21 April 2014 - Mr Bo Shack is currently serving as the UNHCR representative in Afghanistan. Despite nearly 30 years in UN service, mainly in the humanitarian field, he still feels humbled by the lessons he learns from the people he serves.
UNRIC has had a chat with him in order to learn more about his work and the challenges regarding IDP’s and returning refugees in Afghanistan. But first, our usual question:
How did you end up working for the UN?
I started as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in 1985 after having worked as an attorney in a ministry and having studied at the European College in Belgium. The idea of applying for a job in the UN or another international organisation started early and already during my studies, my interests were within the international field. As I also speak French, there was an opportunity to get a position as a JPO based in Dakar in Senegal; this was the start of a long career which brought me to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. This was mostly with the UNHCR within the humanitarian field, but also in the development and political field in the Central African Republic between 2009 and 2011.
What is a normal workday as a representative for UNHCR in Afghanistan?
We start around 8 a.m., but often there are e-mails or other announcements earlier in the morning about the security situation in Kabul or other places in the country, which I discuss with my co-workers. When I am in Kabul, I usually spend the rest of the day in meetings with colleagues from UN offices, NGOs, the government and diplomats. I try to have some time in between where I can check e-mail and correspondences, but also to meet and discuss with IDPs (Internally Displaced People) or returned refugees. I try to have even more of these meetings where we drink tea with The Committees of Elders, community leaders and other Afghani contacts, but I succeed more easily when I am working in one of the other ten offices we have in the country. I spend about a fourth of my time travelling the country to go to meetings with colleagues and representatives in the neighboring countries Pakistan and Iran.
You have previously worked in the Central African Republic and are now in Afghanistan – is there something specific which make you want to work in such frail countries?
During my 28 years within the UN, I have definitely felt an attraction to work in or close to “frail” countries. UNHCR is about refugees and internally displaced (IDPs), so stationing in these countries is “normal”, but through the years I have only become more interested in living in these countries. Friendships and contacts, priorities are very different. During one single day, you can spend time with some of the poorest refugees, returned people, but also with politicians, public servants, social institutions, diplomats and often military or police authorities. The diversity in the contacts is very inspiring and often it makes you feel very humble about what you can learn from all these different people. The line between violence and politics is very thin in the circumstances where the possibility to express yourself is very small. Meanwhile, the possibility of getting a smile and a very close relationship to friends is very intense sharing tons of tea and great meals.
You have been far and wide within the UN-system and you have worked in many different countries and situations. Where have you been challenged the most?
The challenges have been big in Iran, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia during the wars, and in the Central African Republic. The biggest challenge is probably for myself to take the time to listen and learn from everyone. To understand and accept being humble to the contemplations and circumstances many people live with and under. And then also making room for humanitarian priorities for governments and rebel groups who have very little understanding about how important the situation for the displaced is during a war.
Do you bring anything specific Nordic or Danish to your work?
My Nordic background has clearly been mixed with a lot of other experiences and impressions, but I still think the openness and the quite informal way are important elements in starting a good friendship. Maybe it is also something about being ready to listen and not judge on the basis of a first impression.
In the Nordic countries there has been a lot of debate about whether there should be granted asylum to the Afghani interpreters, since they can be in danger when the foreign troops withdraw from the country. What is your opinion on this?
UNHCR has treated cases about asylum from Afghans who have worked for ISAF, but my opinion is that the most significant responsibility lies with the countries which hired the interpreters and other Afghans. The solution is maybe not always asylum, but other kinds of residence permits have been used in other countries. It is probably also too simple to just say that everyone who has worked for ISAF is in danger. As usual, the situations are not just white and black.
It has been predicted that many Afghans will be repatriated in 2014 after the election in April and the foreign troops’ withdrawal. A large number of internally displaced people are also predicted. What concrete plans do UNHCR have to help the Afghani population?
Based on many discussions with the governments in the neighbouring countries and the authorities in Afghanistan, the expectations for the number of people who will return to the country in 2013 and 2014 have been reduced. In 2012, 94000 people returned, in 2013 it was only 40000 people. We expect approximately the same number in 2014. Both Pakistan and Iran recognize that the situation is very unpredictable and that many will want to wait and see before they decide whether or not to return. The unpredictable issue is not only the withdrawal, but also the election, the political situation in general and the most important thing is often the future prospects in the country, concerning jobs, education and the possibility of healthcare. The neighbouring countries’ continued understanding with the Afghani peoples’ need for protection is amazing after nearly 30 years of problems in Afghanistan. They have received substantial support for it, also from the UNHCR, but it has also been both a significant burden, but has also given new possibilities to both countries. When you look at the situation today outside of the EU-borders and the migration-debate in many European countries, there is a reason to be humble towards the situation and the helpfulness in both countries. Our work continues to support the returned refugees in Afghanistan with substantial support throughout the difficult first period of time after their return to their home country. Afterwards we work with the communities, the government and fellow UN organisations to provide the long-term support.
Concerning the other question about the internally displaced in Afghanistan, we do predict an increase. There are more than half a million refugees today. Many of them are in rural areas where it can be complicated to reach them, but more and more are moving to urban areas and are part of a huge increase of people living in the biggest cities. UNHCR supports the refugees in cooperation with other humanitarian organisations in the first period of time and often when they are capable of returning.
It has been important to see how many obviously try to stay close to the area they escaped from, so that they can return as soon as possible to save their agriculture or belongings. The biggest challenge, and in many ways an issue which is not a defined priority, is the situation in the cities, where many young people are unemployed. UNHCR work in close cooperation with UN Habitat and some organisations to make clear and more distinct politics with regard to developing the cities and the possibilities to improve the conditions in the slum areas, where many refugees have settled down.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for UNHCR’s work in Afghanistan right now? And what do you consider the biggest challenge for UNHCR in their work in Afghanistan in the future?
UNHCR is a humanitarian organisation and our most substantial work is done in humanitarian situations like this. The biggest challenge is to create possibilities for solutions for the returned refugees and exiles. It is a job where UNHCR is only one out of many partners and where continued support for the country is so crucial. Support for the immediate return and the connection to other development partners is probably the biggest and most important challenge we face.
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