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Filippo Grandi
Image: picture-alliance/AA/C. Ozdel

UN refugee chief faces enormous tasks

Nicolas Martin / ws
January 1, 2016

Italian Filippo Grandi is the new face of the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Despite the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, his organization is grappling with a chronic lack of funds.


At this point in time, it's hard to imagine someone assuming a more difficult job: Italian Filippo Grandi is the new head of 9,300-odd employees in around 123 countries. But even more impressive than that kind of responsibility for staff is his mandate.

As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Grandi is tasked with ensuring the safety and survival of refugees worldwide. According to preliminary calculations, the number of displaced persons has reached a new high in 2015, with more than 60 million people driven from their homes.

Grandi's predecessor, Portuguese Antonio Guterres, had recently sketched out Grandi's possible lines of action. Speaking to the UN Security Council in mid-December, Guterres called for a kind of "New Deal" for Syria's neighbor states. Based on the economic programs enacted in the US during the 1930s, all those countries which have taken in particularly high numbers of Syrian refugees were to receive financial support.

Infografik Die zehn größten Flüchtlingskrisen Englisch

Lately, Guterres had also urged Europe repeatedly to improve its support of refugees, warning of increasing xenophobia. From January, the largest mass migration since World War II and a Europe which lacks a clear, common approach to refugee policies will be at the top of Grandi's agenda.

"He is about to assume a sensitive post," affirms Karl Kopp, Europe representative of the German refugee aid organization Pro Asyl: "We hope that he'll be able to fill his predecessor's footsteps and that his priorities are similar to the ones championed by Guterres."

Vast experience

The former Portuguese prime minister had been working as High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years. In contrast to Guterres, Grandi worked his way up the United Nations ladder. His CV reads like a chronology of wars and conflicts of the past 20 years: In the line of duty, he held posts in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, and Burundi, each time representing the refugee agency.

Over the last 10 years, the now 58-year-old supported the cause of Palestinian refugees. During the first half of that period, he was the deputy head of the UN Palestinian aid agency UNRWA. Between 2010 and 2014, he was in charge of the same institution, holding the position of commissioner-general.

"We need to reach the people ourselves, rather than the people reaching us," he said in February 2014, during a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp close to the Syrian capital, Damascus. The camp had been completely destroyed by bombs; its occupants had not had access to medical care for some time, and many saw fleeing as their only chance of surviving.

Solidarity as a weapon

Grandi is not just a technocrat; he also places emphasis on philanthropy, which became evident during an event hosted by Milan University, where Grandi himself had studied Modern History and Philosophy.

Speaking to students about the early stages of his career, he recounted how he was to look after Cambodian refugees during a visit to Thailand. In his arms, a little girl died of Malaria. That had taught him an important lesson: "In the face of suffering, there can be only one response - pure solidarity," Grandi told the students.

Symbolbild - Flüchtlingslager für Syrer in Jordanien
UNHCR refugee camp for Syrians in Azraq, JordanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Solidarity is also something Grandi will have to remind international donors of. After all, one of the High Commissioner's tasks is to collect their annual contributions. There is a UN emergency fund to be sure; however, the UNHCR strongly depends on voluntary donations by nations, intergovernmental organizations and private persons.

Frequently, pledges surpass the actual payments. Therefore, the UNHCR has been in a financial crisis for years. Other UN organizations are suffering the same fate. The World Food Program (WFP) already had to reduce daily food rations for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

In 2015, the UNHCR had a total budget of around $7 billion (6.4 billion euros) at his disposal. If additional funds are not forthcoming, it is likely that Europe will see the arrival of many more refugees.

"We are facing the dramatic refugee crisis situation on the one hand. On the other hand, there is a shortage of responsible partners who are prepared to commit themselves to the protection of refugees," concludes Pro Asyl's Karl Kopp.

Fierce competition

On his way to becoming High Commissioner, Grandi prevailed over some high-caliber competitors. Achim Steiner, the German head of the UN Environment Program, had been mooted as well as former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Antonio Guterres
Grandi's predecessor: Antonio GuterresImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.-Ch. Bott

Nonetheless, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon selected Grandi in mid-November. The Italian has now assumed one of the key posts within the UN hierarchy. His predecessor, Guterres, is now regarded as a promising candidate for the post of Secretary General.