Cristina Davies, Executive Director Switzerland for UNHCR

Switz­er­land for UNHCR: Hope in the refu­gee crisis

114 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide. Cristina Davies, Executive Director Switzerland for UNHCR Foundation, explains what gives her hope and how she works with other organisations.

How has the refu­gee situa­tion evol­ved around the world over the past year?

I’ve been working in the huma­ni­ta­rian sector for over a decade and every time UNHCR publishes its global report featuring the figu­res on displa­ce­ment for the previous year, new all-time records are set. More and more conflicts are brea­king out, such as in Sudan a year ago, or in Gaza — although the latter is under UNRWA’s* mandate, and not UNHCR’s*. There are constantly new emer­gen­cies arising and old ones seem to perma­nently remain unsol­ved. At the end of 2023, UNHCR recor­ded 114 Mio. forci­bly displa­ced people around the world – 6 Mio. more than 6 months earlier. This only reflects the state of the world and in fact, these figu­res are comple­tely devoid of any sense of what each and every person forced to flee endu­res in her or his flight for safety.

[*UNRWA: United Nati­ons Relief and Works Agency for Pales­tine Refugees

* UNHCR: United Nati­ons Refu­gee Agency]

The public focus is on current conflicts such as in the Gaza Strip or Ukraine: how diffi­cult is it to draw public atten­tion to other crises such as in the DR Congo, Sudan, Syria or Afghanistan?

To put it simply: it is very chal­len­ging. But we also believe that inter­views like this one can help shed light on the emer­gen­cies that no one hears about. Many people think that UNHCR is only funded by govern­ments who pay a fixed amount each year since we have recei­ved our mandate from the UN Gene­ral Assem­bly. But in reality, contri­bu­ti­ons from indi­vi­du­als and the private sector are incre­asingly neces­sary as govern­ment contri­bu­ti­ons are not incre­asing at the same rate as the needs.

But in reality, contri­bu­ti­ons from indi­vi­du­als and the private sector are incre­asingly neces­sary as govern­ment contri­bu­ti­ons are not incre­asing at the same rate as the needs.

Cris­tina Davies, Execu­tive Direc­tor Switz­er­land for UNHCR

In addi­tion, there are volun­t­ary contri­bu­ti­ons that go to a speci­fic setting and are ther­e­fore tightly earmarked, leaving less flexi­bi­lity for UNHCR. When the full-scale war in Ukraine star­ted in 2022, the Swiss popu­la­tion showed great support and was very gene­rous. But unfort­u­na­tely, two years later the war is still on and we’re begin­ning to feel a kind of fati­gue cree­ping in. I just want to remind ever­yone: every dona­tion can make a diffe­rence. No matter how small it is. But this some­ti­mes does not feel like a strong enough message against the back­drop of infla­tion and the stagna­tion of real sala­ries. Besi­des Ukraine, many other emer­gen­cies are under­fun­ded and the staff at UNHCR cannot provide all the neces­sary help to the forci­bly displa­ced. At Switz­er­land for UNHCR, we keep on informing about ongo­ing conflicts around the world, and we use all the chan­nels and means that we have: website, social media, news­let­ters, events. Most people don’t know about situa­tions like Sudan or the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Congo. Or some­ti­mes they simply forgot about the war in Syria, as it has alre­ady been going on for 13 years. So, our objec­tive is to raise aware­ness about the needs of the people forced to flee in these countries.

How can the Swiss society make a grea­ter contri­bu­tion for refugees?

The Swiss popu­la­tion is alre­ady very support­ive. But since the number of conflicts in the world is incre­asing, the number of refu­gees and intern­ally displa­ced people remains unbe­lie­v­a­bly high. They need our help.

Support­ing the inclu­sion of refu­gees is one way to help: we can help them find their place in their host commu­ni­ties, welcome them, employ them. In the end, this will also be good for our coun­try, because we can bene­fit a lot from their know­ledge and expe­ri­ence. We face a lack of skil­led workers in Switz­er­land, so this is also where the inte­gra­tion of refu­gees comes into play. Moreo­ver, it is a way for anyone in this coun­try who feels that what is happe­ning around them is not ok to act. They are not satis­fied with the diffe­rent situa­tions around the world and they don’t want to feel help­less. They can actively make a change by dona­ting to Switz­er­land for UNHCR and support the forci­bly displa­ced all over the world by giving them new perspec­ti­ves for the future. Every Franc helps!

You don’t only work toge­ther with indi­vi­du­als, but also with compa­nies or foundations.

Yes, the private sector is a funda­men­tal part of our work. The Swiss public, but also compa­nies, big and small, foun­da­ti­ons and phil­an­thro­pists gene­rously support UNHCR’s work. This often invol­ves not only finan­cial dona­ti­ons, but also in-kind gifts or services. This can be, for exam­ple, logi­stics aid, as it was the case with the MSC Foun­da­tion, who deli­vered seve­ral tons of relief items to thou­sands of refu­gees in Ukraine — and more recently to those in need in Syria and Türkiye after the earth­quake. And we also recently kicked off a colla­bo­ra­tion with the Z Zurich Foun­da­tion in the area of emer­gen­cies. The ideas for part­ner­ships often come from compa­nies in the private sector them­sel­ves, who approach us and offer their services and support. And we are very grateful for this. 

How do you, as a Swiss foun­da­tion, work toge­ther with UNHCR, the UN Refu­gee Agency?

We are UNHCR’s natio­nal part­ner in Switz­er­land and Liech­ten­stein. We mobi­lize resour­ces for UNHCR’s mission in these two count­ries and raise aware­ness for the refu­gee cause and UNHCR’s work among the popu­la­tion. Switz­er­land for UNHCR is a foun­da­tion under Swiss law, indeed, but we are part of the larger ecosys­tem around UNHCR. We work with the UN Refu­gee Agency and its office in Switz­er­land and Liech­ten­stein on a daily basis, for the same cause. One of the main diffe­ren­ces is that since we are a Swiss foun­da­tion, dona­ti­ons are tax deductible.

Are there any deve­lo­p­ments that curr­ently give hope that a sustainable impro­ve­ment in the situa­tion of refu­gees is possi­ble in certain regions?

We see that UNHCR’s mission is working in many places. One of my favou­rite examp­les is a higher educa­tion campaign laun­ched by UNHCR, named Aiming Higher that supports UNHCR’s Refu­gee Scho­lar­ships Programme. So far, 21.5 million Dollars were raised making it possi­ble for 1680 scho­lars to complete four full years of higher educa­tion. Educa­tion is by far the best invest­ment any society can make as they in turn contri­bute to the host commu­nity or to their home coun­try when­ever they are allo­wed to return.

Educa­tion is by far the best invest­ment any society can make as they in turn contri­bute to the host commu­nity or to their home coun­try when­ever they are allo­wed to return.

Cris­tina Davies

If refu­gees cannot go to school or pursue a profes­sio­nal career, entire gene­ra­ti­ons will be lost. They won’t be able to make a living for them­sel­ves nor pursue their dreams. Assis­tance is in fact very frus­t­ra­ting as each human being wants to live in a digni­fied way and have their own means of living. This is a good way to remem­ber that UNHCR provi­des not only first aid, but it’s also their mission to make sure refu­gees can build a new, inde­pen­dent life in dignity.

Do you see poten­tial for deve­lo­p­ment in which direc­tion refu­gee work can go in order to become more effective?

I believe that inves­t­ing in the future of refu­gees is key. As I previously mentio­ned it, UNHCR’s ulti­mate goal is to find long-lasting solu­ti­ons for the forci­bly displa­ced. Whether they find their new home in a new commu­nity or back in their own coun­try: inte­gra­tion into the work­place redu­ces the finan­cial burden from the host coun­try and the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nity and helps refu­gees build a new life in a digni­fied manner. We have to remem­ber that nobody choses to be a refu­gee. These people don’t want to depend on huma­ni­ta­rian aid, they want their life back, contri­bute to society, use their skills and be trea­ted as any citi­zen in society.

Find more infor­ma­tion about our work and on how to support refu­gees as a Swiss citi­zen here.

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