of mercy ships, especially Cap Anamur, which from September 1979 to May 1982 rescued 9,507 boat people from 194 boats; see details below and the full list in Exhibit 3b)
  • 5. United Nations aid in camps in neighboring countries
  • 6. Overseas Vietnamese lobby for aid and resettlement abroad
  • 5.3 Extraordinary Initiatives of Rescue at Sea
  • L’Ile de Lumière
  • Final Remarks: Summary, Lessons, and Conclusions
  • Summary
  • Lessons: UNHCR’s ability to adapt is one of the keys to its success
  • Conclusions
  • Exhibits
  • 1. List of Vessels with Vietnamese Rescued at Sea
  • 1a) Granted Permission for Disembarkation in Singapore
  • a. Temporary Asylum Granted
  • 1b) Refused Permission for disembarkation in Singapore
  • 2. DISERO
  • 2a) Guidelines
  • 2b) Rescue at Sea Statistics
  • 3. Founding the Committee Cap Anamur
  • 3a) Preparatory session of the press conference hosted by Rupert and Christel Neudeck, with Heinrich Böll, André Glucksmann, Curt Hondrich, Jutta Kuehn, and Luise Drüke in Bonn, 18 April 1979
  • 3b) CAP ANAMUR I (September ‘79-May ‘82): Rescued 9,507 boat people from 194 boats (plus 225 from 3 boats bringing the total for Cap Anamur I to 9.732 rescued persons)
  • 4. Cumulative Indochinese Arrivals, Departures, and Residual Caseload, 1975-1997
  • 5. Operational Aspects
  • 5.1 Diagram of Refugee Protection and Assistance in Singapore
  • 5.2 UNHCR Staff
  • 5.3 Refugee Committee and Camp Leaders
  • 5.4 Refugee Camp Layout
  • 5.5 Flowchart for refugee processing
  • 5.6 A Letter from Former Camp Leader, Tran Anh Kiet
  • 6. Articles by Scholars, Journalists, and Volunteers
  • 6.1 Exodus Indochina
  • 6.2 Local Perspective
  • 6.2.1 Viet Refugee Camp Model of Harmony
  • 6.2.2 The Sound of Freedom by Meredith Kennedy
  • 6.2.3 Appeal from the Refugee Camp
  • English Translation
  • 7. Refugee Initiatives in the Camp with Support of UNHCR
  • 7.1 Songbook in Vietnamese and English
  • 7.2 Witness (N han chung) with TRACING Messages of Vietnamese Boat People to find Family Members and Friends
  • 8. Photos and Testimonials of former Refugees and UNHCR Colleagues
  • 8.1 Photos
  • 8.2 Testimonials of Former Vietnamese Refugees and UNHCR Colleagues
  • 8.2.1 Family Tina and Chuan N. Pham and Rosie H. Nguyen, August 2012 in Los Angeles
  • 8.2.2 Thomas H. Nguyen, during a meeting in Hamburg end December 2012
  • 8.2.3 Nam Le Son, June 2013 in Hannover
  • 8.2.4 Dang Chau Lam, June 2013 in Hannover
  • 8.2.5 Hari Brissimi, Chief of Counseling, Education and Resettlement, UNHCR Geneva, March 1979
  • 8.2.6 R. Sampatkumar, Reg. Representavice, UNHCR Kuala Lumpur for South East Asia, Jan. 1979
  • 8.2.7 Alan J. F. Simmance, Reg. Representative for Western South Asia, Bangkok, July 1981
  • References
  • Chile: Exile and Return under Dictatorship
  • Preface by Roberto Garretón Merino
  • 1. Introduction
  • Part A
  • 2. Brief Historical Background
  • 2.1 What led to the coup of 11 September 1973?
  • 2.2 Systematic persecution targeting foreign refugees and Chileans
  • 3. Historical aspects related to asylum & refugee protection
  • 3.1 The international refugee regime (1951 Refugee Convention ratified)
  • 3.2 Diplomatic asylum and the regional American regime of asylum
  • 3.3 National Decree Laws and the 1980 Constitution
  • Part B: Selected UNHCR field work (1973-4) and (1983-5)
  • 4. Facilitating innovative measures immediately after the coup (1973/74)
  • 4.1 Protecting foreign refugees (initially) in “safe havens” within the country
  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December
  • 4.2 Obtaining support for resettlement abroad
  • 5. Supporting refugee rights during the continuing dictatorship (1983-5)
  • FASIC (Fundación de Ayuda Social de las Iglesias Cristianas)
  • Vicaría de la Solidaridad (consultative relationship)
  • Comisión Chilena de Derechos Humanos (CCDH; consultative relationship)
  • The Comité Pro-Retorno de Exiliados (COPROREX; consultative relationship)
  • World University Service (WUS; consultative Relationship)
  • 5.1 Protection abroad through family reunion
  • 5.2 Formally ending exile for thousands of Chileans
  • 5.3 The evolving political scene since 1983
  • Part C: Assessment
  • 6. Reflecting on 40 years after the coup with personal testimonies
  • 6.1 Testimonies of Chilean exiles in Hannover, Germany after 1973
  • The following are extracts from an account on the first Chilean exiles arriving in Hannover, Germany in mid December 1973
  • The Chileans came with light luggage and heavy memories on 19 December 1973.
  • Roberto (Medical Doctor)
  • Horacio Riquelme (Dr. med, Dr. phil.), Professor at the University of Hamburg
  • Ivan Ballesteros (Civil Engineer from the University of Hannover)
  • 6.2 The Workshop on “Exile and Individual Return under Dictatorship” under Dictatorship: Personal narratives of exiles, human rights defenders, and intergenerational “stayee” representatives, collected in 2013 on the fortieth anniversary of the coup
  • Helena Olea: Professor of Refugee and Migration Law
  • Ned Strong, Director, Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in Santiago Chile
  • Rinetta Corradi (Social Worker)
  • Edith Perez (Educator – Graduate from the University of Hannover)
  • Raul Squadritto (Economist)
  • Roberto Garretón, (Attorney, fr. Ambassador and ex Lawyer, Vicariate)
  • Jaime Esponda Fernandez, (Attorney, fr. Director National Office of Return and ex Lawyer, Vicariate)
  • Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights
  • Mathias Meier, (Graduate in Journalism, TV Producer at the National Chilean Televison)
  • Macarena González Santis (MA in Marketing, Customer Service Manager at Entel (a telecom. company))
  • Ian Gibson Surrey (Medical student and helped to prepare the video on the workshop)
  • Comments on the Workshop
  • 7. Final remarks: Summary and Conclusions
  • Epilogue by Clara Alarcón (pseudonym), a stayee
  • Exhibits
  • 1. Photos taken between 1973 in Hannover, Germany and 2013 in Santiago, Chile
  • 40th anniversary after the military coup – 11 September 2013 – Chile Agradece
  • 2. Decree 1308 Authorizing the Functioning of the National Commission for Aid to Refugees (CONAR) of 3 October 1973
  • 3. UNHCR Note verbale SANT 187of 25 March 1985 to confirm that those Chilean exiles not in the list have no impediment to return
  • 4. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Note verbale, No. 09176 of 25 April 1985
  • 5. a) Statistics on Exile
  • 5. b) Resettlement and Family Reunion (UNHCR) through March 1985
  • 6. Individual Voluntary Returns through 1985
  • 7. Legal Status of the Chileans in Hannover
  • 8. Voluntary Returns
  • a) Under Dictatorship 1976-1989
  • b) Return under ONR
  • 9. Selected Articles (September 1973-1988) Pertaining to Refugees and Exiles
  • 10. Tribute to UNHCR of the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1991
  • 11. National Office of Return (NOR) & National refugee law
  • a) The Establishment of the National Office for Returning Exiles (Oficina Nacional de Retorno) ONR (1990-1994), a State Agency: Law 18.994
  • b) New National Refugee Law, 2010
  • New Refugee Law, March 2010
  • References
  • Repatriation of Namibians through Angola (with UNTAG)
  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • Part A
  • 2. Historical Context
  • 2.1 Namibia’s Road Toward Freedom
  • 2.2 The Crystallization of the Political Process
  • 3. Legal and Political Basis – The Geopolitical Environment
  • 3.1 Favorable International Climate in Support of an Independent Namibia
  • 3.2 The UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) Mandate and Mission
  • 3.3 UNHCR’s Mission within UNTAG’s Plan, including Angola
  • Part B
  • 4. Challenges
  • 4.1 Singularity of the Namibian Repatriation Operation
  • 4.2 UN Demilitarization of Liberation Fighters
  • 4.3 Returnees’ Challenges in Namibia
  • 5. Accomplishments
  • 5.1 Flexibility
  • 5.2 Reaching Goals Despite Obstacles
  • 5.3 Participation of the Refugees
  • 6. Results, Lessons Learned, and Conclusions
  • 6.1 Results
  • 6.2 Lessons Learned
  • 6.3 Conclusions
  • Exhibits
  • 1. UN Security Council Resolution 435, 29 September 1978
  • 2. Chronology of the Implementation
  • As foreseen in UN Security Council Resolution 435
  • 3. Time Chart, Repatriation: Operation in Angola and Zambia, 1989
  • 4. Staffing Organigram Angola
  • 5. Namibia Repatriation, Actual Mission Staffing, 1 August – 30 November 1989
  • 6. Mission Report Summary: Namibian Repatriation Operation from Angola, 17 October 1989
  • 7. Photos
  • 8. Maps
  • 9. Letter from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thorvald Stoltenberg to the author
  • References
  • Part II
  • UNHCR Background Note
  • Introduction
  • UNHCR and the 1951 Refugee Convention at 60
  • The Mandate: Mobilizing and Innovating Fresh Support for Refugee Protection
  • Looking Back
  • Operational Challenges
  • Protection Issues
  • Selected Contemporary Situations
  • Palenstinian Refugees
  • “The Arab Spring”
  • Post-9/11 Security challenges
  • Relevance for Years to Come
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Exhibits
  • 1. UN High Commissioners for Refugees: Over Sixty Years of Innovation for International Refugee Protection
  • 2. Refugee Populations, 1951 – 2010 from UNHCR’s Database received with the kind sistance of Tarek Abou Chabake and Jean Francois Durieux, UNHCR Department of Operations, eneva of 15 June 2011
  • 3. UN Member States and 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol Signatory States
  • 4. UNHCR Maps received with the kind assistance of Laurent Dusonchet, Dep. of Operations, UNHCR Geneva, 15 June 2013
  • 5. Letter from the Acting High Commissioner for Refugees to the author of 2005
  • 6. Global Representatives Meeting with High Commissioner Ogata. April 1996
  • Teaching Note
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Synopsis
  • Overall Learning Objectives
  • Teaching Plan and Case Analysis
  • Overall Assignment Questions
  • Overview of Cases
  • a) Case Studies Presented in this Book
  • b) Further Topical Issues
  • Case Study 1: Early Alert and New Partnerships with IT Communities
  • Suggested simulation: Crowdsourcing to Get Out of Harm’s Way, via SMS message or other means
  • Case Study Two: Singapore
  • Suggested simulation: Dovetailing Interests in Negotiation
  • Case Study Three: Chile
  • Suggested simulation: Soft Power
  • Case Study Four: The Namibian Repatriation Operation (1989)
  • Suggested simulation: “Lost in Translation”
  • Additional Cases
  • 1. Gender Asylum: History and Timeline
  • 2. Teaching guide of Statelessness
  • Introduction
  • Why teach about statelessness
  • 3. Refugees and Displacement/Human Rights Work in a Post-conflict Environment
  • References
  • International Refugee Law
  • Key Texts
  • International Instruments
  • National Legislation
  • Legal Decisions
  • Policies & Procedures
  • Research Guides
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Reflecting on lessons from the past to enhance UNHCR’s innovative protection in the future
  • Lessons Learned
  • Early Alert and New Partnerships with IT Communities
  • Contrasting UNHCR’s Operation with respect to Signatory and Non-Signatory States
  • Namibian Repatriation Operation in Angola
  • Epilogue: My engagement in refugee work
  • As a volunteer
  • As an UNHCR official
  • References
  • Introduction
  • Case Study One: Early Alerts and New ITc Partnerships
  • Case Study Two Singapore
  • Case Study Three: Chile
  • Case Study Four Namibia Repatriation through Angola
  • UNHCR Background Note
  • Teaching Note
  • International Refugee Law
  • Key Texts
  • International Instruments
  • National Legislation
  • Legal Decisions
  • Policies & Procedures
  • Research Guides
  • Supplementary readings
  • Abbreviations
  • Index


Writing this book has been both challenging and heartening. I have treasured the experience of working with people who had suffered and managed to make meaningful new lives for themselves, and have tried to write case studies that, through their teaching, would speak to generations of today and tomorrow.

I came to human rights and refugee work for a reason. The heavy legacy of WWII atrocities, the humanitarian engagement of my mother as the local President of the Red Cross, and my early exposure to political issues during the British occupation in Northern Germany all influenced my early childhood and youth. Aware that it does not take much to write or change laws from permitting the burning of synagogues to justifying persecuting “enemies” and burning human bodies, I engaged in over forty years of human rights work and refugee protection trying to do my part to make this world a better place for those who are persecuted, starting in the early 1970s volunteering in a section of Amnesty International Hannover writing letters to political prisoners in the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Then, as a student of political science, I spent a year (1972-73) at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes), and took the summer of 1973 to travel to Peru. There, I visited friends and then travelled to Chile to work as a translator from late July to early September 1973. The general strike against the Allende Government was in progress, complete with demonstrations, rising tensions and harsh political debates. On 11 September 1973, while boarding my plane in Lima to Europe, the news came over the airport loudspeakers of the military coup and the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Shocked, I wrote and published on 8 October 1973 in Germany an article about my observations and impression.

The experience in Chile and the resulting article determined the course for my life’s goals and refugee work since then. A colleague in the city of Hannover had read my article and telephoned me: “On the basis of your article, you must speak Spanish. We need you to help with Chilean refugees arriving here.” I began working with them in December 1973: as an instructor for German as a second language – translating documents, interpreting during missing-relative searches, and finding emergency housing, furniture, schools, and student scholarships – I came to understand what it means to fear for one’s life, as a refugee far away ← 17 | 18 → from home without the possibility of returning safely or freely. This experience left such a deep impression that I decided to engage in international refugee protection after graduation, with opportunities to influence and help implement preventative policies. After ten years in the field, I completed my doctoral dissertation on prevention while on leave from UNHCR at Harvard University in the late 1980s.

In the following years colleagues, students and friends encouraged me to write this book. I modestly submit here my boundless thanks to everyone who made this life’s work so meaningful, not only in my academic work as a theorist, but also as a practitioner in refugee work for many years. I offer a tree with fruits, good to look at and worth tasting, as Paul Hartling wrote in his Foreword of my doctoral thesis on prevention.

May this compendium on UNHCR 60 years and these case studies inspire continued and fresh reflection and action in current and future generations, to prevent refugee-producing situations where feasible and to innovate to solve such crises that occur.

Luise Drüke1 ← 18 | 19 →

1My family name is written in both ways “Druke und “Drüke , the former way has proven easier in international communications; both are correct and have been used in previous publications also.



Legal Background


Refugee-Specific Challenges

Analyzing methods for refugee protection with the help of “soft power”



This book aims to show how innovation has been integral to UNHCR’s international refugee protection over the last 60 years, not only in a general sense but specifically relating to the four evidence-based case studies included here, which I selected based on my assignments heading these operations. I hope to shed light on examples in which UNHCR approached novel refugee situations and proactively designed and implemented innovative responses. The purpose is to better understand UNHCR’s role in the development and effective implementation of international refugee law. Consequently, the material illuminates UNHCR’s potential to strengthen and expand its role amidst constantly changing political landscapes and underlines the link between support for its approaches and fulfillment of its responsibilities.

Research Design: These case studies analyze three concluded UNHCR operations (in Singapore, Chile, and Namibia) that presented novel refugee situations from a geopolitical perspective, in addition to examining the evolution of one particular innovation in international, political, and humanitarian affairs. This innovation, early warning and alert, progressed from traditional means of data collection and analysis to new partnerships with information and technology communities (ITCs). ← 19 | 20 →

Research time frame: The focus is on those times when I had responsibilities over the aforementioned UNHCR functions, between 1977 and 2006, taking into account pre- and post UNHCR work from 1973 through 2013.

Audience: This book will be of interest to students, scholars, and practitioners of refugee protection, human rights and migration studies, humanitarian assistance, international relations, international law, political science, political geography, security studies and journalism in countries around the world.

Legal Background

In the aftermath of World War II, refugees and displaced persons were high on the international agenda. Article 2 of the 1945 United Nations Charter stipulates that the principles of sovereignty, independence, and non-interference within the reserved domain of domestic jurisdiction are fundamental to the success of the Organization. At its first session in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that “no refugees or displaced persons who have finally and definitely … expressed valid objections to returning to their countries of origin … shall be compelled to return ….” Two years later, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 of the Declaration recognizes that “[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The individual was only then beginning to be seen as the beneficiary of human rights in international law.

These factors elucidate both the manner in which the 1951 Convention is drafted (that is, initially and primarily as an agreement between States as to how they will treat refugees) and the essentially reactive nature of the international regime of refugee protection. The 1950 Statute of UNHCR adopted by the UN General Assembly through Resolution 428 (V) on 14 December 1950 reflects the interest of the more powerful states, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, that UNHCR was to serve: “to protect refugees and to find solutions to their problems.” This mandate was to be carried out with only minimal operational support from voluntary sources. The formulation and further development of legal standards – and efforts to ensure that refugees are effectively implemented – are defined in a series of international instruments (e.g., conventions, resolutions, recommendations, etc.), either adopted at the universal level under the United Nations or within the framework of regional organizations such as the Council of Europe, the Organization of African Unity, and the Organization of American States. A growing number of countries have incorporated these standards into national law, in order to more effectively implement them. ← 20 | 21 →

By its 60th anniversary year in 2011, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951 remains the most comprehensive universally and legally binding international instrument, defining standards for the treatment of refugees. The 1951 Convention, as it will be referred to hereinafter, was ratified by 144 States Parties.1 Together with the 1967 Protocol, which removed the Convention’s time limitation, 147 State Parties had committed to these standards.2 Even though many today see the Convention as a relic of the Cold War – inadequate in the face of “new” refugees from ethnic violence and gender-based persecution, and in light of new security concerns, such as terrorism and organized crime – it is still recognized as the principal standard for refugee protection. At present exists the most comprehensive regime regarding the protection of individual rights and of forcibly displaced persons than at any time in human history. UNHCR and scholars identified a whole range of difficulties in refugee protection since 1951, of which this book examines some.

Taking a look at UNHCR’s past should help society, as academics and practitioners, make sense of its future. As the noted refugee scholar Louise Holborn stated, UNHCR’s practice has been to rely on the broad phrasing of UNHCR’s refugee protection functions and a broadly interpreted general tenor of the UNHCR Statute in paragraph 8,3 which contributed to UNHCR’s innovative approaches. The UN General Assembly reiterated the active nature of international refugee protection,4 and the Executive Committee of UNHCR endorses a broad range of UNHCR protective activity without providing specific responsibilities. Therefore, the organization exercises a great deal of discretion as to the substance of its work. UNHCR’s refugee protection mandate encompasses more than legal obligations and ensuring respect for the right of refugees – it is also an action-oriented function to protect refugees, which enables UNHCR to proactively enhance its activities with a sufficiently elastic and extensive meaning for ← 21 | 22 → “international protection.” Relevant General Assembly Resolutions and Executive Committee (EXCOM) conclusions only provide limited guidance.

In fact, as public international law scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill stated, “… while UNHCR was initially conceived as neutral, passive and reactive, the rationale for its continued existence combines recognition of the humanitarian necessity for protection with recognition that assistance is commonly essential not only to survival, but also in the transition to solutions. Indeed, the General Assembly rapidly accepted that UNHCR should engage in activities beyond the diplomatic, in resettlement, repatriation, and channeling funds for assistance.”5 Ensuring the strength and continuing viability of the international regime for protection of refugees remains UNHCR’s primary mandate.6 Volker Türk, the UNHCR Director of International Protection, at the time of this writing, noted, “The functions of UNHCR have expanded considerably over time. Mandated activities include preventive action and participation ‘at the invitation of the Secretary General, in those humanitarian endeavors of the United Nations for which the Office has particular expertise and experience.’7 In addition, the institution of ‘good offices’ and the right to humanitarian initiative have been useful tools for situations outside mandated activities. Other functions would, for instance, include relief distribution, emergency preparedness, special humanitarian activities, broader development work, and issuance of documentation for persons falling under the mandate.”8

As scholar Corinne Lewis noted, over “60 years of its work, UNHCR has maintained the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol as the basis for international refugee law standards, even while it extended the refugee law framework to include international human rights law, the area that actually overreaches refugee law. UNHCR had to balance carefully its ← 22 | 23 → flexibility with formal approval of States. However in the context of refugee crises and states’ unwillingness to protect refugees, UNHCR must act with a forward-looking creativity.”9

As stated by Szutucki and quoted by Lewis: “[o]n the national and international level, organs and institutions, once created, tend to start their own life, and to act, mutatis mutandis, according to the old judicial maxim: ‘boni judiciis est ampliare jurisdictionem’.”10 (“It is the duty of a good judge to enlarge his jurisdiction.”). If there are novel refugees situations, solutions must be found. Of course, international refugee law must be kept in mind when identifying and implementing innovative solutions, in order to strengthen refugee protection and avoid basing practices on donor interests or a given State’s policy.11

The reflections in these case studies are based on experience and sources gathered during my firsthand efforts with UNHCR since 1977. Part II provides a brief Background Note on UNHCR as the international actor with a universal mandate for refugees, in order to orient students and other readers substantively. The Teaching Note is intended to support and facilitate the use of case studies in the classroom. These case studies can be used not only for teaching purposes, but also to help train people interested in working in humanitarian operations generally or refugee protection specifically.


Each case study follows the same design: introduction; historical context and chronology of the conflict; the legal bases of UN mandates and UNHCR roles in the operation; the empirical details of the specific UNHCR operation, including personal stories, obstacles, achievements, and collaborations with other offices; an analysis of the challenges, outcomes, and successes; lessons learned and concluding thoughts; and exhibits of pertinent primary sources. ← 23 | 24 →

Case Study One: Early Alert and ITCs

With no claim of being exhaustive, this case study primarily illustrates early warning and early alert efforts as well as UNHCR’s transition over the past few decades from traditional work in this field to reaching out to new partnerships, including private sector organizations and information and technology communities (ITCs).

Strategy: The case study first looks at UNHCR’s “Refugee Alert Emergency System” (REAS), which I had responsibility of coordinating in its development stage in consultation with Erika Feller, Hans Thoolen and input from UNHCR staff across the organization at headquarters and in the field. The study then focuses on novel situations and developments within and outside of UNHCR, before concentrating on new initiatives by UNHCR Innovations in the past years. These new efforts are establishing creative solutions, encouraging staff to think differently, and reaching out to a wider community for support to enhance delivery of assistance and protection, relying more heavily on ITCs.

Results: The main contemporary results of these initiatives displayed the potential to innovate UNHCR protection and assistance for refugees and other persons of concern. Using UNHCR’s mandate and additional resources, UNHCR further evolves as an innovative organization. Facing enormous challenges, the organization has been thinking of new ways of strategizing and acting, such as:

Strengthening its internal system of information management for emergency preparedness and working to stay ahead of the curve in refugee-developing situations. In 1990, UNHCR set up REAS, which became the basis of joining early alert work across humanitarian, UN, and other international organizations.

Using additional resources in private-public partnerships. Since 2010, UNHCR has opened over 31 Community Technology Access Centers for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in urban areas and remote field locations, which UNHCR has opened since 2010 throughout Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe; these centers help refugees connect with family and build their capacities to find income-generating work in their host communities.

Developing contacts with academic settings. At Stanford University, students design solutions to refugee community outreach activities and meet other refugee-inspired challenges. The partnership with the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre helps to document bottom-up lessons learned and good practices that focus on refugee livelihoods and increasing refugees’ own skills and aspirations. ← 24 | 25 →

Specific lessons learned: a) There is a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and skill within UNHCR that could be more exploited. Through the iFellows programme, UNHCR Innovation aims to create an active network of staff members with diverse skills, qualifications, and experiences to help resolve field-identified challenges; b) The needs of UNHCR’s persons of concern should be captured from bottom-up in a more systematic manner. UNHCR Innovation’s methodology draws on an evidence-based solution development process, wherein UNHCR’s persons of concern are actively engaged in each stage of the process – from challenge definition to solution scale-up; c) More support and resources are needed within UNHCR to experiment new ideas; d) Good practices are yet to more systematically to be documented, shared and adapted across UNHCR. The Innovation team is exploring ways to address this challenge, including through the development of a crowdsource platform for idea management, conceived to serve as a repository of knowledge; and e) Knowledge and expertise from outside UNHCR remain largely untapped within the organization.12

Summary conclusions: The transition into the international humanitarian system of new partnerships with ITCs will need to build and further demonstrate reliable and consistent capabilities; this will enable traditional, formal humanitarian entities locally and internationally to make the best of and adapt to those methods of work based on open source and web services. In addition, it is useful to establish agreements on functions such as aggregating and analyzing reports from the individual voices emerging from conflict and disaster induced crises-affected communities. As this case study has shown, there has been a paradigm shift across the traditional and non-traditional humanitarian communities. Borrowing from Mary Anderson, affected people have shown that they are not only surviving but also exempting themselves from crises, that they have capacities and the agency to shape things.13

It may well be that the directly affected people and NGOs themselves are best suited as actors between those who govern and those who need to better sound the alarm and spur action through transparent initiatives and convincing manifestations. Encouraging innovation on the frontlines by listening to and working with the refugees and affected people more, UNHCR can play a proactive and solution-oriented role in self-help, mutual aid and external resources. UNHCR seeks to rely on the refugees’ skills, talents, energy, and intelligence to create their own environment and become self-reliant. By upholding their dignity, refugees be ← 25 | 26 → come agents for solving existing refugee situations and preventing new ones. Provided security concerns are balanced with risks emerging from increasing power diffusion, new partnerships with IT communities offer significant potentials for refugee protection, if security risks are balanced especially in the face of increasing power diffusion.

Case Study Two: Vietnamese Boat People in Singapore

Singapore – like all Southeast Asian first asylum countries at the time of the Vietnamese boat people crisis after the Fall of Saigon – was not a State Party of the 1951 Convention.14 UNHCR paved its way to address the refugee emergency in the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, to counter policies of “shoot on sight” and “push offs”. Singapore imposed five particularly harsh conditions prior to allowing boat people to go ashore there. This included a guarantee and requirement to resettle the boat people within three months of disembarkation.

Strategy: UNHCR addressed this extraordinary emergency during my appointment there, from 1978 to 1981, using soft power to persuade the Singaporean authorities to cooperate. We had worked with the Ambassador Marcel Depasse and the Deputy Ambassador Franz Michils in residence in Singapore that Belgium to initially grant visas for resettlement places to persons rescued by vessels of “open registry” whose flag states were unwilling or unable to resettle refugees, such as Liberia and Panama.

Result: UNHCR institutionalized the Disembarkation Resettlement Offer (DISERO) initiated with the help of the Belgian initial visa pool in 1979 in Singapore, which was later, increased with contributions from eight other countries. Through this offer, ship captains were encouraged to rescue drowning boat people who otherwise would have perished in the very dangerous South China Sea. UNHCR with the cooperation of local authorities and the international community, with the significant assistance of volunteers and the refugees:

Used the UNHCR statuary mandate to face a new refugee situation in a country that was not a signatory of the international refugee regime and was able to solve the emergency issues that represent 60% of all arrivals and departures processed during the peak period of 1979-1981; ← 26 | 27 →

Created the initial pool of 200 visas which Belgium provided in mid-1979 under DISERO, obtaining visas from additional countries that contributed to save 67,000 Vietnamese boat people;

Encouraged captains on vessels flying under open registry, from countries unable or unwilling to resettle rescued refugees, to rescue Vietnamese boat people (by helping with rescue at sea, which had an “immediate effect,” captains received an incentive to cooperate without having to suffer temporal and financial losses);15

Made DISERO crucial for the humanitarian emergency response and proved its merits of saving lives and meeting requirements of regional host governments (mainly in Singapore, which reduced its restrictive conditions);

Ensured conditions to temporarily house Vietnamese boat people in the refugee center Hawkinsroad in dignity and safety, in a former military naval bases which UNHCR rented and adapted for this purpose;

Proactively involved refugees in the camp to take management and operation responsibility, participate in educational activities, run income-generating businesses there; and

Achieved official cooperation towards less restrictive policies.

Over two million people left their home countries Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by boat, land or via the Orderly Departure Program from April 1975 to 1996. This extraordinary challenge for the region and beyond, called for great commitment on the part of donor and resettlement countries, on the temporary asylum countries and finally the countries of origin that accepted repatriation and reintegration programs after 1989.

Summary conclusions: UNHCR’s locally created innovative measure- the Disembarkation Resettlement Offer (DISERO) contributed to rescue and resettle over 67,000 Vietnamese boat people that encouraged rescue at sea especially of vessels of open registry –whose states were unable or unwilling to guarantee and resettle refugees. The proactive UNHCR work and reaching out for cooperation to partners along with effective participation of the refugees and professional volunteers in parts for the work to be done (administration, education and operation of the refugee community affairs) at the refugee center Hawkinsroad in my time helped to overcome most restrictions. The proactive cooperation between the authorities and UNHCR was crucial to deal with the peak of the emergency in Singapore between 1978 and 1981. ← 27 | 28 →

Case Study Three: Chile: Exile and Return under Dictatorship

Chile was a 1951 Refugee Convention signatory. The military regime after the coup on 11 September 1973 persecuted, exiled, and systematically interdicted return of exiles. Between 1982 and 1983, in response to public protests and the dictator’s weakness, the regime authorized returns to Chile from exile; the problem arose from the regime’s unreliable approval lists, containing babies, missing persons, persons who had never left the country and dead people. Many people “authorized” on arrival at the airport were expelled. No one knew who of the estimated 200,000 Chileans in exile for political reasons had the right to return of those who asked for it.

Strategy: In charge of the UNHCR office in Chile from 1983 to 1985, with UNHCR’s soft power and weight to support local human rights and refugee NGO actors as well as concerned individuals, I made representations that the regime took a more transparent approach towards exiles and their possibilities to return.

Results: In April 1985, following difficult and long negotiations, I succeeded in changing the policy of return. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile confirmed by official note verbale that people not present in the list could return without prior consultation. This formally ended the exile for thousands of Chileans, allowing them to reestablish their link with their home country or to return if they so desired.

By adjusting its role and mandate, UNHCR consulted with international and national humanitarian partners to:

Create safe havens to temporarily house and protect persecuted foreign refugees in Chile under Swiss diplomatic flag, in a national building which the Catholic Church at the disposal of UNHCR for refugee protections;


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
humanitäre Hilfe Flüchtlingshilfswerk der Vereinten Nationen UNHCR Asylpolitik Flüchtlingspolitik Flüchtlingsschutz UN High Commissioners for Refugees
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 564 pp., 240 coloured fig.

Biographical notes

Luise Druke (Author)

Luise Druke, Dr. phil. Dr. h.c., is Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School (IGLP). She serves as Co-Chair for UN Studies at Suffolk University (Govt. Dep.) and Part-time Lecturer at the Leibniz University (Pol.Sc.Dept.). Having headed UNHCR international missions for nearly 30 years, she authored /co-edited many other refugee, United Nations and European Union related publications.


Title: Innovations in Refugee Protection
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576 pages