Political Survival as a Motive in Decision-Making: The UNHCR and the Rwandan Refugee Crisis

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Often the UNHCR’s decisions contradict the mandate that it was created to uphold and fulfill. This thesis seeks to understand the reason the UNHCR makes these decisions. It examines various decisions the UNHCR made regarding the caseload of Rwandan refugees who fled after the Rwandan genocide and the resulting attacks into Rwanda. This includes three forced instances of repatriation from Zaire, Tanzania, and Uganda. It then evaluates the motives behind the UNHCR’s decision to recommend that all Rwandan refugees from this caseload lose their status as refugees in June 2013. The field research component of this was carried out in Uganda in both Kampala and Kyaka II refugee settlement, where interviews of both refugees and key informants were conducted. The research also utilizes internal US government and UNHCR documents. The research found that the UNHCR makes decisions based on its need to survive as an organization. The need to survive involves three key components that influence the UNHCR’s decisions in different situations based on what needs are most pressing in each circumstance. The first component is the interests of donors, which the UNHCR must follow to continue receiving the funding necessary to operate as an organization. The second component is the priorities of host governments, which the UNHCR must follow because, to carry out its work, the UNHCR must have the trust and cooperation of the host governments willing to put land and resources towards the maintenance of refugee populations within their countries. The third component is the appearance of adhering to its mandate because otherwise the UNHCR loses its authority as an organization dedicated to helping refugees, which erodes its credibility and legitimacy. It is through these three components that UNHCR is able to continue to carry out its work and extend its tenure as a prominent humanitarian organization. This addresses a gap in the literature because it reaches an important middle ground between realism, which views humanitarian organizations as an extension of the priorities of donor governments, and humanitarianism, which views humanitarian organizations as institutions focused on promoting their mission autonomously. These findings are important not only to understanding the decisions the UNHCR makes but the decision-making of humanitarian organizations more generally.


2013 Recipient of the Library Award for Undergraduate Research