SciPost logo

"The Greatest and Most Important Human Right": Citizenship and Bureaucratic Indifference in Refugee-UNHCR Correspondence

Lamis Abdelaaty

Mig. Pol. 3, 001 (2024) · published 8 April 2024


This article examines how refugees advocate for themselves with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and what responses their communications engender. It analyzes letters sent by refugees in Kenya to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva between 1983 and 1994. The findings underline a disjuncture between refugees’ efforts to constitute themselves as political agents, and UNHCR’s insistence on viewing them as depoliticized subjects. The refugees perform citizenship vis-à-vis UNHCR, using their shared identity as a basis for collective claims-making and trying to renegotiate their unequal relationship with the international organization. To empower themselves, they adopt the international organization’s own refugee rights vocabulary and play off different organizations and layers of UNHCR against each other. UNHCR’s responses (or lack thereof) demonstrate the consequences of its insulation and bureaucratization. These insights are especially noteworthy in light of recent progress on meaningful refugee participation in the refugee regime.

Author / Affiliation: mappings to Contributors and Organizations

See all Organizations.