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Many gaps in the protection of refugees can be connected to a de facto transfer of responsibility for managing refugee policy from sovereign states to United Nations agencies. This phenomenon can be seen in dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) manage refugee camps, register newly arrived asylum-seekers, carry out refugee status determination, and administer education, health, livelihood and other social welfare programs.

In carrying out these functions, the UN acts to a great extent as a “surrogate state,” performing a “state substitution role,” but without the capacity to fully substitute for a host government. Such situations have been labeled “legal anomalies,” and it is UNHCR policy to avoid the operation of such “parallel services.” Yet they are widespread and commonplace nonetheless.

The difficulties that result from state-to-UN responsibility shift are central to current discussions about protecting refugees in urban settings and resolving protracted refugee situations. The primary solution offered to date, endorsed both by UNHCR and by some of its sharpest critics, has been to refocus attention on the primacy of state responsibility. Yet a refugee protection strategy focused on getting host governments to replace the UN surrogate state is not likely to be politically viable in many countries.

Using Arab states in the Middle East as a focal point, I wish to propose an alternative approach for building a foundation for refugee protection. The argument offered is that the existence of a UN surrogate state offers important advantages to some host governments and can sometimes be a more viable political foundation for refugee protection than more conventional notions of state responsibility. Although unsettling to traditional assumptions about state responsibility, there are good reasons to seek such alternative strategies that may increase the political will of governments to protect refugees in the global south.

Publication Citation

Michael Kagan, We Live in a Country of UNHCR: The UN Surrogate State and Refugee Policy in the Middle East (The UN Refugee Agency: Policy Development & Evaluation Serv., Research Paper No. 201, 2011).