A Peek Into the World of a Top Official at the UN's Refugee Agency

Map of the whole world, showcasing refugees

Kelly T. Clements is an optimist with a remarkable responsibility.

As Deputy High Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), she is at the forefront of the effort to protect the world’s nearly 80 million refugees and forcibly displaced individuals. 

Deputy High Commissioner (DHC) Clements has worked with displaced populations for the past three decades, and prior to joining UNHCR in 2015, she served in various roles at the U.S. State Department, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, where she was responsible for humanitarian issues in Asia and the Middle East.

An Interview with Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements About Storytelling, Hope, and Politics

Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements, at the United Nations
Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements announcing $12.8 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria / Photo courtesy of U.S. Mission Photo — by Eric Bridiers (CC BY-ND 2.0)

We spoke to DHC Clements about how UNHCR uses storytelling to humanize refugees, how to best mobilize support and resources while navigating the difficult intersection between politics and humanitarianism, and how UNHCR is aiding displaced communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you tell us about your role as Deputy High Commissioner and the responsibilities that come with the job?

As the number two in the organization, I always need to be prepared to step in for the High Commissioner and speak for the organization, publicly and internally.

The day-to-day responsibilities have to do with making sure that we are equipped as an organization to protect and aid forcibly displaced people around the world and to support the host communities that are impacted. This requires money, people, and technology.

We have over a thousand partners in over 130 countries, over 500 field locations, and 17,000 team members. Then there are many more thousands of members of that broader team who are trying to protect and aid. It's the central role of this office to be able to bring all of that together. Ultimately my role is to work inside the organization to make sure that our teams are supported.

You’ve worked with refugees for almost three decades now. What’s the most challenging part of sharing stories about displacement, and how do you balance hopeful storytelling with the often-dire situations on the ground?

We hear stories of people uprooted from their homes, their lives, their families. They may have serious trauma or injury from whatever it is they were fleeing. It is their story — it's not our story. We try to translate it in a way that it speaks to people who want to support what we're trying to do.

The numbers don't speak as well as individual stories, which can allow a person to relate to another person.

You can talk about a refugee who was once an engineer or a teacher, or a high school student, or someone who was just starting elementary school. It could easily be our kids. It could be our family. It could be us. 

Showcasing refugees around the world

There are very few people I've encountered who don't have a dream of some sort. They want to go back home. They want to make sure their children are safe. They want to make sure they have something in the pot for dinner that night. They want to start their own business.

We may only be able to share a few stories, but there are millions who have similar dreams.

We must be able to convey suffering and tragedy, but it's also important to convey hope. The stories of hope inspire action to a greater extent than those of suffering and tragedy.

You have a difficult job with remarkable responsibilities. At a time when politics and humanitarian efforts are so intertwined (for better and for worse), how has this affected how you navigate your role?  

A very smart person told me early in my career that there is nothing about refugees that isn't political.

It's one of the reasons why I spent the majority of my career in government — at the State Department, an institution that uses diplomacy to bring governments and people together to try to solve problems.

Really, refugees are a result of when governance fails. We are a protection agency and a humanitarian agency, but we're quite different from, say, a relief agency. 

It’s our job to work closely with governments to strengthen their procedures so people can exercise their right to asylum and find safety in another country, and in some circumstances, protection within their own countries. Politics very quickly becomes interlaced with humanitarian challenges.

We say that humanitarian aid is not a solution to these problems, but it can be something that can help to improve a situation.

Kelly T. Clements  is the Deputy High Commissioner for UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency — where she supports a dedicated workforce of 17,000 to deliver protection and aid to the nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Humanitarian for a lifetime, she lives in Geneva, Switzerland with her family and enjoys connecting over hikes, travel, and sports.

A longer version of this story originally ran in The Refugees Edition of the Goodnewspaper in July 2020. The Goodnewspaper is our monthly print newspaper filled with good news.
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