3 Challenges Facing U.N.'s New Chief for Refugee Aid

New year, new leadership in a crucial role.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Eleftherios Venizelos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens. (Photo: Michalis Karagiannis/Reuters)

Jan 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

A 27-year veteran of the United Nations started work Monday as the chief of its refugee agency at a moment when nearly 60 million people have been forced from their homes worldwide—more than the number displaced globally by World War II.

Filippo Grandi of Italy was elected by the General Assembly in November to serve as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees for the next five years. The 58-year-old has served as head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and worked for the organization's mission in Afghanistan before that.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

"The combination of multiple conflicts and resulting mass displacement, fresh challenges to asylum, the funding gap between humanitarian needs and resources, and growing xenophobia is very dangerous," Grandi said in a statement Monday.

Here are just a few of the challenges facing him:

Sheer Numbers, Unprecedented Need

The human need continues to exceed expectations and capabilities at every turn. This past year alone almost a million people crossed the Mediterranean as refugees or migrants, with no end in sight. Around the world there were more than 20 million refugees, and internally displaced people exceeded 34 million. Add to that asylum seekers who have settled in camps, and the numbers are staggering—and growing.

Some numbers are on his side: Grandi will lead a staff of more than 9,300 in 123 countries to face this crisis.

Filippo Grandi (center) chats with women during his visit to the besieged Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus, on Feb. 24, 2014. (Photo: Sana Sana/Reuters)

Closing Borders, Isolationist Attitudes

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump isn't the only politician grandstanding with heated rhetoric about closing borders to refugees. Anti-immigration parties gained ground in the European Union parliamentary elections last summer and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stirred controversy over the immigration crisis, calling it a "German problem" while erecting new fences along the border with Serbia.

German anchorwoman Anja Reschke called refugees "spongers who should be hunted down, burned or gassed," and there was an alarming spate of attacks against refugee centers in Germany over the summer.

More broadly in Europe, there is some broad-scale NIMBYism. More than a third of French people, for example, say that they would not want an immigrant or a foreign worker as a neighbor. Even in Scandinavia, where refugees were welcomed as recently as a couple of months ago, Sweden and Denmark announced tighter border controls over the weekend.

Growing Enmity Amid Struggle for Peace

Part of the problem is that many refugees from the Middle East cannot expect to resettle in their native lands anytime soon because never-ending wars are being waged. U.N. officials warn that voluntary return rates—the measure of how many refugees can safely go back home—are at their lowest levels in more than three decades.

“I also hope that solutions to crises of displacement will be pursued with renewed determination by addressing their root causes and investing adequate political and material resources,” Grandi said.

The Syrian war is the largest generator of new refugees and internal displacement—and that conflict got an unwelcome spur this week, when Iranians raided and set fire to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran in response to the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Existing proxy wars between Iranian and Saudi Arabian interests in Syria and Yemen are expected to intensify as a result. The frequently tense relationship between the Persian Gulf countries took new shape in the days before Grandi took on the role, with Saudi Arabian officials ending diplomatic relations with Iran.