Past Efforts of the United States and UNHCR and Future Challenges for Refugee Advocacy: An Interview with Dawn Calabia

Dawn Calabia has been a well-known “friend of refugees” in Washington, DC since the 1970s. On World Refugee Day and in the lead up to the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, Senior U.S. Advocate Yael Schacher spoke with her about patterns and changes on refugee issues that she has observed over the course of her long and varied career working on Capitol Hill (in the 1970s and 1980s), for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 1993-2001), and for several advocacy organizations, including Refugees International (beginning in 2004). Responses are edited for brevity.

Yael:  How has the advocacy community marked World Refugee Day in the past? 

Dawn: When I began handling external relations for UNHCR in 1993, the agency was trying to promote having a World Refugee Day to build support for protection and aid to refugees. The first public government observance in the United States I can recall was very small. Jewel Stradford Lafontant-Mankarious, the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration, just gave a short speech at the State Department and the color guard from Fort Myer briefly marched in. In 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell read a message from President Bush at a UNHCR event at Union Station, where goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie appeared, an Afghan woman spoke about exile, and people milled about looking at photographs of refugees from around the world. Within just a few years, UNHCR succeeded in getting NGOs, the media, citizen groups, prominent members of the U.S. government and former refugees to engage in events and advocacy around World Refugee Day. 

Yael: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Can you reflect on the relationship between the United States and UNHCR and how it has changed over time?

Dawn: I was working on the Hill when the Refugee Act of 1980 was debated. UNHCR engaged on aspects of the legislation, which brought the refugee definition in U.S. law in line with that in the UN Convention. The United States, through the State Department, also had an active presence in Geneva and was in constant contact with UNHCR on countries and issues of great interest to the United States. Still, UNHCR has never been headed by an American (although the deputy commissioner usually has been). The United States possibly did not want that responsibility or to have High Commissioner be accused of representing U.S. foreign policy interests.

In the 1980s, when I worked on the Hill, the UNHCR office in Washington was focused on securing U.S. support for its programs and Congressional funding. It also gave advice to asylum attorneys. When I worked at UNHCR in the 1990s, I would sometimes get calls at 6:00 p.m., “I have to represent a client tomorrow from Burkina Faso. Can you tell me something about Burkina Faso?” I would fax over reports from the State Department and organizations on country conditions and materials on refugee law, and I provided referrals to additional experts. UNHCR did not have the resources to handle cases but would put together information packets and do trainings for government staff and NGOs. When a harmful pattern or practice emerged, we would meet with the administration to discuss it and then seek to build public support for needed changes. UNHCR also filed amicus curiae briefs (for litigation in U.S. federal courts) that addressed how to abide by Convention standards. When we got calls from asylum seekers in detention centers, we would refer them to people we knew at organizations—like Elisa Massimino at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights—who would find attorneys to represent them. When UNHCR asked to visit detention centers, it was sometimes contentious. Privately run prisons would deny us access, even though they had contracts with the U.S. government, and we had an agreement with the U.S. government to visit. 

In the 1990s, UNHCR also engaged in a campaign to emphasize that most refugees are women and children. The Women’s Refugee Commission (which I helped to found), UNHCR, U.S. officials, and other NGOSs documented the need for protections, services, and better implementation of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines for women and children refugees and asylum seekers.  

In meetings with U.S. officials in the 1990s and early 2000s, UNHCR heads of operations in specific places would speak about their programs, what was happening on the ground, and what support was needed in Bosnia, Rwanda, or to manage the Haitian exodus, for example. Twenty years ago, when detailed information was harder to come by than today, in-person briefings and testimony were powerful, and more could be said in meetings than publicly. The UNHCR lacked resources to handle large-scale crises and so asked for help from the U.S. military.

Yael: Can you discuss how support for refugee resettlement as a response to forced displacement has fared over time?

Dawn: In establishing the United States Refugee Admissions Program under the 1980 Refugee Act, Congress was careful to prevent the admission of human rights abusers, to require high-level annual consultations with Congress on resettlement numbers, to control funding for benefits and services for refugees, and to require refugees to be screened again one year after arrival before receiving permanent residency. 

In the 1980s, UNHCR saw resettlement as a solution to be used sparingly for highly politicized and at-risk people. It was a symbol of what the world stood for and hopefully would encourage host countries to treat refugees more humanely; however, UNHCR was not a big proponent of resettlement because it knew it was difficult to do and few countries offered resettlement slots.

While the United States initially set up the Orderly Departure Program for Vietnamese refugees with help from UNHCR, the agency soon bowed out since the program selected people while in their home country and based on U.S. criteria, and used Vietnamese government translators, etc. 

Later, UNHCR played more of a role in referring people most at risk for resettlement in the United States and other countries. This not only lessened the burden of selection for the United States and others, but also made it politically easier to admit or refuse people in the face of domestic lobbying.

When the United States withdrew all personnel from the Kurdish area of Iraq, it evacuated thousands of Iraqis (who worked with the U.S. government and U.S. NGOs) to Guam—a U.S. territory—so the State Department determined it lacked the authority to operate and do resettlement from there. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, headed by Lavinia Limon, volunteered to work with the U.S. immigration authorities on resettlement until all the Iraqis were processed for the United States. 

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, UNHCR faced the fact that there were many no-gos for resettlement in the United States. Working at Refugees International at the time, I fought against the “material support” for terrorism bar to resettlement and asylum. UNHCR did not want to give people a false expectation that they were going to be resettled in the United States. When those recognized as refugees by UNHCR were not accepted by the United States for resettlement, UNHCR was often challenged by host countries. “Why do we have to keep them here on our territory if they are not refugees? We want to expel them.”  

Guterres was the first high commissioner who strongly supported resettlement and believed UNHCR should jump in with both feet with as many resources as necessary to give people this opportunity.

UNHCR in Afghanistan (and other countries) today works with some internally displaced people, but its primary reason for being there is to work with returned refugee and asylum seekers. With the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan underway, there has to be someone highly placed in the government to take on the issue of a possible resettlement program for civilians that goes beyond the SIV program (for translators and others employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government, and which Refugees International’s former President Ken Bacon helped establish) and mount it quickly. I worry a big refugee resettlement program won’t happen until it’s too late—it could take hell and damnation and horrible atrocities unfortunately for it to happen first.

Yael:  I just read a new report from the Special UN Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants and an oral history about the founding of Refugees International in the late 1970s. They were both about pushbacks—countries of first asylum intercepting, expelling, or sending back refugees! What motivated you to keep up your work to address longstanding problems? What other challenges have predominated in the past or are on the horizon? 

Dawn: One reason I got involved with Vietnamese refugee issues on Capitol Hill early on was because women used to be raped and thrown overboard when pirates seized boats bound for first asylum countries. And many early international conferences on refugees were prompted by closed borders, interceptions and pushbacks, forced repatriations, and returns to dangerous situations.

In terms of other challenges: there is the enormous challenge of mobility. People who are determined to get out will find a way to do so; they will take enormous risks to find safety, security, and a better life for their kids. How can we deal with mobile populations and offer protection to those most in need, particularly those who do not meet the refugee definition?

Wars and civil conflicts go on for such a long time. Peace agreements collapse relatively quickly, and then conflict and displacement resumes. Peacekeeping has been a struggle, and peacebuilding even more so; the United States now heads up this division for the UN and UN peacebuilding hasn’t been very successful. In the years I’ve been involved with refugee issues, U.S. policy has shifted to a heavily military approach to almost every situation.

Climate displacement is another challenge that is not new, but gaining prominence, especially with slow onset situations. I remember reading a report in 1978 on the Sahel and desertification. Foreign aid bills (when we used to have them biannually) called for the United States to make sure all its programs were environmentally sound and asked agencies to report to Congress on this. But we got back bureaucratic jargon. Today, we do not have a good definition for climate-related conditions that make it impossible for refugees to return home. Would a village have to be under water? Would farmers need to be hurt if they tried to reclaim their land? What do we mean? We have not figured this out yet.

There is much work needed nationally and internationally to protect the rights and improve the legal and humanitarian situations of forcibly displaced people. I was drawn to this humanitarian work by interactions with many deeply committed men and women in religious-based groups, NGOs, and civil society organizations as well as inside governments and international institutions. They regularly put their reputations and their energies into going the extra mile to save lives, reduce suffering, and build public support for humane solutions. It has been a privilege to be a part of this community of advocates and responders.