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ON THE NATURE OF REFUGEE ADVOCACY (
Subject: ON THE NATURE OF REFUGEE ADVOCACY (1/2)
/* Written 15 Dec 6:00 1996 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* ------------" On the Nature of Refugee advocacy (1/2) "------------ */
This thought-provoking Workshop paper is from the book,
"OLD PROBLEMS, NEW DIRECTIONS" - the proceedings of the conference on
refugee protection, compiled by the Australian Council of Churches,
18 February 1994, The University of Sydney. -- U Ne Oo.
Mr David Matas
President, Canadian Council for Refugees
12.3 WORKSHOP PAPER: THE ROLE OF NGOS IN REFUGEE PROTECTION
NGOs are not doing enough for advocacy of refugee protection. There are
three reasons for their failings: their ambiguous position; their
absorption in case work; and their local focus. What they should be doing
and are not doing nearly well enough is advocacy of refugee rights
Firstly, refugee support NGOs are in an essentially ambiguous position. On
the one hand, they function as partners with governments in providing
relief, in assisting integration, in achieving resettlement. On the other
hand, they work against governments in advocating protection.
Refugee support NGOs are supported financially by governments. Yet, in
advocating protection, they end up biting the hands that feed them. On a
personal level, refugee NGOs are often ambivalent about advocating refugee
protection. Refugee NGO personnel have developed a working relationship
with government officials on relief, resettlement and integration. To turn
round and criticise these same officials seems ungracious as well as
As well, advocacy is a different sort of skill than refugee aid. Persons
who are experienced in assisting refugees may feel ill at ease with
Refugee support NGOs have become involved in refugee protection belatedly,
half-heartedly. Punches are pulled. Critics are afraid of being
Government financing of refugee support NGOs poses more than just a
psychological inhibition. For refugee support NGOs, it is a real and
practical barrier. Governments normally do not want to finance their
When refugee support NGOs turn to c5criticism of government protection
efforts, one government response is to cut off or diminish funding. An
accompanying phenomenon is to channel all funding to no-critical NGOs or to
create GONGOs, government organised non-government organisations that will
cause the governments no problems.
Relying on private funding alone is not a complete answer, for two reasons.
One is that private funding alone rarely allows NGOs to achieve the same
level of functioning as government grants can permit. The second is that
advocacy can diminish even private funding by jeopardising charitable
Charitable status means donors can claim a tax deduction for their
donations. If charitable status is not available, donors will still give,
but will give less. Normally, charitable status is unavailable to
advocacy-oriented NGOs. Giving charitable status to advocacy-oriented NGOs
involves the government financing its critics by other means - by loss of
tax revenue rather than by direct grants.
Governments can, of course, finance their critics, if they want to do so.
There is a certain logic for doing that, and indeed, sometimes governments
have a policy of financing critics, in order to receive a range of policy
advice, or in order to assist those representing the disadvantaged.
Criticism of government is not the same as hostility to government. Often
when governments do not protect refugees as actively as NGOs would like,
the reason is not that government officials themselves are hostile to
refugees. The reason is that officials are reflecting an hostility or an
indifference in the general population. NGOs, by their advocacy, have an
influence on public opinion, influencing the public to be receptive to
refugee protection. The sensitisation of the public generated by advocacy
can give officials the flexibility they need to offer enhanced refugee
protection. Funding refugee protection advocacy can be a tool governments
use to develop enhanced protection.
This sort of enlightened attitude to advocacy funding is, however, rare.
MOre typical is the situation where government officials internalise and
even lead public hostility to refugee protection. Advocacy is seen not as
offering a range of advice or giving voice to the disadvantaged or
attempting to create a constituency for something officials want to see
happen, but rather as attempting to develop support for policies
bureaucrats do not want to see implemented.
Advocacy work is not just advocacy for protection. It can and should also be
advocacy for aid, for development, for resettlement, for integration.
Advocacy for protection is, however, different in kind from the other forms
of advocacy. For the other forms of advocacy, nongovernmental
organisations and governments are, generally, moving in the same
direction. The only issue becomes how fast, how much is spent, what
priority is to be given.
For protection, governments and nongovernmental organisations are often
pushing on opposite sides of the door. Nongovernmental organisations are
trying to open the door. Governments are trying to close the door. The
differences are not just difference in degree. They are fundamental
differences of direction, or philosophy.
Where refugee support NGOs are faced with a government that does not want
to finance its critics either directly through grants, or indirectly,
through the tax system, what are these NGOs to do ? The answer has to be:
advocate refugee protection. Refugee support organisations, after all, do
not exist for themselves. They exist for refugees. Refugee protection is an
important component, perhaps the key component in refugee assistance.
Refugee support organisations cannot abandon refugee protection if they
want to remain true to themselves.
The funding dilemma is a soluble one. The answer does not have to be all or
nothing. Refugee support NGOs should not have to choose between government
funding and private funding. Rather they should look to private funding for
their advocacy work and government funding for their relief, development,
resettlement and integration work.
Charitable status is not normally put in question because some advocacy
work is done. It is put in question when advocacy work is preponderant and
overwhelms the non-advocacy work.
The funding dilemma is more an inhibition than an obstacle. For the sake of
refugees who need protection, it is an inhibition that must be overcome.
Advocacy for refugee protection begins at home. Before convincing
governments and the public of the need for protection, refugee support
groups must first convince themselves, not just of the need for protection,
but also of the need for these groups themselves to do the advocacy work
The second reason refugee support NGOs are not doing enough for advocacy of
refugee rights is their absorption in case work. When refugee support
groups do get involved in refugee protection, there is a tendency for them
to devote their efforts to working for the protection of individual
refugees. Because the refugee claims procedures, by its very nature,
confidential, much of this work has little impact beyond the case of the
There is a clear need to deal with someone at your doorstep. Helping an
individual also seems a lot more direct then advocating general principles,
working on policy or protesting to governments. There is no necessary
immediate link between general advocacy work and improvement in the lot of
refugees. Helping one person can change that person's fate. The rewards for
effort are quick and visible. Failure to help brings sudden reproach.
Refugee support groups obviously have to help individual refugees. Yet if
they do only that, they neglect the underlying causes of the problems the
individual refugees face. As long as root causes remain, as long as
governments try to close the doors against refugees, helping individuals is
a task without end. Even if one person is helped, there are many others to
take his/her place, who need help equally urgently. There are never enough
volunteers to help each and every refugee individually. Even if there were,
helping the refugee does not, in every case, resolve his/her plight.
Despite all the help NGOs can give, many refugees still end up being caught
in a bad system and treated badly.
/* End Part-1 */