Helping the homeless in Iraq and Syria

Iraq and Syria. You couldn’t find two countries under greater stress, or facing a deeper set of challenges. Yet François Reybet-Degat, who has oversight of both via his position as deputy-director of the regional UNHCR bureau for the Middle East and North Africa, is far from downcast. The outlook, he explains, is not always as bleak as the daily news reports might suggest.

“Countries across the region, like Egypt and Jordan, have shown outstanding generosity in receiving five million refugees,” he points out. “I think they have taught the world a lesson in terms of their generosity. Once it was clear that the displacement would be protracted, they ensured that the refugees would have access to education, as well as employment opportunities. And there are also positive signs of de-escalation and a renewed peace process in Syria. As a result, we are now seeing an increasing number of internally displaced people returning home, and we have observed over the past two years approximately 250,000 refugees returning home.”

Such points – conveyed in softly-spoken fluent English – offer solace to those despairing of the seemingly intractable problems that have long scarred the region. They also serve as a vivid reminder of the importance of UNHCR itself, the UN refugee agency tasked with protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people.

A career on the frontline

It’s easy to see why his bosses selected Reybet-Degat for his current role. Sure, he was thrown in at the deep end, but he had a lifetime of professional experience to fall back on. He joined UNHCR aged just 24, fresh from his  national civil service where he worked in the foreign ministry in Syria – his first exposure to life in the Middle East. He has stayed with the organisation ever since, including roles in the Sudan, Slovenia and Afghanistan, apart from a three-year secondment to the UN in Vietnam.

It is clear that he has never been tempted to stray further afield, instead preferring to stay close to the humanitarian action. “The UNHCR has a very clear mandate, which I think is a strength of the organisation,” he points out. “We are both provider and guarantor of international protection for people who are forced to leave their country and can no longer avail themselves of the protection of their own states. UNHCR functions as a sort of ombudsman – ensuring that these people still benefit from international protection.”

Its second key function, he goes on, relates to a longer-term objective. “We try to remedy the plight of those who have fled,” he says. “The preferred solution among the refugees themselves is voluntary return, or resettlement in countries such as Sweden, Canada or the United States. And to do this job, we are also mandated to coordinate the international aid to countries which are receiving large numbers of refugees.”

A “crisis of global governance”

For someone who has spent his working life in global hotspots helping those in need, recent events – capped by the ongoing refugee crisis – have been troubling evidence of a world which can no longer navigate a route away from strife and suffering. “Unlike when I first started my career, one can say there is today a crisis of global governance,” says Reybet-Degat. “When you look at the Middle East, countries like Libya and Yemen, Iraq and Syria, global leaders have failed to prevent conflicts and achieve peace.

“There is also an environment where there is a significant increase in the global number of displaced people, and inadequate funding available to support those in need – both those displaced and the host communities. So as the challenges have escalated, the necessary resources have not been provided. As a result, we do not have an enabling environment – on the contrary, it is more debilitating.”

Reybet-Degat, though, is not one to be kept down for long. “I always try and stay positive,” he says, smiling. And he continues to hold on tight to the essence and values of the UN as a beacon of stability. He has no doubt that that the institution remains a force for good – one that leaders of every stripe can continue to turn to as a source of effective action and influence – and that this will gain even further traction in the years to come.

“Maybe we are biased because the new secretary general used to be our high commissioner, but we are eagerly waiting to see how his time in post unfolds,” he concludes. “We have high expectations – and have no doubt they will be met!