Refugees Deeply: Phasing Down and Out: The Murky Art of Leaving Protracted Refugee Crises

This piece originally appeared in Refugees Deeply.

THE NEW YORK  Declaration and the Global Compact on Refugees have focused the world’s attention on large-scale, protracted refugee situations. They emphasize responsibility sharing and the greater involvement of development actors at earlier stages of refugee situations.

Headlines and political rhetoric tend to focus on how to scale up humanitarian responses to current emergencies. International NGOs and U.N. actors generally have protocols and procedures, checklists and specialized teams to establish offices, move in supplies and create working relationships with governments, non-state actors, additional organizations, civil society groups and others.

Oddly enough, however, little thought is given to how an organization will eventually exit once the emergency is over. Exit strategies are theoretically in place from early on, and the assumption used to be that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) would “phase out on completion of return” of refugees to their home countries.

But this is no longer the reality. Return is increasingly elusive. The realities of protracted crises, bureaucratic organizations, mission creep, donor preferences and genuine ongoing humanitarian need mean international organizations struggle to determine when and how to hand over activities to national authorities and development actors.

Phasing down currently tends to happen on an ad hoc basis. There is no neon flashing sign showing when it is time to leave. Moreover, the question of when and how to phase down is not just a technicality. It is at the heart of humanitarian work: It speaks to the definition of humanitarian work, responsibility sharing, the relief-development gap, and when a protracted situation has “ended.”

In the field, there is a lack of clarity and planning on how and when to exit. In fact, there are few resources available on phasing-down strategies, and many are outdated. A recent UNHCR evaluation on phase-down activities in southern Africa from 2012 to 2016 highlights this clearly, and raises important questions for organizations working in protracted refugee situations.

First, there is a lack of clarity over the basic vocabulary of phasing down. For example, a report on phasing down in Botswana, Angola and Namibia mentions everything from “handing over,” “phasing down,” “transitioning,” “disengaging” and “exiting” to “closing.” These terms have vastly different connotations to staff, partners and refugees. They can mean anything from shrinking a presence, to leaving entirely but still funding activities, to completely severing all ties.

Second, the report highlights a range of criteria that go into deciding when it is time to phase down. How does an organization know when to leave? Should it happen only when protection concerns have ended (i.e. refugees have returned home or found another durable solution)? Or should it relate to the host government’s ability to offer protection? If a host country is wealthy, should it not be expected to take the lead in offering protection and assistance? In theory, UNHCR is always working toward building state capacity to protect and assist refugees. In reality, most host governments want UNHCR to foot the bill and do the work of refugee protection, while the host government maintains control over refugee affairs.

Should the decision to phase down relate to funding and other competing emergencies? For example, if a new crisis emerges elsewhere and funds are limited, should that warrant pulling resources away from a protracted situation? Or should it relate to numbers instead? How many refugees need to be present to justify an organizational presence? Do new regional strategies with regional offices mean that a country presence is no longer needed? Does the entrance of more development actors into refugee spaces mean that humanitarian actors should leave sooner? Or could political strategy determine the phasing down? If a host country is hostile to the point where an aid group cannot operate, could it be wise to leave in protest?

Third, the report highlights the importance of who should be involved in making the decision to phase down. While closing operations in a country is a decision that should come from headquarters, input from field staff and refugees is essential. At the same time, staff working in the field could hardly be expected to seek an end to programs that would put them out of work; nor could refugees be expected to seek an end to protection and assistance programs that benefit them. How, then, should full input from the field take place?

There is also a need for clear procedures and plans on phasing down. An organization such as UNHCR must be meticulous about how and when it informs staff, the host government, partners and refugees about plans to phase down. Indeed, a rushed or botched pullout that angers the authorities could jeopardize other ongoing humanitarian projects, or may threaten future re-entry to the country should another emergency occur.

Similarly, an organization must hedge its bets in deciding to leave. To go through the arduous process of phasing down – dismantling the entire aid infrastructure and severing some relationships – if there is a possibility that another influx may happen in the future, may not be worth it to an organization. As some NGOs have found, it may be worthwhile maintaining a small in-country presence. This was certainly true in the Balkans, where UNHCR established a major presence in the 1990s; it tried to phase down over the years, but then had to scale back up with new arrivals in 2015. The evaluation also points to Angola as a case where UNHCR began scaling down, only to have to scale back up soon thereafter when new violence broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and refugees arrived.

Additional capacity-building is also needed before host governments can take the baton. Specialized teams may need to be brought in to properly archive office equipment, close out accounts and settle bills, and help staff complete their tasks. In essence, responsible phasing down requires “scaling up” before “scaling down.”

To be fair, UNHCR does require “exit strategies” and it provides some guidance on phasing down. It is not something taken lightly, and the question is hardly new. As the High Commissioner stated in 1995:

“…the shift from war to peace is neither easy nor clear. In some cases open conflict is replaced by lingering security; in others it might erupt into renewed violence – endangering prospects for repatriation and creating risks of fresh outflows. In almost every repatriation operation, UNHCR’s immediate challenge is to ensure the minimum conditions of safety and economic and social well-being for those who are returning. The longer-term challenge is to ensure that others will carry on when we leave or phase down.”

Spoken nearly 25 years ago, these words still resonate. The continued development of clearer guidance and benchmarks for when and how to phase down – and whether they should be uniform across the globe, or context-specific – is still needed.