UNHCR chief Guterres briefs UN Security Council on protection challenges

News Stories, 8 January 2009

© UN Department of Public Information/Eskinder Debebe
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses the UN Security Council on Thursday.

UNITED NATIONS, January 8 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Thursday briefed the UN Security Council on the challenges facing his agency in caring for tens of millions of uprooted people in an increasingly complex and often dangerous international environment.

Guterres noted that since his last Security Council appearance in 2006, when refugee numbers were the lowest in nearly 25 years, there has been a significant increase in displacement primarily due to the conflicts in Iraq and Somalia. Today, UNHCR works in nearly 120 countries on behalf of some 32 million refugees, internally displaced people and others of concern. More than 80 percent of its 6,000 staff work in the field, 60 percent of them in difficult and often dangerous non-family duty stations.

The High Commissioner listed a series of conflicts worldwide that have generated millions of refugees and presented enormous humanitarian challenges. One group of high-profile crises stretching from south and south-west Asia, through the Middle East to Sudan, Chad and the Horn of Africa accounts for about two-thirds of the world's refugees and includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan's Darfur region and Somalia.

These conflicts were now interrelated and together had major implications for global peace and security. They require a strong humanitarian response, Guterres said, but any lasting solution must be political. "While it is absolutely vital that the victims of armed conflict be provided with essential protection and assistance, we must also acknowledge the limitations of humanitarian action and its inability to resolve deep-rooted conflicts within and between states," he said.

In Afghanistan, intensified conflict and the deliberate targeting of aid workers has restricted humanitarian access to around half of the country, Guterres said. Nevertheless, Afghan refugees continue to go home with UNHCR support some 278,000 last year alone, mainly from Pakistan. Most of them, however, were returning not because of a meaningful improvement in Afghanistan, but because of growing insecurity and economic hardship in Pakistan.

Pakistan has itself now seen the displacement of some 300,000 of its own citizens in North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. This underscored the fact that the Afghan situation cannot be addressed in isolation, which was why UNHCR and the Kabul government recently organized an international conference to consolidate a comprehensive strategy for the sustainable return and reintegration of the country's uprooted people.

In Iraq, UNHCR is also working with the government to create the necessary conditions for the eventual voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people, Guterres said, adding that there was still a long way to go before this groundwork was done. UNHCR has increased its presence in Iraq to most of the country's 17 governorates. In the meantime, he said, it is imperative that other governments hosting more than 2 million Iraqi refugees preserve their "asylum space" with the support and assistance of the international community.

In addition to these high-profile, interrelated situations, Guterres said there were many other conflicts that largely lack international attention because their impact is local or at best regional, and they are not seen as having implications for global security. These include crises in places such as the Central African Republic, where some 300,000 people have been uprooted, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

"To echo my earlier remarks, there is no humanitarian solution to that conflict," he said of the DRC, where UNHCR and other agencies are struggling to help hundreds of thousands of displaced people amid continuing violence and massive human rights abuses. "The solution must be political and involve the DRC, Rwanda, other regional actors and the international community as a whole."

Guterres noted that the forms of forced displacement were also becoming more complex and interrelated, exacerbated by a mix of climate change, extreme poverty, poor governance and conflict, and now possibly compounded by the impact on the developing world of the current global financial meltdown and economic recession.

The High Commissioner also cited some specific security challenges facing his agency and the international community in responding to humanitarian crises, starting with peace-keeping and protecting civilians in situations where there is no peace to keep.

"As a humanitarian agency, UNHCR has limited capacity to provide physical security for its beneficiaries," he said. "In some situations, ensuring the security of camps and maintaining their civilian and humanitarian character is only possible with the support of peace-keepers."

In eastern Chad, where UNHCR operates 12 camps for nearly a quarter of a million refugees from Darfur, an effective peace-keeping force was crucial in dissuading attacks on refugees, in preventing recruitment of refugee children by armed groups and in reducing the threat of banditry and sexual violence.

"But in situations where there is no peace to keep, mandates for the protection of civilians must be sufficiently clear and strong, and supported by appropriate levels of political and material support," Guterres said. "Many peace-keeping operations start in a situation of relative tranquillity, only to be affected later by a deteriorating security environment."

The safety of the humanitarian workers trying to help refugees was a parallel challenge, he said, noting that they often risk their lives to help vulnerable populations.

"Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the UN as a whole. That is non-negotiable," Guterres said. "And yet, with the evolving nature of armed conflict, the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has increased, establishing a tension between the imperatives of staff safety and effective humanitarian action. This is an issue which continues to generate acute dilemmas."




Worlds of Women Coming Together

Learn about WLL; what we do, how we work and how to join us.
Published October 2008

FAQs on Internally Displaced People

Frequently asked questions about IDPs. [pdf, 1.3Mb]

High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges 2007

A Dialogue that examined the challenges of protecting refugees and mixed migratory flows.

Gender and Humanitarian Assistance Resource Kit

Link to this valuable collection of practical tools, policies and research materials on gender and humanitarian action compiled by UN agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Women, Peace and Security

Links to UN and NGO websites and documents illustrating the role of women in conflict and peacebuilding.

Gender Equality Mainstreaming

Links to websites and documents on gender maintreaming

50th anniversary

Read more about the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention in July 2001, and its continuing relevance.

Refworld Publications and News

Read more about internally displaced persons in Refworld.

Special feature on the 50th anniversary of the Convention

The treaty was 50 years old in July 2001. Despite growing controversy about its usefulness, the Convention continues to be the key document in the agency's efforts today to help around 34 million uprooted persons.

UNHCR Good Practices

"A Practical Guide to Empowerment" – UNHCR series produced by the Refugee Women/Gender Equality Unit to demonstrate and disseminate successful gender mainstreaming practices.

The Refugee Convention at 50

Special news editorial from UNHCR

Text of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol

The key document to refugee protection plus the text of the Protocol, which removed a deadline and geographical restrictions from the Convention.

Refugee Children and Education

Education is a fundamental right of the child, one that is vital in restoring hope and dignity.

Global Consultations

The international community reaffirms its commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Refworld Online

UNHCR's decision-support tool for country of origin research and refugee status decisions.

The 1951 Convention in its 50th Anniversary Year

Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director of the Department of International Protection, to the 52nd Session of the Executive Committee.

Refugees Magazine Issue 123

Special issue on the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention

Conference on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Held in Geneva, 27-29 March 2001

UNHCR Tool Boxes on EU Asylum Matters

An essential companion for those involved in EU migration and asylum issues.

Country Operations Plans

Summaries of UNHCR's programme goals, objectives and priorities for each of its country operations.

Dialogue with Refugee Women

Held in Geneva, 20-22 June 2001

Useful Links

More useful information on IDPs.

Report of the WLL Information Meeting

Illustrated report on the 10 December, 2007 meeting.

UNHCR Women's Initiatives

Targeted initiatives to empower women in post-conflict societies

1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol

The key document on refugee protection in full, plus the text of the Protocol

Signing on Could Make all the Difference

A brochure on the benefits to governments of accession to the Refugee Convention.

Procedures for Becoming a State Party

A brochure on steps needed for a government to sign on to the Refugee Convention.

Strengthening Protection Capacity

Tools and strategies to strengthen the capacity of states to receive and protect refugees. This project is now active across five continents.


UNHCR has developed a network of suppliers, specialists and partners to protect civilians.

Refugee Children: Escape from Persecution and War

This brochure is designed for young readers.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), September 2005

Action for the Rights of Children (ARC)

Read about the ARC resource pack on the Save the Children website.

Legal and Protection Policy Research

A series of legal research and protection policy papers issued by the UNHCR Division of International Protection.

States Parties to the Convention and the Protocol

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

External links

Statelessness: An Analytical Framework for Prevention, Reduction and Protection

This report provides a framework for analysing situations where persons are stateless or are at risk of becoming stateless.

Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR)

A mechanism to enhance partnership between UNHCR, Governments and NGOs

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Refugee Protection in International Law

Edited by Erika Feller, Volker Türk and Frances Nicholson, published 2003 by Cambridge University Press


The protection of millions of uprooted or stateless people is UNHCR's core mandate.

Legal Protection

By working with governments and other organizations on subjects ranging from promoting asylum systems to refugee advocacy, UNHCR promotes the legal protection of refugees and durable solutions.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria
Play video

Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria

In his first visit to Syria as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi appealed to all parties to the conflict to allow regular, unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian organizations to besieged and hard to reach areas. He also visited a clinic and a community centre providing protection services to some of the 6.5 million people displaced inside the country.
Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria
Play video

Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria

In his first visit to Syria as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi appealed to all parties to the conflict to allow regular, unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian organizations to besieged and hard to reach areas. He also visited a clinic and a community centre providing protection services to some of the 6.5 million people displaced inside the country.
HC Dialogue 2015: Debate on Protection and PreventionPlay video

HC Dialogue 2015: Debate on Protection and Prevention

Stream of the debate on 16 December 2015