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Sasha Chanoff is finding lasting solutions for the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Sasha’s organization works to transform and improve the sphere of refugee resettlement through a variety of interlinking strategies centered on creating the infrastructure and know-how for an appropriately trained and professionalized citizen sector to work with the United Nations and governments in ways that improve equity and access to this life-saving solution for refugees.
The New Idea
Refugee resettlement, the process of permanently and legally relocating refugees to countries where they can rebuild their lives in safety, is the only solution available for many refugees around the world who can neither return home nor stay safely where they are. Yet in the past decade approximately 250,000 resettlement slots made available by the U.S. government for refugees who have no other options for survival have gone unfilled due to systemic inefficiencies. Historically, refugee resettlement has been a low priority in the grand scheme of refugee assistance and protection.
Sasha is pioneering a new role for effective and professional citizen organizations (COs) in the refugee resettlement process. Through collaboration, his organization is working to influence and transform the international human rights and humanitarian community in ways that lead to life-saving solutions for the most vulnerable refugees.
Beginning with the organization he founded in 2005, RefugePoint, Sasha is leading by example and building the infrastructure for COs to engage in the resettlement process. RefugePoint is not only demonstrating that the citizen sector can effectively partner with governments and intergovernmental agencies to ensure that the benefits of resettlement accrue to more people, the organization is also making sure the system takes into account the most neglected communities in ways previously unachievable. RefugePoint is putting the plight of the growing population of urban refugees more solidly on the map of agencies in a position to protect them through the use of resettlement. RefugePoint is also developing an expertise in identifying newly threatened refugee groups that reside both in and outside the refugee camp system. Sasha is able to do so in no small part thanks to the flexibility afforded to his organization by raising funds outside of the government system. RefugePoint is therefore uniquely positioned to effectively respond to the fluid and unpredictable nature of refugee situations.
In an effort to greatly expand the impact of his work, RefugePoint has built a relationship with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to enhance resettlement by sending staff across Africa to work in a variety of urgent and emergency refugee situations. At the same time, RefugePoint aims to use its collaboration with UNHCR as a model that can lead to additional collaborations between the citizen sector and UNHCR around the world. To that end, RefugePoint is conscientiously building a network of refugee assistance and rights organizations and providing information, guidance, and training to facilitate collaborations with UNHCR and governments in order to enhance resettlement. When RefugePoint started nine years ago the citizen sector accounted for approximately 1 percent of referrals on the continent. Both governments and multilateral institutions are beginning to look at RefugePoint as the place that will continue to innovate how resettlement is going to work.
Today fifteen million refugees in the world languish in semi-permanent camps or urban slums, often for decades, sometimes for generations. Historically, returning home or integrating into the country of first asylum have been the dominant solutions to the plight of refugees. But today the average amount of time an individual lives as a refugee is approximately 17 years. The protracted nature of conflicts and inability of host countries to absorb large influxes of individuals and accord them the right to move forward with their lives are among the reasons that these two solutions are not options for many uprooted people.
UNHCR is the global agency mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees. Up until Sasha founded RefugePoint, the UNHCR was the only organization actively involved in sending almost all refugee resettlement referrals to the twenty-four countries that allot roughly 100,000 resettlement slots every year. (The largest host country is the U.S.—which welcomes the majority of these referrals—followed by Canada and Australia.)
The resettlement process can be truly life-saving, but after working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kenya and across Africa at the beginning of his career, and with the UNHCR in Kenya, Sasha realized how broken and underutilized the system was. Historically, resettlement has never been a top priority for the UNHCR, and yet few other agencies have ever engaged in the resettlement field in a way that has brought about vast changes or improvements. Complicating the landscape, today over 50 percent of the world’s refugees no longer live in camps, but rather try to eke out an existence in urban slum areas, where their plight often goes unseen, and from where there is relatively little, if any, resettlement presence and effort.
In spite of these pressing problems, most COs working with refugees focus on either direct humanitarian aid or refugee rights work or a combination of both, yet have often not even been aware that resettlement is an option for the most vulnerable in their purview. Or alternately, they are not engaged because they do not have the appropriate relationship in place with the UN and governments, or because resettlement is viewed as too complex an undertaking. Sasha is keenly aware that resettlement is seen as the Holy Grail for many refugees and that it therefore requires very high-level thinking and management of the risks involved, as well as close coordination with the UNHCR. With deep experience inside and outside the intergovernmental refugee resettlement process, Sasha is thoughtfully crafting a new role for the citizen sector in this system.
Resettlement is a solution that is growing among governments worldwide, not just because it saves lives when no other options are available, but also because it creates more humanitarian space for other forms of assistance and solutions. In a recent U.S. Department of State letter highlighting February 2012 as the month that the three millionth refugee entered the U.S. through the resettlement program since its founding, the U.S. government added that resettlement also impacts the lives of those stuck in crisis situations who do not have the opportunity to resettle by “preserving and expanding the humanitarian space in countries of first asylum.”
After working for ten years in the resettlement field in Africa and the U.S., Sasha decided to pursue a master’s degree in humanitarian assistance to reflect on his experience and plan the founding of his organization—Mapendo International, now RefugePoint. A couple of months after completing his graduate degree in humanitarian assistance (and before he had formalized his organization) he learned of a terrible massacre of Congolese refugees in Burundi. Although the refugees were vocal about the fact that they weren’t safe in a camp that was too close to the border of Congo, the Burundian government did not allow the refugees to move to a safer location on time. Extremists crossed the border, surrounded the camp, and, with guns, grenades, machetes and gasoline fires, killed and injured over 250 mostly women and children. Sasha had undertaken rescue efforts in the Congo through his previous work and felt compelled to do something. He contacted a senior Department of State official and senior UNHCR officials, and then traveled to Burundi to meet with the survivors in order to create a rescue resettlement proposal. This marked perhaps the first time a citizen sector actor led the way in starting a refugee resettlement effort that ultimately led to nearly 1,000 of the survivors safely resettling to the U.S.
This experience confirmed to Sasha that there were ways for COs to identify and refer to UNHCR and governments overlooked cases and groups in need of resettlement. In the beginning, Sasha took on a small number of missions sending staff to collaborate with UNHCR in order to prove that his team could be an effective partner and to put his organization on the map. While RefugePoint now does a lot more than working on the nuts and bolts of resettlement in collaboration with intergovernmental agencies, this was a crucial first step to demonstrate that the citizen sector can be a relevant partner in the resettlement arena. RefugePoint now has staff in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, and the U.S. While some of the staff work in refugee camps to increase resettlement capacity, others are located outside of the camps to identify overlooked populations eligible for resettlement.
In addition to expanding across Africa, RefugePoint has built an urban refugee program in Nairobi that provides life-saving interventions through health, community services, and placement into safe havens for those at immediate risk. The organization uses this urban program to hone identification methods for refugees in need of resettlement in urban settings, to stay at the cutting edge of new trends and protection tactics in urban situations, and to train staff going out to various locations across Africa. This urban program also plays an important strategic role as a signal to the international community that RefugePoint is aware of the complexities involved in refugee assistance and rights work, which allows and enables RefugePoint to pursue its resettlement strategies.
RefugePoint initially placed particular emphasis on enhancing resettlement efforts within selected COs, which have a high-level of professionalism, a foothold in the local refugee landscape, and a strong relationship with UNHCR. A milestone moment came when UNHCR invited RefugePoint to co-host a training for COs across Africa on how to more effectively collaborate with UNHCR to enhance resettlement. The momentum for this training led to RefugePoint co-hosting with UNHCR to create a took-kit of resettlement best practices that UNHCR has disseminated and made available globally to organizations interested in building collaborations that strengthen resettlement. In its 2011 annual Global Resettlement Needs document, UNHCR for the first time highlighted other organizations in countries around the world that can be partners in identifying vulnerable refugees for resettlement; which represents a significant potential expansion of resettlement possibilities. These are the building blocks for a broader vision of creating a network of like-minded organizations globally that have the capacity to attend to the needs of refugees who are in dangerous or life threatening situations and for whom resettlement is the only viable option.
RefugePoint regularly takes part in meetings in Geneva and Washington, D.C. with UNHCR and government decision-makers to influence global policy and practice. RefugePoint also gathers information about refugee crisis situations in which resettlement can be used as a life-saving tool, and shares this information with the UNHCR and governments in an effort to focus resources on refugee populations in extremes. Previous advocacy for resettlement has often stemmed from U.S.-based organizations, which send teams out for short visits to locations around the world. RefugePoint’s ability to influence resettlement comes from an in-depth on the ground knowledge which RefugePoint feeds to decision-makers and helps to turn into actionable steps that can lead to the resettlement of previously unidentified and overlooked groups. At the same time, RefugePoint’s privately funded actions have served as a catalyst of sorts for increasing resettlement by creating an element of competition with the UN’s refugee agency to improve resettlement in areas where there are critical needs.
Private funding is the fundamental element that has enabled RefugePoint’s innovations. RefugePoint has connected with networks of major donors concerned with genocide, refugee and human rights issues. Their current support configuration is roughly 60 percent individual/major donors, 20 percent foundation, and 20 percent UNHCR funding. They accept no government funding and cap their UN funding to remain independent and nimble. Their fundraising has been bolstered by high-level media exposure that helps them steward existing donors and engage new ones. Their charitable contributions have grown rapidly from $350K in 2006 to $800K in 2007, $1.4M in 2009, and $2M in 2010.
Looking toward the future, forced migration will continue to be one of the most pressing global challenges, in particular due to ongoing climate change which directly correlates to increased conflict and displacement. RefugePoint aims to create a global humanitarian scaffolding which ensures the rights and protection of the most vulnerable refugees and creates pathways to viable futures. In addition, RefugePoint is exploring how to enhance the strategic use of resettlement as a burden-sharing mechanism with refugee hosting countries in order to bring about additional protection dividends to refugees.
Sasha’s initial commitment to the well-being of refugees stems from his family’s background. Growing up, he listened to his grandfather’s stories about building a new life as a family of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and his great aunt’s stories of escaping pogroms. The message he received was that many refugees need a new country to call home and, given an opportunity, can rebuild their lives and flourish. Those stories struck him deeply and led him to the work he is now undertaking with RefugePoint.
Sasha spent his formative years going to a fairly unconventional school co-founded by his father: The Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts. There were no tests, grades or requirements and the only expectation was for the students to be responsible for themselves and for the school community. The environment fostered initiative and creativity. Sasha took that mandate very seriously and held several leadership positions at the school. Wesleyan University, where Sasha pursued a bachelor’s degree, continued to foster that spirit of responsibility and innovation. To this day, Sasha embraces the worldview he was introduced to through his early education, which enabled students to define their own paths and push beyond formal bounds.
Before his immersion in Africa, Sasha was a refugee job developer in Boston where he worked hard to bring together the city’s traditionally territorial resettlement agencies. In an effort to highlight and foster refugees’ strengths and skills he collaborated with Tufts University to create a refugee cultural and athletic celebration day that motivated a number of refugees to start their own businesses. When Sasha worked across Africa, initially for the IOM and then with UNHCR, he began to understand the systemic problems affecting refugee resettlement and set out to fix them.
One event in the year 2000 was particularly transformative. As part of a small U.S.-funded rescue team, he was sent into the Congo to evacuate citizens who were being systematically imprisoned and massacred due to their ethnicity. With Congo at war and the complexities of the situation, they were instructed to only evacuate 112 survivors whose names were on a list provided to them. When they arrived in the safe haven where the survivors were gathered, they found a group of thirty-two widows and orphans who had just arrived after miraculously surviving sixteen months in one of the most sinister prison camps. They were not on their list, and they would perish if they did not evacuate them. The instructions were to leave them behind in fear that the entire evacuation would otherwise be derailed and they would lose everyone. Sasha faced the most critical and urgent moral dilemma of his life. He finally decided, with his two colleagues, to try and evacuate the thirty-two as well and succeeded. That experience, and his work across Africa with the Sudanese Lost Boys, Somali Bantus, Liberians, and other refugee populations, opened his eyes to the fact that there were many refugees who were overlooked and stuck in life-threatening peril, and yet avenues to safety existed. This knowledge, experience, and insight led to the founding of RefugePoint.