Combating humanitarian crises with care: Vivian Tan

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Worldwide, the number of the people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution exceeded 80 million by the end of 2020. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, works in more than 135 countries to protect and assist these people. It may surprise some that UNHCR has been working in China for more than four decades, transitioning from supporting the government to care for Indo-Chinese refugees in 1979 to assisting a few hundred urban refugees today. China Development Brief conducted interviews with several staff from the organisation in March. The current article summarises the interview CDB did with Ms Vivian Tan, UNHCR Representative ad interim in China.


Coming from a mass communication and media background, Tan worked as a journalist for eight years in Singapore. In 2002, she joined UNHCR and has worked there ever since, apart from a short secondment with another UN agency.

Tan revealed her decision to join UNHCR was partially due to her father’s influence. He was also a journalist who covered refugee stories in the border area between Thailand and Cambodia in the late 1970s. “The influence of my father’s passion in reporting refugees’ lives is always at the back of my mind,” Tan said. “Another reason for me to leave my comfortable life in Singapore was that I felt there had to be something more out there; I wanted to make a difference in the world.”

Vivian Tan, UNHCR Representative ad interim in China. Credit: UNHCR 


According to UNHCR, about one percent of humanity have been forced to flee their homes by the end of 2020. Some 26 million of them are refugees. Another 50 million are internally-displaced people (IDP) who are forced to flee their homes but stay within their own countries. The term “refugee” applies to people who flee across the border to another, usually neighbouring country.

When they arrive in a foreign country with only the clothes on their backs, refugees face additional difficulties such as a different language, culture as well as a very pressing issue, legal status and the associated rights. “If people ever have a choice, they would stay in their own countries. Refugees are people who genuinely do not have a choice,” said Tan. “Their reality has forced them to take the extra step. Once they cross an international border, they lose the protection of their government and are often denied their rights, freedoms and social welfare.”

Conflict, war and unrest are part of the common factors that drive people out of their homeland. “If you take a look at the top five countries where refugees are coming from, they are either at war, or experiencing civil conflicts and socio-political turbulence.” However, reasons for displacement are growing. “For example, many Somalis initially fled their country because of civil war in the 1990s, but now the situation has been compounded by drought and famine. The push factor of conflict nowadays is more frequently mixed with other factors, such as extreme weather caused by climate change,” said Tan.

Local to global

China signed both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol in 1982. Tan told CDB some refugees living in the country initially came on business or study visas. But when it came time to repatriate, they found their home countries at war or in political unrest, and were unable to go back. That is when some approach UNHCR to seek asylum.

“While the documents we issue are generally respected by the authorities, refugees and asylum-seekers do not have a legal status and cannot systematically access basic services, their children struggle to attend schools, and they cannot work legally.”

Healthcare and education are two other challenges. “In UNHCR, we have a system where we try to reimburse some refugees’ medical costs, yet it is not very sustainable. If refugees are able to access medical or health insurance, it can help them stay out of debt.” The same appeal applies to education for refugee children. “Currently, there are five provinces in China which allow refugee children to attend public school. UNHCR hopes to broaden it beyond the five provinces and when necessary, we intervene to ensure that children in those provinces can attend local schools so that they don’t become a lost generation.”

Refugee students and local students going to school together in Iran. Credit: UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein

Tan stressed refugees generally would prefer not to rely on assistance if they can use their skills to work and provide for themselves and their families. Moreover, due to limited resources, cash assistance from UNHCR covers only part of their needs. “Here, the biggest need becomes an environment that allows them to become self-reliant.”

Tan noted that because many refugees cannot return to their home countries yet due to various reasons, a main solution for them currently is resettlement to a third country. Refugees are allowed to stay until they are resettled.

But globally, the demand for resettlement far exceeds the supply as very few countries offer resettlement programmes. As a result, resettlement is not guaranteed and even if it occurs, can take a long time. “That is why we have been working hard to expand the channel, including through complementary pathways such as private sponsorships and family reunification.”

As refugees around the world wait for durable solutions to their plight, UNHCR prioritises protection for refugee women and children. Tan explained gender inequality is why UNHCR retains such a focus. “Women, because of gender or many of the cultural and social associations with gender, are often more exposed to some of the risks that refugees face. Gender-based violence is certainly a big risk for women. In fact, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking place, we have unfortunately seen a sharp rise in gender-based violence cases globally, ranging from domestic violence to early marriage.

“The pandemic has made it more difficult for cases to be reported as well as for us to reach out to victims,” she added. “We are really trying – if we can visit victims of violence in a city or a camp, we will travel and work with local NGOs to provide support, or we will arrange phone counselling and virtual support sessions.”

Refugees from Sudan are queuing to get life necessities in Jamjang refugee camp, South Sudan. Credit:  UNHCR/Elizabeth Stuart

“Children also tend to be at the forefront of the impact of forced displacement. Because they are underage, they are more exposed to exploitation and violence. Their physical security and mental health are both at risk. Often, refugee children have seen terrible things when they flee their countries with adults, they are often traumatised, and these issues are sometimes not addressed sufficiently.”

One way that UNHCR has dealt with these issues is through education. “Globally UNHCR works with agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children, to make sure that refugee children can access basic education,” said Tan who admitted that even before the pandemic, it was a challenge for refugee children to receive education and COVID-19 has undoubtedly increased the hurdles. Like many other organisations, UNHCR in some refugee settings still relies on education programmes carried out through the internet, television and radio. The agency encourages refugee children and their parents to continue learning despite the obstacles.

In some developed countries, systematic aid is more likely to be given to refugees by local NGOs and government entities: language lessons, accommodations and sometimes, job placements. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, a rather interesting phenomenon can be observed: in 90 countries across the globe, refugees stepped up and tried to offer their help against the disease, from making masks in refugee camps to cooking meals for frontline workers. Some refugees who are medical professionals offered their skills and expertise to help care for citizens from the host countries.

Tan strongly emphasised that refugees want to contribute, in both normal times and during a deadly pandemic. “We need to give them a chance instead of marginalising them. It is beneficial for all the parties if refugees can be included into the host country’s national systems so they can also contribute to society.”

Globally, UNHCR maintains strategic partnerships with more than 900 partners including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governmental institutions and the United Nations agencies. “It is evident that UNHCR needs NGOs; much of our global work cannot proceed without their help. NGOs have expertise and local networks that we might not have, and they know the local context well. In fact, what NGOs are doing is an extension of what we do.”

Peace, the missing piece

Tan shared her experience in Bangladesh working with Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. In 2017, violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and drove more than 742,000 people to seek refuge in Bangladesh across the border. “I was in Bangladesh working as UNHCR’s spokesperson. It was intense seeing people arriving after walking for days or weeks, coming on the boats, carrying their babies and walking to shore. I felt I had a responsibility to tell their stories, to let people outside learn what has been happening, why refugees are coming to Bangladesh and what they need. Telling their stories was also a significant way to mobilise support, be it funding, political support, or campaigns appealing to stop what has been driving them out of their homeland.” It was a challenging time for her, recounted Tan, and she vividly remembered working around the clock talking to new arrivals, documenting their stories while taking endless media calls. She talked herself hoarse, and at night she found it hard to fall asleep. She said horrendous stories refugees had told her lingered in her mind. Despite the intensity, Tan felt very fulfilled. “I felt I was doing something concrete, and it reminded me why I left Singapore and chose to join UNHCR.”

But the lack of real solutions for refugees is a lingering frustration. Much humanitarian assistance has been provided to refugees, but that assistance is subject to other factors, among them donor support. “In protracted refugee situations, people lose interest. There is donor fatigue. Even aid and funding from governmental organisations are hard to maintain when situations look like they will never be resolved…We can help on a humanitarian front, but it takes the international community to politically resolve these conflicts. The wars and unrest have lasted for years or decades in countries like Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. If they are not solved, the refugees cannot go back home; and as the wars and unrest continue, the number of refugees will only keep growing.”

Vivian Tan with Afghan refugees at the voluntary repatriation centre in Peshawar, Pakistan, 2006. Credit: UNHCR 

So, what can be done?

“Sufficient funding is important to maintain the level of support to refugees; also resolving wars and unrest once and for all in refugee-producing countries, so people can go back home safely and sustainably.”

Now in Beijing as UNHCR Representative ad interim in China, Tan expressed hopes for how China can contribute to resolving the long-standing refugee situation. UNHCR has been working closely with the Chinese government in areas where interests align, from addressing the root causes of conflict, to emergency management and procurement of goods and services. China’s active involvement in international affairs, massive production capacities and extensive experience in disaster relief are great strengths that UNHCR hopes to leverage to help solve refugee problems.

“Over the years, China has consistently increased its support for refugees. It was one of the countries that adopted and actively endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees; it has also supported refugees and displaced persons in Angola, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and other countries through China’s South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund. This year, we are launching two new projects with this Fund in Afghanistan and East Africa to assist refugees and frontline workers against COVID [-19].”

Human resources are another area of collaboration. Like many other organisations, UNHCR pays attention to building relationships with young people. UNHCR Beijing arranges regular talks with university students and promotes basic understanding of global refugee issues. What strikes Tan is that young people are not only curious about refugee situations worldwide, but they are also keen on searching for sustainable solutions.

“We have a range of jobs waiting for adventurous, curious and dedicated youth who want to make a difference. Ninety percent of our work takes place in the field, which means our staff need to go to places where physical environments might be remote and tough. Our work is rewarding and satisfying, and one reason is that we are always in direct contact with the people whom we help. We are able to know them in person and see tangible results our work produces.”

“China is underrepresented in the United Nations,” said Tan, “in the sense that there is not a large number of Chinese staff in UN agencies, including UNHCR. We hope to tap more into the human resources in China.” Tan mentioned the Junior Professional Officers (JPOs) programme where young professionals can apply for UNHCR positions globally through the China Scholarship Council (CSC). Students and recent graduates can also apply for global internships through the CSC.

For Tan, the first step and a vital part of “solving refugee problems” is to raise awareness of refugees’ real situation. UNHCR China is doing so through some of the Chinese JPOs who are sharing their experiences in places where they are based. “Story-telling is a powerful method, and through our Chinese JPOs, we hope to bridge the gap between the domestic audience and refugees.” Indeed, voices of refugees and asylum-seekers deserve to be heard and stories of them deserve to be told. “Refugees had no choice but to flee their own homes,” said Tan. “They deserve to be given a chance to live with dignity.”

For more information about UNHCR and the China Scholarship Council (CSC), see links below:

UNHCR China –

China Scholarship Council – (English); (Chinese)

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