Fordham University Hosts Lecture on Refugees


Published: November 13, 2008

The Fordham Institute for International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) continued its Fall Lecture Series Nov. 5 by hosting United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) Senior Policy Advisor Brian Gorlick, who spoke on the topic of international refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Two Iraqi refugees who escaped persecution and now reside in the U.S.. (Bart Ah You/Modesto Bee/MCT)

The main mission of the UNHCR, as explained by Gorlick, is to ensure “international protection of refugees worldwide” and to find “permanent solutions to the problem of refugees.” The UNHCR offers its protection to refugees as defined by the United Nations (UN) charter. The UN definition of a refugee is “a person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, (membership of a particular social group) or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

In his lecture, Gorlick outlined why and how people become refugees. He also discussed the dilemma of internally displaced persons, defined by the UN as “persons or group of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or habitual residence as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”

Gorlick also spoke about the challenges that face UNHCR efforts in responding to these refugees and IDPs and about the UNHCR’s global objectives and goals in dealing with these challenges.

According to Gorlick, the worldwide nature of conflict has shifted largely from international conflict—wars between countries—to intranational conflict, or wars within the state. He also pointed out that in modern conflicts, 90 percent of the casualties are civilians.

In spite of new trends in global conflicts, Gorlick said, “There is nothing old or out of date about persecution.”

He went on to describe persecution on a continuum, ranging from discrimination to torture, which may force people to seek asylum in another country or become internally displaced. As a result of persecution, there are currently 12 million refugees and 52 million IDPs worldwide, according to Gorlick.

In the face of this situation, Gorlick cited a major roadblock for UNHCR efforts, “We have pretty limited resources to deal with a pretty serious problem.” According to Gorlick, money presents a multi-faceted predicament for the operations of the UNHCR.

To illustrate the disparity between UNHCR funds and money allocated to support the global conflicts that create the problem of refugees, he compared the UNHCR’s $1.5 billion budget with the $879 billion that the global community spends on military operations. Gorlick also stated that the UNHCR’s annual budget is approximately one-eighth what the U.S. government spends for two months in Iraq.

Another one of the problems noted in the presentation is a disproportionate monetary burden on states for dealing with refugees because states that have high refugee rates are often the poorest.

Gorlick pointed out that money also allows countries to exercise political influence on the UN. According to the presentation, 98 percent of the UNHCR’s budget is financed by 12 industrialized states.

This, according to Gorlick, gives certain countries leverage to threaten to cut monetary contributions or to reduce the office’s influence by either ignoring its advice or, in extreme cases, not supporting the maintenance of a UNHCR office in a country altogether if UNHCR policies do not align with a country’s policies.

The lecture also touched on the issue IDPs present to the UNHCR. Gorlick explained that, because there is no official standard in dealing with IDPs, there is no means by which the UN can take action, except by the consent of the country in question.

“I think the biggest problem [refugees and IDPs face] is that loss of hope,” Gorlick said.

He added, “Through the work of UNHCR there is a wish to instill hope in the lives of refugees and IDPs, and of course providing protection and assistance to those in need is part of the same objective.”

Lily Alaj, FCLC ’09, who is from Kosovo, said, “The UNHCR really helped us [during the conflict in Kosovo]…the workers usually operate as volunteers. People are doing this for free, and it’s a job you do if you love it. It’s not about the money; it’s about helping other people.”

Alaj said that she hopes to work for UNHCR in the future. “I’ve been at the other side of the spectrum, so hopefully I can help other people,” she said.

Emily Cody said, FCLC ’09, “I got everything that I wanted out of [the lecture]: all the right criticisms, but also all the right developments—what the problems are, how we’re going to fix them and why they can’t be fixed for now.”

Gorlick said, “Refugees are amongst you…at the end of the day, they are fellow human beings.”