UNHCR and the Middle East: A Shifting Dynamic?

Blog post by Professor Dallal Stevens, Law School, University of Warwick*

State-UNHCR Shift in Responsibility

In February 2011, Michael Kagan produced his now famous Research Paper for UNHCR entitled ‘“We live in a country of UNHCR” The UN su…

Blog post by Professor Dallal Stevens, Law School, University of Warwick*


State-UNHCR Shift in Responsibility

In February 2011, Michael Kagan produced his now famous Research Paper for UNHCR entitled ‘“We live in a country of UNHCR” The UN surrogate state and refugee policy in the Middle East’. In many ways, this ground-breaking piece provided much needed clarity on the relationship between the UNHCR and countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the approach to refugee protection for non-Palestinian refugees. While the focus over decades, in the region, had turned understandably to the role of UNRWA and its mandate in relation to Palestinian refugees (see for overview, Akram, 2021), the UNHCR had arguably escaped equivalent scrutiny – until this publication. Kagan’s argument that responsibility shift from state to UNHCR had taken place – largely for political and practical reasons – has remained the view of many. In Kagan’s words, ‘Even if it is less than ideal, state-to-UN responsibility shift has in many ways been a successful example of global governance. The UN surrogate state has increased international cooperation and navigated political minefields so as to produce a much more humane outcome for refugees than might otherwise have occurred in many countries.’ (p. 24)

But few situations remain in stasis, and the relationship between the UNHCR and – mainly – Arab states is no different. To be fair, Kagan acknowledged this in 2011, when he noted the complexities of UNHCR-state relations in specific countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt. And there are many more examples of nuanced and fluid relationships that have emerged over time: for example, the brief breakdown in communication between Jordan and the UNHCR regarding ‘temporary protection’ for Iraqi refugees (Stevens, 2013);  the unwillingness of Gulf Cooperation Council states to apply UNHCR’s extended refugee mandate beyond Iraqis in the Rafha camp (Janmyr & Stevens, 2021); the 2014 Jordanian request to UNHCR to cease issuing asylum seeker certificates to those leaving refugee camps without government sanction; the suspension in 2015 of UNHCR’s registration of Syrians as refugees by the Lebanese government (Janmyr & Mourad, 2018); or the persistent reluctance of the Egyptian government to assume responsibility for refugee status determination, despite it being a rare party to the 1951 Refugee Convention/1967 Protocol in the MENA region.  

The Shift to ‘Shifting Responsibility’?

The ‘more humane outcome for refugees’, identified by Kagan, arguably led the UNHCR to adopt its own shift in protection and service delivery, particularly when confronted with large numbers of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. As I have argued elsewhere, what emerged was a somewhat confused picture of the aims of the UNHCR in the Middle East (and elsewhere), where conflation of terms such as ‘protection’, ‘rights’, ‘needs’ and ‘assistance’ has proved unhelpful, where many organisations assume a protection role without the necessary protection mandate, and where states largely resist the call for greater rights adoption and enforcement. Indeed, as Janmyr has posited, UNHCR has all but given up seeking to persuade the recalcitrant Arab countries to sign the Refugee Convention. Encouragement to do so is lukewarm and undertaken more out of habit than true conviction. And sometimes the issue is avoided altogether. For example, in the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding between the League of Arab States and the Office of the UNHCR, Preamble 4 simply acknowledges the importance of the Refugee Convention/Protocol and UNHCR’s mandate to supervise their implementation; there is no mention of accession.

In the past decade, various country, regional, global and institutional initiatives have emerged that have further changed this relationship, whether it be UNHCR’s policy on urban refugee protection, community-based protection approaches, UNRWA’s fluctuating fortunes, the impact of Syrian displacement and subsequent financial and economic models of assistance, such as World Bank involvement in forced displacement and the Jordan Compact, or, of course, the Global Compacts (for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration; and on  Refugees). These have all facilitated an alteration in governance of refugees and, rather than a universal shift in responsibility, one might now refer to ‘shifting responsibilities’ to describe the ebb and flow between the UNHCR and state.

Exploring a new dynamic

How best, then, to address these shifting responsibilities between UNHCR and state? While there have been some noted commentaries on the UNHCR at, what we might term, the macro-institutional level (for example, Loescher, 2001; Betts et al, 2008), there has been surprisingly minimal research undertaken at the micro-level on the practices of UNHCR in specific Middle Eastern countries. Some exceptions are Ozkul & Jarrous, 2021; Janmyr 2018; Stevens 2013 that recognise the importance of undertaking interviews with refugees and/or key stakeholders. Equally there are generalised statements that can be made about Middle Eastern approaches to refugees and to human rights, but atomisation, I would argue, has long since been the case in the refugee context and should receive greater emphasis. Each country’s approach to refugees is individual, should be examined independently and in greater detail, as is the case with states that are party to the Refugee Convention. It is only through an in-depth analysis of the context of individual countries – their laws, politics and economics; their practices and policies; their institutions and governance; their relationship with internal and external non-governmental organisations – that we can hope to understand UNHCR-state dynamics and co-existence. It is only through conversations with refugees and those engaging with them on a day-to-day basis that we will appreciate the actual consequences of the UNHCR-state interaction on the individual. Through the study of the micro, therefore, we can extend to the macro, bringing empirical research to the fore to realise practical change for the benefit of refugees, but also for the UNHCR and the states of the Middle East where it is based.

Projects such as REFARAB are exploring this new dynamic between the UNHCR in Jordan and Lebanon and seek to encourage a much-needed wider conversation between refugees, academics, practitioners, activists and government authorities. It is crucial, in this call for greater empirical research, that refugees and those working and based in the countries under consideration are fully involved – not only during fieldwork but as part of any data analysis and written or verbal outputs. And such outputs must also be in Arabic as well as English. It is also accepted that access can be problematic or difficult; or, there can be a sense of research-exhaustion amongst key stakeholders, and even refugee participants, after years of displacement. Sensitivity to this is, clearly, very important and should be taken into account in undertaking in-country fieldwork, but, with an element of creativity, there are frequently satisfactory alternatives or solutions. Certainly, the benefits can be enormous and vastly outweigh any unforeseen challenges.  

Additional references:

  • Susan M. Akram, ‘UNRWA and Palestine Refugees’ in C. Costello, M. Foster & J. McAdam, Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law (OUP, 2021), ch 35.
  • Maja Janmyr & Dallal Stevens, ‘Regional Refugee Regimes: Middle East, in C. Costello, M. Foster & J. McAdam, Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law (OUP, 2021), ch 18
  • Gil Loescher, The UNHCR and World Politics – A Perilous Path (OUP, 2001)
  • Alexander Betts, Gil Loescher, James Milner, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the 21st Century (Routledge, 2008)

* Dallal Stevens is Professor of Refugee Law at the University of Warwick. Her research interests focus on refugee and asylum law and policy in the UK, EU and Middle East and she has published widely. Monographs include: States, the Law and Access to Refugee Protection: Fortresses and Fairness (ed, with Maria O’Sullivan, Hart 2017), Refugee Protection and the Role of Law: Conflicting Identities (ed, with Susan Kneebone and Loretta Baldassar, Routledge, 2014,) and UK Asylum Law and Policy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Sweet & Maxwell, 2004). Dallal’s work has been supported by external grants from The Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and the ESRC. She is Book Review Editor with the International Journal of Refugee Law and Associate Editor of the Journal of Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law.

On REF-ARAB, Dallal will address the contemporary provision of protection of refugees by UNHCR, with a particular focus on two key states: Lebanon and Jordan. Adopting a socio-legal perspective, and with the use of fieldwork, Dallal will explore the changing interrelationships between UNHCR, state and refugee. A major focus will be to understand both intended and unintended consequences of the UNHCR-state-refugee interactions, with the team seeking to provide important insights that can improve regional and global refugee policy.    


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

This post was originally published on Refugee Law Initiative Blog.


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