Refugee Agency to Retrench, U.N. Says


The U.N.'s lead refugee agency announced Friday that it will have to cut key aid programs and nearly 1,000 jobs because donor countries have failed for two years in a row to come through with funds they had pledged.

Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said that the "painful but absolutely necessary" cuts will be spread among programs around the world in order to minimize their impact.

The Geneva-based agency needs about $1 billion a year to help refugees in more than 130 countries, but donations have fallen about $200 million short for the second consecutive year. It will eliminate 939 of its 4,828 staff positions next year and slash its budget by 14%, to $825 million.

The agency attributed the shortfall to donor fatigue after the breakup of Yugoslavia and recent crises in Africa. The U.S. remains the agency's largest donor, providing a third of its budget. But European nations have sharply reduced their contributions as they have shifted funding to European aid organizations.

"Contributions from the European Union have dropped from $200 million to $38 million [a year] in the last five years," said Robyn Groves, an agency spokeswoman in New York. "The commissioner has been doing a lot to provoke the European conscience."

It was hoped that Lubbers, a straight-talking former prime minister of the Netherlands who took office at the beginning of the year, would be able to spur European donors. Lubbers asked each industrialized country for a dollar for every citizen and warned of disaster if the money didn't show up. He berated countries that had closed their borders to refugees and then failed to fulfill their pledges.

"It was like a game of chicken," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy for the Washington-based Refugees International. "I think he was hoping to provoke a reaction that would make up the deficit, but it didn't work. We're very concerned about the impact these cuts will have on the global response to the crisis of refugees and internal displacement."

Aid groups that rely on the U.N. agency's largess have felt the bite as funding has lagged. Last year, the U.N.'s largest private aid partner, the International Rescue Committee, had to reduce services for thousands of Sudanese children who had fled to northern Uganda. In Somalia, the French group Handicap International had to cancel a land-mine awareness program.

"The hunger of a refugee does not change in proportion to UNHCR funding," said Reynold Levy, president of the International Rescue Committee, which receives 16% of its budget from the agency. "So we see it as our obligation to provide those resources."

Last year, a shelter program for refugees returning to East Timor was saved only by emergency fund-raising. This year, the agency will phase out operations in Timor and the Balkans and will look for further savings by ending schooling for some refugee children and scaling back other programs, said spokeswoman Groves.

However, the agency considers its core functions "untouchable," she said, and won't reduce key services such as emergency response and protection for refugees while they are in agency-run camps. And at the same time it announced the layoffs, the agency also said it will add 174 jobs in vital areas.

"Often, we've just gone ahead to set up camps and programs in times of crisis," Groves said. "But now, we're saying we can't do that without all the funds upfront."

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