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Room for Debate: WHS & MSF

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)

The WHS will take place May 23-24 in Istanbul, Turkey. Organized by the UN, the summit is a call to action with three main goals:

  1. To re-inspire and reinvigorate a commitment to humanity and to the universality of humanitarian principles.
  2. To initiate a set of concrete actions and commitments aimed at enabling countries and communities to better prepare for and respond to crises, and be resilient to shocks.
  3. To share best practices which can help save lives around the world, put affected people at the center of humanitarian action, and alleviate suffering.

The core responsibilities of the summit are:

  1. Prevent and end conflict
  2. Respect rules of war
  3. Leave no one behind
  4. Working differently to end need
  5. Invest in humanity

With approximately 5,000 people expected to attend, the summit will produce a “Commitments to Action” document which will support the Agenda for Humanity. The document, which is not legally binding, will be a demonstration of goodwill by UN member states and other stakeholders including NGOs.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

On May 5, just a little over two weeks before the main event, MSF announced its withdrawal from participating in the WHS. According to the statement released by MSF, the organization no longer believes the summit “will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.”

The organization stated, “the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to.” The organization believes that not enough pressure has been put on member states to uphold the laws of war and it is unfair and unrealistic to ask NGOs like MSF to fill this gap.  IRIN News spoke with a former MSF senior staffer who put MSF’s decision in perspective: “You can ask firefighters to put out a fire. Don’t ask them to build affordable housing.” However, the UN Tribune reports that the UN sees humanitarian aid and development work coming closer together, working in tandem.

Reuters commented that because of MSF’s strong global influence, the WHS may not be as effective without the NGO. Another blog, Humanicontrarian argued WHS’ agenda has been flawed from the beginning, and has little to do with humanitarian aid. At least one person has advocated that MSF pulling out of the summit will help illuminate the gaps in the agenda, and encourage other participating NGOs to demand the summit address them.

Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General commented on MSF’s withdrawal; “I’d say it’s disappointing, because I think the summit was going to deal with a lot of issues that are vital to MSF and which MSF traditionally presents a strong and influential voice.” He went on to state that the summit is continuing “full speed ahead” and the UN expects over 6,000 attendees. Howard Mollett, a Senior Policy Advisor at CARE International UK pointed out that the WHS “has been a messy, sprawling affair and will inevitably fall far short of what is required to address the vast and deeply political challenges facing humanitarian action.” However, he goes on to argue that “we cannot avoid the fact that the governments, civil society groups and businesses invited are either already engaged on the ground or have an influence on today’s major crises.” The hope is that these already engaged groups attend and commit to acting on “challenges, gaps and weaknesses that MSF, but also Ban Ki Moon, have identified.”


  • Are MSF’s claims that the WHS will not effectively address governmental responsibility and the weaknesses of humanitarian action valid?
  • Is there another way that MSF could have called attention to its concerns while still participating in the WHS?
  • Will the legitimacy and effectiveness of the WHS be called into question given the lack of participation of MSF?

Please feel free to comment below, or share with your colleagues and networks to start a conversation!



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Room for Debate: Should refugee camps be operated as permanent cities?

Zaatari Refugee Camp

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Photo Credit: dezeen magazine

With an estimated 15.1 million refugees around the world, refugee camps have been and have become a fact of life for many. History reveals that refugee camps are rarely if ever truly temporary. Statistics show that the average stay of refugees is now roughly seventeen years – almost two decades that can hardly be thought of as a temporary solution. It is now more than ever time to rethink how refugee camps are built and managed. Kilian Kleinschmidt and Paul Currion offer their differing perspectives and opinions in two recent articles for consideration.

Use Existing Abandoned Cities for Resettlement

A former manager for the Zaatari camp in Jordan, Kilian Kleinschmidt believes the world must move away from thinking of refugee camps as temporary. He suggests that refugees can be resettled and empowered; as many local people have migrated to more urbanized cities for work, why not use those deserted cities as housing for refugees? Kleinschmidt argues these mostly deserted cities could be “development zones” where refugees learn to become self-sustaining.

Urbanize Existing Refugee Camps for Resettlement

Paul Currion takes a different view; making the point that if refugees are unwilling to stay in impoverished or ghost towns in their own countries, what makes anyone think they will want to do the same thing in another country? He argues that these cities would ultimately become benign dictatorships. He argues that ultimately, the issue of the growth of refugee camps is not one of migration, but one of urbanization. As refugee camps grow, they must be managed and governed more as actual cities, not just refugee camps.

The Reality

The refugee camps in Calais, known to many as “The Jungle” are a prime example of camps that were meant to be temporary, but are now showing signs of permanency. The collection of informal settlements developed in 2002 as a staging post for those attempting entry into the United Kingdom, but the camps have now become semi-permanent dwelling places due to the dangers of border crossing and lack of other viable options for settlement. The camps, which are located on an old landfill, house approximately 6,000 refugees. The camps are marked by makeshift tents, overcrowding, and a lack of basic services. Dr. Lynne Jones, Co-Director of the IIHA Mental Health in Complex Emergencies course, recently volunteered in Calais and the IIHA highlighted her experience in a blog post in late November 2015. Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, IIHA Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow, also recently spoke about his time in the Calais Jungle in his documentary, Frontline Doctors: Winter Migrant Crisis and reflected upon the experience in the article, What Should We Do? Contradictions and Complicity in the European Refugee Crisis. As the IIHA continues its Spring 2016 Event Series, Challenges and Opportunities: Migration in the 21st Century, we encourage you to comment on this pressing issue, and engage with the questions below.


  • What should the role of the French government be in The Jungle?

  • How can they reconcile the fact that many inhabitants of The Jungle do not want to become part of the French system?

  • Are governments responsible for governing and providing basic infrastructure to people who arrive at their shores?

Please feel free to comment below, or share with your colleagues and networks to start a conversation!


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Room for Debate: Can humanitarian aid uphold the principle of neutrality in times of conflict?

A recent crisis brief from IRIN news, “Crisis Brief: Unexpected aid in eastern Ukraine” describes the complicated humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine, and the legal and moral issues that collaboration with local humanitarian actors can raise in a contested environment. The article explains a large component of the aid delivered in eastern Ukraine is funded through oligarchs and outside powers. Collaboration with these actors makes it difficult for neutral aid groups to both aid those in need and maintain their neutrality. The Ukrainian, Russian and local unrecognized governments all utilize aid for political or military objectives, further confusing the situation. The report raises the question of how humanitarian aid organizations should co-exist with non-neutral aid providers as the primary aid groups in the area.

The article poses timely questions: is humanitarian aid ever completely neutral? Can international NGOs collaborate with local organizations without compromising their values? In a politicized environment, how can international groups best negotiate access to victims of conflict in a frozen conflict zone?

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