UNHCR agrees to change problematic language around refugees

In a huge and immediate win for Act for Peace’s joint advocacy efforts, the UNHCR High Commissioner has agreed to cease using the problematic term ‘persons of concern’ when referring to refugees, stateless persons and other people impacted by displacement.

Words by Brian Barbour, Senior Refugee Protection Advisor, Act for Peace

The shift in language comes after Act for Peace alongside other likeminded NGOs and refugee-led initiatives submitted this paper to the UNHCR, outlining why the term ‘persons of concern’ (PoC) (or sometimes ‘persons of concern to UNHCR’) was problematic and not inclusive of people affected by displacement.

Historically, the phrase has been used by UNHCR to refer to the persons that fall under UNHCR’s mandate (refugees, stateless persons, IDPs, returnees, asylum-seekers, etc.)  Recently, they also started to refer to “refugee-led initiatives” as “persons of concern-led organizations”.

Backing displaced people is core to our values and strategic goals at Act for Peace, and we will always support efforts to include affected communities more meaningfully in policy responses. As the Global Compact on Refugees states, ‘responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist’.

Backing displaced people is core to our values and strategic goals at Act for Peace, and we will always support efforts to include affected communities more meaningfully in policy responses.

Brian Barbour, Senior Refugee Protection Advisor, Act for Peace

We felt strongly that the term ‘Persons-of-Concern-led Organizations’ was not an appropriate label and should not be used by UNHCR and other stakeholders. In pursuit of developing more inclusive practices, we produced this joint submission alongside our likeminded partners the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees, R-SEAT, Global Refugee-Led Network and Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders.

In the paper, we propose that UNHCR and other stakeholders use either ‘Affected Community-Based Organizations (ACBOs)’, ‘Affected Community-Led Organizations (ACLOs)’ or ‘organizations and initiatives led by affected communities’ as alternative terminology for now and that they launch further consultations around terminology.

The paper went all the way to the High Commissioner himself, the Director of International Protection and others at UNHCR, and was very well received.

On Friday, 3 June, we received a call from the UNHCR and were told that the High Commissioner had accepted this paper and had agreed that the PoC language was problematic. 

Importantly, they not only immediately removed all references to “POC-led organization”, but also agreed that the “POC” language will be phased out and no longer used in any context. 

The paper went all the way to the High Commissioner himself, the Director of International Protection and others at UNHCR, and was very well received.

Brian Barbour, Senior Refugee Protection Advisor, Act for Peace

Although it will take time, and some usage is likely habitual for many staff, the High Commissioner has agreed that UNHCR will begin a process to do away with this language and to identify alternative language. 

The change was announced on stage in Geneva last week at the UNHCR-NGO consultations to tremendous applause from the audience. This is an incredible and immediate impact of our joint-advocacy and something we, as a community who backs displaced people, can feel very pleased about.

A special thanks to Tristan Harley, consultant to Act for Peace, who was the pen-holder (primary drafter) on this paper. 

Feature image: Act for Peace’s local partner, Christian Aid, have been working in Jamtoli camp providing life-saving assistance including access to clean water, shelter and medical care. Jamtoli is now home to over 50,000 Rohingya refugees. Credit: Richard Wainwright / Act for Peace

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The international humanitarian agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Act for Peace acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© Copyright 2021, Act for Peace Ltd ABN 86 619 970 188

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The international humanitarian agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Act for Peace acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© Copyright 2021, Act for Peace Ltd ABN 86 619 970 188